Parenting, Interrupted: How to Make Time to Work From Home

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“Good morning, Mama,” my three-year-old says as he climbs up next to me on the couch. I woke up early to write, but he has other plans. “The end!” he cheers, closing my laptop. “Let’s make banana muffins!”

This will be the first of many interruptions today.

For many parents, a work-from-home job seems ideal. No commute. No dress code. Low-to-no childcare costs, at least for part-timers with flexible schedules. But here at the start of summer vacation, work-at-home parents are facing down three months of interruptions.

Fortunately, productivity experts have been working on this problem for decades. Their strategies, built for the workplace, can also help parents make space for work at home.

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More work hours, less productivity

Leslie Perlow, professor at Harvard Business School, has been studying how technology, especially the 24-hour availability it has created, has made workplaces less efficient. Her 2012 book “Sleeping With Your Smartphone” helped people carve out uninterrupted, tech-free time, which appears to make people both happier and more productive.

One of Perlow’s earliest studies, “The Time Famine,” focused on software engineers at high-tech firms. Her findings will likely sound familiar to parents struggling to work from home. Perlow describes three problems that lead to longer hours but less overall productivity in the workplace.

First is the “crisis mentality.” For the software engineers Perlow studied, a new crisis was always brewing, like a serious bug in a product about to ship. Workers often had to abandon their planned work in order to deal with that crisis. That planned work was ignored until it eventually became a crisis, and once things reached crisis level, work was rarely efficient or thorough.

A second problem is “individual heroics.” Engineers at the company Perlow studied were rewarded for responding to crises by “doing high visibility work, accommodating the demands of the work, and being present.” Engineers rarely felt that they could say “no” to a work request. That was the case even when an engineer knew from experience that a new project or approach would not succeed or could not be completed in the expected time frame. When the engineers accepted such requests, they ended up putting in extremely long hours at work, even when they could have worked remotely, because they perceived being seen at work to be important to their success. Because being seen at times seemed more important than actual work output, the engineers also devoted more time to projects that were more visible, but not necessary more vital.

Both the crisis mentality and the concept of individual heroics lead to a third problem: a constant cycle of interruptions. Workers trying to solve the current crisis or appear as individual heroes tended to interrupt their colleagues more frequently, leading to decreased productivity for all.

As other researchers have found, all those interruptions add up. Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California Irvine who researches how people interact with computers, found that each workplace interruption cost an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds. That’s how long it takes people to get back on track when their work is interrupted.

A “vicious time-work cycle”

A crisis mentality. Individual heroics. Frequent interruption. These three elements make up what Perlow calls the “vicious time-work cycle.” Each new crisis creates more individual heroics, which causes more interruptions, which makes work take longer. Work piles up, setting the stage for a new crisis next week.

Work-at-home parents might see themselves in this time-work cycle.

Parents certainly adopt a crisis mentality. In addition to all of the actual crises parents have to manage, parents often drop everything for imagined crises. It’s all hands on deck when a child has to potty train before preschool starts in two weeks, or when another child outgrows a wardrobe and her shirts are hovering near dress code violation, or when the band concert is tonight but the kid just split his last reed.

Parenting is also built on the concept of individual heroics. Parents often jump in to resolve all of a household’s imagined crises, whether it’s intervening in a sibling fight, dropping off homework, or making bake-sale cupcakes. But in attacking these problems parents are putting in more time for less output. They are…

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