Work Advice: Working with parents who work from home

Jan 14, 2013

@Work Advice columnist Karla L. Miller will take your questions and comments about parents who work at home, as well as any other work dramas and traumas you have. In return, she'll offer you the wry yet practical workplace advice you might get from your smart-aleck co-worker down the hall.

Submit your questions and comments for Karla to respond to now.

Hi-ho, @Workaholics! Thanks for tuning in to today's chat and for all the lively discussion about my recent "Parent Rap" column. The issue this week was whether parents who work at home with sick kiddos are truly earning their wages, or just taking advantage of generous work-at-home policies. 

If you haven't already, pop over and take the polls--one for office parents and one for childfree workers.

Feel free to chime in on that topic or on previous @Work columns. You can also submit your workplace questions here; they may be saved and answered in a future column.

For my part, I will be conducting this chat with a colicky infant Snugli'd to my chest and a whiny toddler wrapped around each leg. Bring it.

I was never offered the option to work at home while my child was young. I could have worked at home while my child was home for school breaks or home with a mild cold or a snow day. However, as time progresses, how will businesses address employees who have aging sick parents living in their home who need care? Kids grow up and become more independent. Aging parents offer the reverse with few resources and options available to employees.

This is increasingly relevant to today's workers, especially those who put off having children until their careers were well under way--the so-called  sandwich generation.

Here's one example of how businesses can respond: My employer offers short-term backup care to help deal with at-home emergencies. It's usually used for child care, but I have a coworker who used it to help her look after her father when he had a medical condition. It's not a substitute for full-time care, of course, but it helps bridge the gap. Some employers are also offering long-term-care insurance (for assisted living) to workers and their families.

My 11 person office allows everyne to work from home 2 or 3 days a week. Days are chosen based on seniority, We can work out switches among ourselves and, if someone covers for someone else on a snow day or similar, that person returns the favor ASAP. Everyone is treated fairly and treated as adults. This might not work everywhere, but it works well for us.

I too have been lucky enough to work in offices where we all --parents and non- --regularly covered each other's backs and pitched in a little extra as needed. Nice work if you can get it!

Yes, I spend time during the work day feeding, changing, and playing with my children. I also work evenings, weekends and holidays to make sure I get everything done on scedule, and do it well. Given sufficient notice, I make all important office meetings. Anmyone who thinks I am not pulling my weight is just plain wrong.

I'm curious now--are you required to be on-call for work during the day, or do you do the kind of work (editing, writing, data entry) that can be done at any time? I think that makes a difference.

In my company, objectives are usually written collaboratively between the employee and manager, although, most of them are usually from the top down. Most of my objectives are very tactical, but from a career perspective, I'd like to get more involved in the strategic side of the business. As I'm thinking about my objectives for the year, I was thinking about creating one for my manager. From me, to him - assign me to a project/initiative that is more strategic in nature, working with the different functions of the company (not just my dept). Is there any downside to this?

I might tweak the wording, there. Unless your boss specifically says, "Tell me what *I* can do to help make your career more successful," presenting him with an unsolicited objective is, well, a bad strategy.

You should phrase it as a request and a goal for yourself: "I would like to get involved in projects/initiatives that are more strategic in nature, working with functions outside my department. Are there any opportunities to do this?"

How do I get across to people that I really AM working from home, not just eating bonbons and accepting telephone calls from friends all day? I've been working from home for 13 years, the last 4 full time.  Is it ever helpful to rent workspace near other human beings?

If by "people" you mean "coworkers," you'll just have to let your work speak for itself. Make sure you're putting in the most effort where it is most likely to be noticed and appreciated. For example, being available on IM at 6am is not necessarily the best use of your time.

If by "people" you mean "neighbors and family members and friends who think I'm free for a chat anytime," you'll have to set firm boundaries. Don't answer the door when you're working. Don't pick up personal calls.

And yes, I've heard good things about renting workspace so you can enjoy the official "office" environment without the crazy commute. If anyone has links or names of companies that rent space to telecommuters, please feel free to submit them here.

