Project Management optimize

When the Significant Other pulls rank

If spousal emergencies and interruptions occur frequently while you're working on a consulting engagement, Chip Camden offers advice on how to attempt to solve this problem.

I've often said that the most difficult aspect of IT consulting has nothing to do with IT. Rather, it's the human relationships composing and surrounding our profession that cause all the troubles. We've often discussed managing relationships with clients, vendors, and subcontractors, but our relationships with non-business entities pose potentially even greater challenges.

In business relationships, you can almost always distill conflicting priorities down to business obligations and opportunities, then compare their relative costs, risks, and benefits. That strategy rapidly breaks down when personal relationships enter the picture. For example, take this story from TechRepublic member Bob Eisenhardt (reisen55):

I was at my retainer based medical office complex this past weekend, and in one office I performed a simple server reboot to accommodate that lovely firm in Redmond, Washington that put out a ton of patches past week and required a reboot. Simple. Server comes up and, with zero Internet. Anywhere in the office. So I check DNS logs and begin troubleshooting...

wife calls....

"You have to come home NOW, I CANNOT WALK THE DOGS AND THEY HAVE TO GO OUT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

These spousal emergencies always seem to happen concurrently with client emergencies, don't they? Guess who wins. There's a reason why we call them "Significant Others" -- their influence on our lives has an overriding significance and ignoring them without providing correspondingly convincing explanations will lead to dire consequences.

Fortunately for Bob, it worked out in the end. Taking the time off to walk the dogs allowed his networking problem to resolve itself. But these things don't always have such happy endings. I can't begin to enumerate the times when I've been in a particularly deep debugging or design session in which I've carefully juxtaposed numerous details like a house of cards in my mind, when suddenly it all gets blown down by the office door bursting open accompanied by "There's a huge spider on the wall!" or "Why isn't my email working?" or "Can you take out this stinky garbage?"

Now, if I traveled across town to work for an employer, I doubt that these issues would provoke a demand for my immediate presence. But since I'm self-employed and work at home, my family seems to operate under the delusion that my time is my own and therefore I'm always available to do their bidding. After all, I can work whenever I choose, right?

We have to be careful when attempting a solution to this problem, because it would be easy to give the false impression that we consider work more important than family. Yet solve it we must, or the continued needling will lead to growing resentment. Ideally, we need to accurately communicate how much of a loss we incur with each such interruption, and impress upon our Significant Other that, while we really do want to help them with their problems, a little courtesy, patience, and understanding could make that a lot less painful for both of us.

My wife thinks that's bull. How about your Significant Other?

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

51 comments
jpnagle59
jpnagle59

Yes to all of the above...ever go to work to work, have the S.O. call and ask you to come home because now is the perfect time to make a baby? Well, I know of one such situation and the other 50% was right in the middle of a complete outage of all networks, internet, server, and such...at a police department...with over 400 officers...the point here is they were trying for a baby for 5 years...pop question what do you do, what do you do??? (I would have lied my butt off, say I need a special instrument that was just delivered at the house, and have an officer speed me home with full lights and siren... Give me 1,5 minutes in the house to pick-up the special tool, then blast back over to the PD....only problem here is that the participating partner, sorta, kinda, forgot to bring the special tool back with him... Other then the story I just told which is true, it is a most important to have a better , mutual, way for both of you to understand what has to be done to bring the bacon home. But of course it they are mad, tired, and they know your telephone number- there is no defense to this...:)

drkangld
drkangld

I guess I'm the rare-as-a-unicorn female IT specialst, and let me tell you MY significant other can be just as demanding. I wouldn't chalk it up to just women. Guys can be just as needy. Work-life balance is a tricky thing, and when the SO thinks you're putting work first things can get challenging. My advice is to try to plan ahead. I schedule time with the SO and adjust my time around it. Sometimes things change or sometimes things just pop up that are unexpected, and of course you don't want to be too ridgid or unspontaneous--make out session begins @5:15PM, LOL. Showing your SO that they are important makes it easier for them to take when your focus has to shift away from them. Just my $.02

bclomptwihm
bclomptwihm

I have a doggie door. Mine come and go as they please. I don't have to come home, get up at 3:00 AM or anything else for them

qhabib
qhabib

Working from home as the author pointed out has its own set of problems and family members never seem to understand this. Interestingly they figure that the work can be done anytime. I have had my husband suddenly having emergencies that has to be taken care of immediately, and he is a guy who works too and knows all about emergencies. So yes, i think it is more of a case of feeling important for them and that they should not be ignored.

