One Man’s Very Public Remote Work Meltdown Offers Lessons in Avoiding Disaster

It’s every remote worker’s nightmare scenario. A prestigious global media outlet interviews you live from your home office in another country. You prepare your talking points in your area of expertise (check). You make sure your WIFI connection and video camera work (check). Your backdrop looks professional (check). You put on a suit and tie (check). You’re confident. You are ready.

The interview starts. It’s going well. You think, “I’ve got this,” but just then, unbeknownst to you, your three-year old quietly pushes open the door to your home office and adorably begins to dance her way into the room, followed closely behind by her younger sibling rolling happily in a walker. Suddenly you hear the interviewer say, “I believe your child has joined you.” Oh *#@!.

If you’ve been anywhere near social media for the past three days, you know that’s exactly what happened to policy expert Professor Robert Kelly during an interview with BBC News from his home office in South Korea. In no time, this live, on-air work-meets-life meltdown went viral because people looked and thought, “Oh man, that could have so easily been me!”

Recognizing that Robert Kelly and his adorable family are not alone, what lessons can remote workers everywhere learn from his experience and what actions can they take to get their jobs done, and manage their lives, flexibly and effectively?

First, let’s all finally agree that there are no longer neat and tidy boundaries between work and the other parts of life. This goes for women, as well as men, who increasingly do their jobs from remote locations not on their employer’s worksites. (According to our research that percentage is now one-third of the full-time U.S. workforce.) As long as we ignore this new flexible work and life reality, we won’t be motivated to shift our mindset and change our behavior to avoid similar disasters.

Lesson #1: Match your workspace to the task. Some of the commenters online thought Professor Kelly should have just picked up his daughter, put her on his lap and continued with the interview. That sounds nice, but it depends upon the context. Some situations, like an interview on the BBC about the prevailing political climate in South Korea, require a certain level of seriousness and professionalism that can be hard to maintain when a precocious three-year old is sitting on your lap.

Now, if Professor Kelly had been on a video conference with two colleagues reviewing edits to an article and his children wandered in, then, by all means, stop for two minutes, say “hi,” get the kids settled back outside the door and continue on.

When you work remotely, think about what you need to get done, and then match your workspace to the task. If you have a call with a client, a video conference with your boss or a live interview with the BBC, then you want to make sure you have a separate workspace where potential distractions will be limited.

Action Step: When you work remotely, some tasks require a separate, quiet space. If there’s a door between you and potential distractions, close and lock it.

Lesson #2: Consider what could go wrong and deal with it beforehand. When you went into the same office every day, at the same time with everyone you worked with, you didn’t have to give as much thought to potential collisions between work and life. When you work remotely, even periodically, you do. You have to think about what could go wrong, communicate and plan for contingencies.

Maybe Professor Kelly’s kids never came into his office previously during remote interviews even though the door was open; therefore, he didn’t think to let his wife know he couldn’t be disturbed. For others, it could be failing to plan for the possibility that your dog will madly bark if the UPS truck pulls into the driveway during a sales call, or forgetting your roommate had the day off and invited his family to visit during the Skype interviews you planned with job candidates. Or, like me, realizing your roofer would start to fix a leak in the middle of a training webinar you were facilitating.

Action Step: If there’s an important call, webinar or video conference that has to be conducted professionally, think about potential interruptions in advance. Set yourself up in the optimal workspace (see above) and communicate with the people who need to know you can’t be disturbed (and take your dog to doggie-daycare!)

Lesson #3: Even with the best-laid plans, work and life may still collide when you work remotely. Professor Kelly could have done everything. He could have reminded his wife that he had an important interview. He could have locked his door, and his kids still may have found their way into his office. In response, do as Professor Kelly and the BBC interviewer did…

Action Step:…Just laugh. Because the truth is in today’s flexible work and life reality, what happened to Professor Kelly could happen to any of us.

(This post originally appeared on LinkedIn)