I too find it hard to believe that parents can put in a full day's work while taking care of small children. However, I work for the Fedeal Government where, after 3 years, you get 13 sick days, 20 vacation days, and 11 paid holidays each year. That's almost 9 weeks a year! And yet whenever there's a snow day or teacher workshop, many parents bring their young children in to work. Needless to say, they don't get a lot of work done keeping an eye on a toddler, and neither do ther est of us. It's not much fun for the kids, either, except for the older ones who take over all the library computers and resent being asked to move. Some parents bring their kids in for enbtire Christmas or Easter vacations. We have pleaded with HR and management to put an end to this, but they are total wimps. Some of us are hoping a child does major damage somewhere so maybe then this will be banned.

And here's an example of when teleworking would be the better option. Even if the at-home parents weren't getting as much done, at least they wouldn't be actively hindering their coworkers. The library computer hogging seems especially egregious to me. Don't those kids have iPads?

If you work at home - or remotely from a coffee shop, work-share 'space' or park bench - you need to hire help. The cut in your commute costs is useful for this. You would have help if you were F2F with your boss, right? The "I'll work while they sream, barf, argue, cry' is baloney. And everyone knows it.

"The cut in your commute costs is useful for this."

Wellllll, the cost of Metro fare and/or a biweekly tank of gas isn't exactly going to cover a nanny's salary. But points taken.


I wrote about this in the comments to your column. What is it with Americans and face time? Obviously, some jobs require you to be in the office - but so-much-time is wasted at the office. You just can't be sharp and productive with the amount of hours Americans stay at work. In fact, a European attitude would be 'why are you in the office so long - what is hindering you from getting everything done in a reasonable amount of time. This is also true about holidays. They are vital to keep you fresh and up to standard in your work. There are far better ways to assess employee performance than amount of time in the office.

On the other hand/side of the globe, I remember my year as a teacher in Japan, where face time was extremely important. I would leave when the school day was done--usually well after I had completed any tasks I had--and feel like a complete slacker when I saw the Japanese teachers all stationed at their desks.

Anyway, that's another important angle: More U.S. workers are letting work creep into their legitimate leave time, thanks to iPhones, Blackberries, and other electronic leashes. That's the quick road to burnout. We all should use our vacation time, and use it to truly recharge our own batteries.


After the birth of my first daughter my boss suggested I bring her in with me (I know, right?!). He set up an office away from everyone else (his office was in his home) so she couldn't be heard in the background of phone calls or disturb other people. She came in with me from 5 months to about 22 months. At first I kept careful track of how long each day I was feeding her, soothing her, putting her down for a nap, etc. It turned out that out of an 8 hour day I was actively working for my boss for about 6.5 hours. She pretty much entertained herself the rest of the time. Seems to me that had I been working from home, 1.5 hours would have been easy to make up after she went to bed. As it was I just charged him for 6.5 hours. Not sure this relates directly to the subject, but seems like it's related in some way :)

I'm guessing a significant portion of participants in this chat now kind of hate you. ;) And the rest are thinking, "Is that boss accepting applications...?"

Seriously, that's a wonderful arrangement, and good on you for keeping your end of the bargain and not abusing it. That really is above and beyond.

At my office, those who work at home have to sign a statement that child or elder care will not occur during work time... Those who do work at home all say they only work during normal hours, i.e., not at night and such. However, seems like when they are on calls, there are kids in the background. I guess as long as assignments are completed on time and correctly, no one will make an issue of it.

To be fair, I've been on conference calls with non-parents where we could all hear side conversations, fast-food orders, and meowing cats in the background (um, OK, that last one was from my home office).

You can always say, "I'm sorry, I'm having trouble hearing you over the background noise--can you maybe move somewhere quieter?" Your coworker may not be aware of how loud the noise is, especially if he or she is used to tuning it out while working.

And now for a question based on the polls attached to this column, as of this morning:

According to the two polls, more childfree workers (around 40%) think parents who are allowed to work from home have an unfair advantage over their coworkers. Only around 15% of parents think they have an unfair advantage. (Yes, I see the built-in bias there. Work with me.)

My question for the childfree: What do you consider an "unfair advantage"? E.g., potentially saving PTO hours by being semi-available?

For parents: Do you think working from home puts you at a DISadvantage in any way? E.g., being viewed as unreliable?