tr
tr

This falls under the "why do you remain silent until the commercial ends, then start a conversation or ask a question when the game/show starts up?" category. Mildly trying to remain politically correct... and alive... I will say that family members in general want to feel important. This is normal and should be expected. There is a difference between something that is important and something that is urgent. Make your family members feel important when you have the time and make sure they understand the urgency when you are working with clients. When a person has the opportunity to work at home, clear expectations are required. I do have slow moments when I can take a break, but my wife knows that working from home still means working and not a free PTO day. If my wife does not like the partial access arrangement when I work from home, I have two options... stop working from home (she loses all access to me during the day) and quit my job (she gets all of my attention during the day, but no money with which to do anything).

codepoke
codepoke

I don't see the advice part!

JamesRL
JamesRL

I don't do consulatancy at the moment, but have done. And my wife is well aware that there are times when work is a prioroty and times when she is the priority. When my wife had an accident, my work was very accomodating. In turn, she has always been the same. I have come into the office in the middle of the night, its part of the job. I agree with the poster who theorized that this has nothing to do with dogs....

jeremial-21966916363912016372987921703527
jeremial-21966916363912016372987921703527

Personally, I resolved the issue by hiring my wife. She answers the phones, and collects all the basic information for me, then sets expectations with clients. It's actually been very beneficial, as it not only shows her that just because I "work for myself" doesn't mean I don't work, and we've seen an increase in customer satisfaction (my wife has a telephone voice that could melt butter). Even with a new baby two weeks ago, she's able to assist with calls and setting expectations, leaving me more free to move from client to client.

Noshmon
Noshmon

Reading this (and the comments) has actually helped me realise that my S.O is great! She doesn't work with me, but understands I need my time for work. If I do get an interruption it's something important, and I get an apology later that day for distracting my work. I must be a very lucky man?!

bobijub
bobijub

regardless of relationship, i declare every favour or help or so insane that costs me more (in time, effort, ...) than the other one can gain on it. i could have put full stop here, but, there always are exceptions that make sense. and love amongst other mental disorders :) can of course cause insanity.

colson
colson

So when I'm working she never calls with 'there is a spider on the wall' but she will call with "I'm working on so and so client, and I need help with this problem, asap!" So at least when she calls out for help it is for legitimate billable time. (She doesn't usually call about the same issue twice, either - WOO HOO!)

bnetreader5210
bnetreader5210

With my significant other (who works a 12-hr weekend shift) it was an evolving process that involved growth and understanding on both our parts. For example, I found an article that explained how a programmer must simultaneously hold many threads in her brain and it can be difficult getting all the "loose ends" neatly resolved when having to deal with interruptions. I left the article on his chair one evening. Another example: One day when I was having a particularly troubling day -- and had already snapped at him several times for interrupting me -- I got a few phone calls from co-workers. Even though I was having a bear of a day I was pleasant, patient and polite to the callers. After about the third call my partner remarked, "You know, you're being nice today to everyone but me." And he was right. I realized (1) my difficult day was not his fault; and (2) he doesn't know I'm having a bad day unless I tell him. So now, sitting on my printer in plain view, is a three-sided sign. One side says "Blue Skies!"; one side says "Cloudy (Patches of fog)" and the third side says "Stormy Weather (Brain Overloaded)" So if I really need to not be interrupted I have a way of letting him know. My cat? Now, that's another story.

jochs
jochs

I have been in my own business for many years and family's standard saying is that I work for myself and therefore am fair game for all sorts of interuptions.

