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  Ask Annette: Kids at Work
Ask Annette
Do daycare emergencies flood your office with offspring? The situation becomes tense when colleagues discover that highlighters and flipcharts have been used for art projects, as the temporary visitors threaten to flatten the entire organization like miniature consultants.
Kids at Work

Dear Annette,

Please tell me what to do about coworkers' kids in the office. I could understand if people brought their children in when there was an emergency, but everywhere I look there seems to be some toddler. The noise and distraction are affecting my work. I can't get away from it because we are all in cubes, but I need some way to tell my coworkers that the office is not a daycare center!

Rattled

Dear Rattled,

It's not surprising that today's office has become so alluring to the young, with its bright colors, foosball table, and all the soda you can drink.

I myself have only recently recovered from a stretch limo ride my dog Dickie and I took with the 14-month-old child of our favorite tycoon. After two hours I became what amounted to the stickiest diction coach in Beverly Hills (fa-ba-fa-ba-fa-ba; mu-nee-mu-nee-mu-nee-mu-nee-mu-nee). When it was finally over I didn't think Dickie was ever going to come out of the car.

It's no secret that children make poor business associates. Their extended lunch hours, ritualistic singing, and demands for the same story over and over tax the patience of the most tolerant paradigm-shift-embracer. Moreover, the preliterate tend to be much better at computer games than those with more seniority. The situation becomes especially tense when teammates discover all the highlighters and flipcharts have been used for art projects, as the temporary visitors threaten to flatten the entire organization like miniature consultants.

But you're not the only one with a problem, as any parent whose little angel has been unexpectedly turned away from daycare can tell you. It takes just a single snowflake, sneeze, or scheduling snafu to ruin a carefully planned system and force your colleague to rely on the office as backup childcare.

It helps to remember that while you may have spent the early hours sipping mint tea, many parents instead pass that time helping a preschooler choose his outfit ("But darling, you can't mix your Airwalks with your Abercrombie sport fleece; they're simply two different looks"). From the time I was a little girl in an obscure and thrice-renamed Eastern European republic, my parents instilled in me the importance of accessorizing, which is why I now rely on People to make sure my clothes are unimpeachable. But with the time-consuming ardor of fabulousness beginning so early, you can see why, when daycare arrangements fall through, Daddy tends to arrive at work with hopes for serenity in smithereens, and loaded down with stuffed animals and plastic toys. Who did you say was having trouble getting work done?

Well then. If your office permits people to bring children to work, try to negotiate with the parent. If a particular child is running wild in your workspace, take the parent aside and say you regret you aren't able to keep an eye on the child: you have work to do. Evidence helps, so point out if the little girl is legitimately likely to hurt herself by getting into the three-hole punches, paper cutters, etc. Otherwise, state your regrets and then propose a better place for the tyke to go. Why? Because criticizing someone's small child is always a bad idea. Recommending alternatives, on the other hand, protects your interests and positions you as a considerate neighbor. Buying and using earplugs saves your sanity while you are negotiating.

Then, go straight to your manager, the director of human resources, or another decision maker and lay out the problem. Try to quantify it in terms of lost time and sudden interruptions, while being sure to point out that this condition affects all levels of the firm. Mention that one in eight employers offers onsite childcare, one in four supports telecommuting, and one in three pays for or subsidizes childcare; suggest that your firm become one of these one-ofs. Only a business that wants its hallways and boardrooms to be filled with distracted or resentful employees and children who have gone without their naps can afford to place itself above the problem.

Stay fabulous,
Annette

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