I have no problem with telecommuting as long as the policy is well-defined and applies fairly to everyone. My problem is the opposite. I work in a courthouse where, except under the worst possible conditions, people have to be able to file documents from 7 a.m. until midnight,every day, including most weekends and even sme holidays. Whenever there is a snow day, many parents call in sick or take annual leave, which is supposed to be approved at least 3 days in advance, Similarly, if schools close earl, they all rush home, leaving singletons and empty nesters to fill in. And don't even mention school plays and sporting events. Honestly, this causes a huge amount of resentment. We all have lives outside the office that we feel are just as important as theirs, but we're supposed to show up and cover for them. They chose to have kids, we didn't, but now we're being penalized. I can see having to take emergency leave if a child is really sick, but think parents should have a Plan B in place to deal with these situations so as to not overburden their colleagues.

This seems to sum up the biggest complaint from the childfree side, and it's a valid one.

To be fair, though, sometimes it's not possible to prepare for these events three days in advance.

Plays and sporting events, you can plan for. But if the school calls and your kid is ill, boom, someone has to pick the kid up. You wake up one morning, boom, school's closed for snow. Even if you can make it in to work, you can't just leave the kids home alone with a bowl of Cheerios and a pee mat on the floor.

Ideally everyone has a backup caretaker lined up, but those caretakers may not be available at a moment's notice.

So I do get the resentment--these situations tend to crop up more for parents than for non-parents, and that's not fair--but I also get that it's not easy to have a foolproof backup plan for all contingencies.

Here's the important question: Do you feel your parent coworkers are willing to cover for you if you have an emergency--illness, car breakdown, sick pet?

Yes, it looks like a lot (13 days of sick, 20 of vacation, etc.), but there is no maternity or paternity leave, so most young parents have sick leave balances that are close to zero. (The feds generously allow us to burn as much sick leave as we have to pay for a maternity or paternity leave.) And once those kids start school, you are faced with teacher workdays and vacations. I added up what my kids get off in a school year: it's 12 weeks. I get those 20 days. You end up putting the kids in camps, trading off days with your spouse and crossing your fingers that nothing else comes up. Yes, I am grateful for those 20 days, but I don't feel like I am rolling in it, either. Too many work and school schedules are stuck in the 1950s.

This point was touched on in an excellent piece by Janice D'Arcy in last week's Post magazine: The amount of annual leave most parents get falls well short of their kids' time off from school. It creates something of a desperate scramble, not to mention tensions with your partner (if you're lucky enough to have one) over whose job is more important that day.

I never had children, but I'm always surprised when people express suspicion of accommodating different work schedules. I agree that any worker who takes excessive advantage of flexibility or dumps work on others creates problems in an office, but so long as people get their work done, and everyone has the same opportunities to work flexibly, why shouldn't both companies and employees be flexible and support each other? Not having children doesn't guarantee that someone might not need the same flexibility one day to care for an ailing partner or parent. If one person's flexible schedule does create issues for others in the office, that does need to be addressed, but outside of that situation, I'd rather worry about getting my own work done than making a fuss over how others do theirs.

That seems balanced to me. To play childfree worker's advocate, though, it does seem that parents need more of that flexibility on average than nonparents.

But then many parents give up career advancement to focus on their families, so their childfree colleagues can take advantage of workplace opportunities.

But then the child-rearing years don't last forever, so parents can return to focusing full-time on work and can make it up to the coworkers who covered for them.

I think I just got sucked into a counter-advocacy spiral. One moment while I extricate myself.

Kids or the home-based parent? A toxic mix. Excellent way to drive a sitter nuts, ask them to entertain a kid(s) who know full well mom or dad is behind that locked door. Snow days, sick days, half days, teacher work days, school holidays, summer - all bad enough. But if every day - or after school time - is a contest to get mom's attention it is a power winner.

A confession: I wrote a draft of that column with a toddler knocking at my closed office door. She had a caretaker, but had slipped away unnoticed and tracked me down.

This gives me a great idea for a comic: Ninja Toddlers. Wherever you hide, they will find you.