LANMAN656
LANMAN656

I have a private office away from home and these situations still occur. I try to balance time between work and home, but there is no adequate balance when you are an IT Consutant. Your Clients and Family both want the majority of your time. When someone figures out the solution to this, they should put together a training program for IT Consultants and their Significant Others and Patent it. LT

mdallas
mdallas

I had a very wise man who was interviewing me for a job when my children were small put it into perspective. He said that he wouldn't think I was any kind of a (quality) person if my family didn't come first, but that he wanted the job to come a very close second. I've used this over and over during the ensuing years to help me prioritize my personal and corporate life.

Dknopp
Dknopp

...as family drama. If the LACK of work dumps the family to the curb homeless, due to not allowing work to have a certain amount of priority, you better take a reality check on your family drama. Having said that, I have never let work get in the way of my relationship with my family, but calling up and saying you have to come walk the dogs? Be for real.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

I don't just drop everything to answer the phone every time it rings when I'm busy with something. My provider offers messaging for a reason. I particularly don't answer the phone every time my SO calls when I'm busy with something. He generally 'expects' me to drop everything to help him pick a flavor of cat food, or something equally ridiculous. When I've time, I check the recent calls and messages. There are more important things than general blather. If we had dogs, believe me, he could walk them. :|

Lengos
Lengos

It's holiday week and my ADHD boys were at home with my 80 year old plus parents and everyone is winding everyone else up...when my 15 year old tells my parents.."do you know what my father really thnks of you two..and your are this and that..." Hysterrcal call from my daughter follows telling me that I have to leave the office and head home ( 1hr commuter train ride) or who knows..one of my parents might have a heart attack on the spot...Did I have a choice? Did anyone die? Thank God No! But..this was my pull-rank scenario!

StoneSatellite
StoneSatellite

understands the scope of my work, so she would never call with such a ridiculous request. Bob needs to grow a pair. I can't think of any of my clients that wouldn't send me down the road for leaving them out to dry.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Don't be defensive... all the time. I find that I've gotten caught up in a mindset of defending my worktime from encroachments - all the time I'm working. Of course this suggests to others that I view them as a nuisance, and it may goad them to "mark their territory" more than they might actually need to. So, I am trying to look and see, at each instance: what's going on? If the thing that is asked of me is of minor cost to me (because, perhaps, I can utilize that time to let my brains process something in the background, or because I could do with a break), and of bigger benefits to others, then I'll try to do it. Otherwise, I fear I'm creating myself a "cry wolf" scenario, where my insistence that "I have to work now" becomes unbelievable, also in the cases when it is true. Many relationship/social problems are truly mutual, with both parties helping to cause them and both parties suffering from them.

ka
ka

This is way, way beyond the scope of an article about IT consulting. There are acceptable reasons to take time off from a job or professional obligations, and these include serious illness on your part, the serious illness or death of a close family member, and a natural emergency/act of God that precludes your being able to perform your duties. "My dog needs to pee" is NOT on that list, for reasons that should be obvious. A lack of respect for others can be shown in many ways, and one of those ways is treating others like insignificant lackeys whose only role is to do what others tell them to do. I'd say that this is what we're describing, above, in the case show in the article. I would hope that the next time this sort of thing happens to ANYONE who might be reading this, they will politely and logically explain to the other party involved that they are trying to work and pay the bills at the moment, and that this sort of behavior is not going to be acceptable going forward. Also, this just serves to reinforce the popular stereotype of the geeky IT guy who lets his wife boss him around...I'm not sure that's an image anyone should aspire to.

sugarmags
sugarmags

In spite of the repeated use of the androgynous term, "significant other", this article reeks of gender bias. It does little or no justice to the topic at hand, and provides no useful information on solving a very real problem. All of us with home offices, including *female* IT professionals, have this problem. We've had our "house of cards" blown down by children, parents and even pets. And yes, *male* significant others. Definitely the most disappointing TR article I've ever read. Carole Bennett's article http://www.indigotea.com/time-thieves-lifting-the-siege.aspx referenced in the last comment provides some helpful tips. Thank you, Carole.

Garth.Lowson
Garth.Lowson

My Wife says we work such late hours because nobody knows what they doing I send her Shopping problem solved !!!

