There are two main settings for people at work: Always available, or mainly concentrating. Those of us who need helmet time to get anything done are starting to realize that almost nobody else has the luxury of signaling, “I need to focus so come back later (or not).” Now that many of us are working from home, sometimes for the first time, we’re going to have to design a new set of signals to communicate our availability.
If you have kids at home, teach these concepts as a game. Kids tend to be hardcore rules lawyers, especially the little ones, and there’s always one who loves being the warden or bad cop. Choose your little Enforcer and have fun.
The #1 best respected signal in the tech world is: headphones. Wearing headphones signals to everyone that you are doing deep work. Interrupting someone who is working with headphones on is discouraged and should only be done if it’s truly urgent.
Note: discuss with all members of household a painstakingly precise definition of what “urgent” means. May vary by household.
Again, former nanny here, kids like structure. They like to know how to get a win and they like being able to predict important things, like How do I get him in trouble? and When is the next snack time, it’s been 18 minutes already. Many colleagues and roommates are pretty much the same as preschoolers, only taller.
I normally work at home with my parrot, who is much shorter than a preschooler but also more devious, louder, messier, and more inclined to chew through things such as metal, or the baseboards. Birds are very into elaborate protocol. Cats, I dunno, you’re on your own as far as setting cat guidelines.
My husband has been sent home to work with us. He is on teleconferences anywhere from 3 to 8 hours a day.
Did I mention that our apartment is 650 square feet? And there is no wi-fi elsewhere in the building?
Since we are both often on overlapping calls, our first priority is making sure we don’t interfere with each other’s audio. This unfortunately includes both our work, and ordinary household tasks like fixing lunch or running water in the sink.
After a week of turning our little shoebox into a coworking space, we’ve used our understanding of lean manufacturing principles and business productivity to devise a system. The goal is to communicate without communicating. Just like a hotel might ask patrons to signal the state of their towels by either leaving them on the floor or hanging them up, we want something that we can check at a glance.
This is what we’ve come up with:
A whiteboard with a basket of colored dry erase markers, an eraser, and a spray bottle of cleaner. I set it up in the living room in landscape format, and drew a line down the middle. We each write our call schedule in blue ink, with red ink available for important notes.
The first day we did this, we realized that all his calls were in the morning and most of mine were in the evening, so one or the other of us would need quiet for over twelve hours straight.
Four colored manila folders that I dug out of our file box. I cut them in half along the fold so we each have a matching set of green, yellow, and red. The other color is orange.
Green: Working, but open for conversation
Yellow: Deep work, do not disturb
Red: On a call, quiet please
He displays his cards at his desk, where he does most of his work. I put mine on my side of the whiteboard since I tend to range from room to room.
The orange folder is to slide under the bedroom door to say it’s safe to come out. (I take calls in the bedroom, but we also sleep different hours, and I don’t want to suddenly burst out the door and unintentionally interrupt a presentation).
The idea with using all this visual communication, rather than texting, is that we’re often doing stuff on our devices and a text message can be disruptive. Visual signals are faster and easier.
Signals also work for little kids who can’t read yet.
If someone in the household turns out to be color-blind, or not everyone in the room speaks/reads the same language, a similar effect can be produced using shapes or objects. Maybe a favorite stuffed toy faces the room for an all-clear, but faces the wall when... ugh that’s creepy, never mind. Ask your kids what they suggest.
This type of flag is called an ‘andon.’ They are used with great efficiency in manufacturing environments, and they work well at home too. For instance, if there is an empty bottle of shampoo, the last person to use it puts the empty bottle on the counter, and the person who makes the shopping list sees it and makes a note. Even pets can learn to communicate this way, like the dog who picks up her leash with her mouth, or the cat who stands next to the empty bowl.
We’ve found that using workplace practices at home helps us to feel more respectful of each other. We are able to run our household with few or no conversations about who does which chore. These practices have helped us have more fun on vacation, too.
When our daughter was at home, the three of us could work quietly together for hours at the same table. I would write, my husband would write code or review drawings, and she would study. It was a very cozy feeling. No doubt it served her well when she went off to college and had to share space with three roommates in one apartment.
The thing about quiet time vs. the usual free-for-all is that there’s no reason to ever stop. Everyone deserves to be able to concentrate or take an important call. Everyone should be able to read quietly or take a nap without being disturbed. Respect is like anything else: give what you wish to receive.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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