I'm a receptionist, and I have coworkers who bring their kids in for one reason or another. The parents occasionally dump their kids in the lobby when they have meetings, which I find frustrating. One, it interrupts my work, two, I'm not a babysitter, and three, I'm not a "kid person" and don't want to deal with strange children. However, everyone who brings in their kids is a senior-level person at my organization, and I am obviously very junior. Do I just deal, or do I say something?

Oof. That is tricky. Regardless of whether you're a kid person, I assume babysitting is not in the job description.

Do you have a boss you report to directly who you can talk to about this? You have two effective arguments here: (1) I can't get my [your] work done if I'm watching people's children, and (2) I'm worried about being held responsible if the kids wander off, get hurt, etc. (Expressing concern about the kids is especially a winner.)

Of course, this works best if your boss is not one of the offenders. Also, it's more effective if the kids are young and really could get hurt by themselves--not teens just sitting there texting quietly.

Perhaps your boss can then circulate an email asking parents to arrange alternative care for their kids, or asking them to make sure they're keeping an eye on the kids themselves when they're in the office.

First, telework is fine, if work is being accomplished. Set requirements, assess against requirements. Doesn't matter if the worker is a parent or not. Results-based management is the way to go. Second, I am sick of the assumption I keep running into that only parents want or deserve telework schedules or flexible schedules. I want a flex-schedule. I can accomplish my goals (and more), and would do so on a flexible schedule. Yet I find so often that only parents are eligibility for "family-friendly" schedules.

Hear that, employers? Fair is fair.

And I say this as someone who was allowed to work from home a couple of days a week even before becoming a parent, because I had a 90-minute commute. Again, I've been very lucky to have that option.

Even under identical conditions, some people will work harder and do better work. Some will work harder and not do as well. Everyone has the occasional bad dau, and some will always try to scam the system. Sure it's irritating and frustrating at times, but unless it's really egregious I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. Bottom line,you're responsible for your own wrk andyour own happiness. If you think you can do better elsewhere, you're free to go.

I'm sorry, I'm going to have to reject this comment on the grounds that it is far too sensible.


One commenter on the polls summed it up thus: "I've been in both sets of shoes, and neither set has haloes attached. Or demon horns."

I thought the letter was timely and important even if I saw in the comments that the original writer was able to work things out with her boss. My federal workplace is shrinking its real estate and within a couple of years we may all be asked to share offices with others and telework part-time. The challenge for managers and workers is to remain productive and use technology to its greatest capacity. Just as my boss is not currently looking over my shoulder to see if I'm (sending a note to the Washington Post) neither can she regulate what goes on in my home. The important thing is to set clear expectations, deadlines, and keep projects on track so that the occasional interruption (whether it's caused by children, pets, appliances, cars, DMV lines, dr. appointments, etc.) do not derail your work.

...and to not focus too much on what your colleagues are doing unless it affects your ability to meet said deadlines, expectations, and project goals. Thanks for that roadmap.

OK, I'm going to go ahead and push out some reader comments without adding to them, just to make sure all viewpoints are covered.

Brace yourselves. Comments are coming.

What a great and timely topic! With my 5-year-old out of daycare for a week with the flu, and my twin girls taking turns passing one illness after another, I am fortunate that I can work from home. During conference calls or times when I need uninterrupted time, I have back-up at home with me. My boss knows I get my work done (I check e-mails and work before kids wake up and after kids are asleep, if need be) and thus affords me the ability to work at home with sick kids. All that said, I do not rely on others (e.g., childfree workers) to get my work done. If I don't do it, no one else will. And I don't care that co-workers take two hour lunch-breaks while I eat at my desk (so I can leave on time to pick up kids from daycare). People should use their time to work that suits them best!

Germ Pong--a game the whole family can play!

I personally don't care who works from home and who doesn't, I just care that the work gets done. What I've found is that the deciding factor is not whether a worker has children or not, it's whether they have control over their lives as a general concept. Yes, there are workers who "telework" and spend the day managing kids. But there are also workers who call in "sick" (usually hungover), workers who spend office time blubbering about personal problems, workers who lurch from one crisis to the next, and workers who are black holes of negativity and drag everyone else down with them. It's not about parents vs. the child-free, it's about people who have control over their lives and people who are just a freewheeling mess.