1molouk
1molouk

As a married woman and an IT journalist who has a home office, I learned long ago how to manage the job and keep the family responsibilities under control. Pre-planning can make a real difference as well as asking your significant other about his or her needs and expectations before diving into work for the day.

jay.nathoo
jay.nathoo

Undoubtedly, this is a reality that we all face or will have to face sometime in our married or spousal lives. What works for me is ???Yes dear, I will attend to it ASAP???. Clearly, at this point a decision needs to be made: either get through the server crash or consulting engagement with success and retain your job, or go home, walk the dogs and tell your wife: ???honey, we will be eating with the dogs from now on as the job is gone???. What it comes down to is understanding and commitment from both sides. Emergency calls should relate to serious cases such as your child being sick or an accident or a death ??? these are things that no client will have the heart to reprimand you for taking off and attending to what really matters ??? your family. You and You???re family comes first ??? you work to support yourself and your family. Keeping the hierarchical structure of life in mind when dealing with situations always helps in determining what, when, why and how to deal with events that pop up. My hierarchical structure is: 1.God->me->parents->wife and children->work->friends->everyone else You need to take care of yourself first before anyone else - because if you're broken, you're useless to the people that need you.

Brad Egeland
Brad Egeland

Good article Chip. And I can relate. I love your ending..."My wife thinks that???s bull." Just when I thought you were turning it around and making it sound like logic and the customer dollars come first reality set in and I see your wife or SO matches up well with the reality for most of us IT consultants. It's a tough balance - family and work - and when your home office has that first word in it, it usually comes first unless work is in emergency mode. I wouldn't drop a client to walk the dog, but I would and have for a real important need. And yes, the interruptions for the little things do happen. I can't tell you how many times I've heard "if you work here, then you have to be available to us" remark. But I'm usually a pretty efficient/fast worker and can get caught up quickly or work odd hours if necessary. You know, like creating the client status report at 1:00am when all is quiet.

uksp
uksp

... met my wife! Explain and understand the cost of each interruption? Nil interest on her part. "This or that needs to happen now" ... "can you just do, call, get...". Any attempt to reason is met with furrowed brow and biting of bottom lip. Has it's up-sides when we need to complain about that poor service ... "my wife will explain the problem to you ...." ... over to you my significant other.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

...for the significant other to get a reality check. The retainer you client pays probably pays for many things she likes. If this becomes a habit, she may want to tell you which item she'd be willing to sell or service she'd forego. Emergencies are another story, but walking the dogs aren't one of them.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

[b]SWMBO[/b] always wins out no matter the idiot demand. After all the Client only pays me to do their work [b]She Who Must Be Obeyed[/b] can make my life a [b]Living Hell[/b] that's not worth living. On the up side all of my clients feel the same way about their wives and lets leave it at that. ;) Col

CTAspley
CTAspley

Are you kidding me? You'd leave a client site with an Internet outage caused when you rebooted the server, to go home and walk the dogs? My clients would kill me. Maybe it helps when your significant other is also an IT consultant with a background in enterprise systems administration & understands that technology doesn't always go according to plan. Or maybe they just need to appreciate that those clients pay the bills.

jck
jck

I get what you are saying about balancing it all. But in the end if I had to make a decision...to me...if the job has a need...and the SO/spouse/person in your life has a need...I'm picking that lady I spend nights with and days thinking about. I can always get another job. Can't always get another her. :) Fortunately...I don't have to juggle that ball...not yet, at least. Give it another 2 years. :)

MissDorkness
MissDorkness

I only work from home sometimes, and unfortunately, some days the interruptions are too much and I leave the house and work elsewhere. But, the view that because I have a desk job, I can be called or emailed for immediate (and sometimes lengthy) discussions had to be fixed sooner rather than later. After letting my husband's calls go to voicemail so many times, and being clear about why, 'I was busy, and I will handle it as soon as I can' or 'I was working in a basement room with no cell signal, you can't take that personally', we've established some better boundaries that respect work time a bit more.

davcomp
davcomp

I like your response. Mine is "grow some cajones!"

gcomputeronet
gcomputeronet

being that overly played. Though the author and the example have female SOs, they are just examples of life interruptions while doing work. Any of the examples could be either gender or even kids or other relatives. I've read plenty of more disappointing articles than this one.

www.indigotea.com
www.indigotea.com

You're more than welcome. Those tips are equally applicable to spouses, children, siblings or any other Significant Others. Hope others find them useful, as well!

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

You see, I'd speak about my husband, but I don't have one. You have to consider circumstantial reasons for perceived bias, such as a skewed gender balance in the readership.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

I did that once well quite a bit a while ago and one time I sent [b]SWMBO[/b] by plane to another city to pickup some item came to $15.00 that was needed that weekend. Her way of getting back was $2,0000 in excess Baggage charged to the Airline account and a $36,000 Bill from the place that I sent here to. I've never sent her out again for anything that is in any way related to a Account. It's way too expensive. ;) Col

davcomp
davcomp

His S.O. was pulling a power play. He was in trouble no matter what he elected to do...

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

You think you have it bad? My wife won't put up with any explanations out of other people either, but she doesn't want to take those calls. So, I'm making the complaint, with a stream of instructions of where to take the conversation and what demands to make, from the background. Not exactly easy :D That's why Evolution invented Love... it had to.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

...but I refuse to be caught in the middle of the "you don't provide enough" and the "you don't spend enough time with me" arguments. My current S.O. and I run the company and we have similar work ethics. Frankly I would rather clean the carpets than tell a retainer paying client that my spouse and dog both out-rank him. IT guys are dime a dozen. what makes one different from the other is service and follow through.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... phrasing it to the client as "a family emergency" might help you get off the hook and save face -- though it's pretty self-demeaning when you have to look in the mirror the next day.

JamesRL
JamesRL

Server down versus dogs need walking? I think the family needs my income more than the dogs need walking(than can be deferred). I have left work when the wife or kids truly needed me. I was on a teleconference once, and my wife couldn't reach me. She ended up talking to my boss, who came into my office and asked me to put the phone on mute. It was an emergency and my boss understood and basically took over the call for me, as I went to my car.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

The person complaining should've just shared their own experiences with the male SO doing the interrupting. Done theirs to balance the discourse, it might have made for a good discussion, and could help people understand what's going on from the other point of view, too.

www.indigotea.com
www.indigotea.com

"Whether the underlying problem is resentment, envy, insecurity, control issues, or fear - address it, as calmly and positively as you can. Don't be afraid to set boundaries, and tell someone when they've crossed over the line." - this is part of the advice I wrote in my article on the subject. Which elements are in play behind the scenes, we may never know in that instance - but it's a fair bet we always know when it's our situation, whether we like it or not.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I understood it so that "family emergency" means "sorry, I value my life higher than your work, I hope you can understand that"... Stuff like "My kid just stuck a shiv in the neighbours kid" (or vice versa) is covered by "medical emergency" or "legal emergency"...

OH Smeg
OH Smeg

It goes along the lines of Bloody Women and continues from there. ;) Col

jck
jck

Actually, I don't have to put up with that. And if I marry the girl I've been involved with, I won't be in the IT field much longer anyways. If anything, the future will have me waiting on her. lol

herlizness
herlizness

Never mind resistance, this is a "just say no" scenario, consequences be damned at home. I'm afraid most people's definition of "emergency" is unlikely to change over time, though. Personally, I'm not very sympathetic when anyone tells me that they HAVE to deal with this silly thing or that silly thing NOW. No, you don't. You're choosing to and you can live with the consequences big or small. That said, some are more adept at dealing with this sort of thing and can minimize or eliminate the impact of spousal demands. The end results, professionally and relationally, are what counts. We all have to make our choices in life carefully, eh?

jck
jck

I know there's gender bias from women too. If we complain about all their makeup laying around, it's gender bias and we don't know what they go through. If we leave one hair in the sink or socks in the floor, we're animals and have no respect or love for them and just don't understand how to treat them. Can you tell I was raised around 3 women???? :^0