My kids are grade school age, so conference calls are a bit easier. The rule is, when the office door is closed, don't come in unless one of you is bleeding! It works -- about 75% of the time. Thank goodness for the mute button.

That's kind of the point -- in most offices I've worked in, child-free employees don't have the same opportunity to work flexibly. It would be the ideal way, sure, but it's just not how it works in reality in most places.

I'm child free and will almost certainly remain so. I just don't understand the poll findings. We will all, at some points in our life, need flexibility at work - don't you want to work for a boss/company that shows it's flexible?

I've worked at home for 3.5 years and the disadvantage has emerged now that there has been a change in upper management. My previously very supportive manager and director have been replaced by a somewhat supportive manager and a skeptical director. The previous people were not forced out, just changed. My situation (working from home all but 3 days a month) is not typical of the firm, but I have made it work with no complaints. My concern now is, one issue is going to end the arrangement and thus my job at the firm as the commute isn't feasible. One error in the office wouldn't be an issue, but from home would be trouble.

My federal agency allows "ad hoc" telework, but you must attest that you are not responsible for the care of your children, of any age. This makes absolutely no sense; it is all or nothing. No allowance is made for working while your baby is napping (and taking sick time when you are caring for the baby), or if your school-age child is just sacked out, watching tv (and you can get some work done). These policies I think were written by childless people or those with infalliable care arrangements at home. Frustrating!

I read a good book that touched on this - it's been out a while and is available at the library. "A housekeeper is cheaper than a divorce" or something like that. The home-office mom insisted on taking turns with package & dry cleaning pickup, repairman duty, carpool, etc. She held a firm line: otherwise she'd be a homemaker who squeezed in a few hours of work here and there....She swore by this equal arrangement.

I write regulations for a federal agency. I have to be available by phone at all times during the work day, attend occasional Commission meetings and be available on the day of the meeting and the day before to talk to Comissoners and other staff about the project. I typically know these days well in advance and pay a neighbor well to look after my children when this happens.

The taxpaying public thanks you!

I happened to read this column while at home with a sick two-year-old. It was my regular, weekly work-at-home day. But between cleaning up after his stomach bug, refilling sippy cups, drying tears, administering medicine and turning on Sesame Street, I got little to no work done while he was awake. I took sick leave for those hours, and worked during his nap time. Working at home allowed me to get a partial day of work done instead of zero, but I firmly believe that you cannot adequately supervise a young child and focus on work at the same time.

An opinion that carries even more weight from the perspective of one who's lived it. Thank you.

I would much rather be available from home at odd hours than have to stay longer at the office. I am on my work iPad at 6am, 10pm, weekends, whatever, but briefly, to deal with things as they arise. This means that if I need to leave right at 4:30 every day to pick up the kid, I do it, no apologies - I'll just deal with your work issue when I get home. I find I get more of my gov't sponsor's attention on Sunday afternoon than at any other time. I'm guessing he is watching football while emailing with me. Fine by me.

Football: More or less distracting than kids? I guess you can't TiVo the kids and hit "pause."

My company has a policy that you cannot work from home if you are also providing child care at the same time. I wish I were allowed to work a few days at home during the summer break to save on day care cost for my 10 year old. I understand the co. policy for infants and kids that need 100% oversight but for a pre-teen... I don't get it.

Good point--much depends on the "child" in question.

All children are equal, but some children are more equal than others.

OK, when I start referencing "Animal Farm," that's a sign it's time to go.

Man, I wish all working hours flew by this fast. Thank you all for your comments and questions!

Social media plug: For updates on new @Work columns, plus other interesting Internet flotsam, you can follow me on Twitter (@KarlaAtWork) or Facebook (

Thanks again, everyone, and I hope to chat again sometime. Now, back to work. Or lunch. Or Sesame Street. Have a great week!

In This Chat
Karla Miller
Karla has spent nearly 18 years in publishing and currently works for the Washington National Tax office of accounting firm KPMG LLP. She also volunteers as a wife and a mother of two. In 2011, Karla won the chance to dole out workplace advice for the Washington Post Magazine, with a four-week contract that somehow became a regular weekly gig. She's still waiting for the editors to wise up.
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