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How to handle impromptu childcare and out-of-office emails

Why these two very specific things? Because it’s the end of the year and they’re issues many of us face. (Also, I don’t want to write about anything serious).

You would be amazed by how often I get asked to write an article that simultaneously covers both impromptu childcare and out-of-office emails. Indeed, barely a day passes without someone telling me, “I loved your breakdown on the FWC decision that a Foodora worker was an employee, but have you ever thought about penning a deep dive into spontaneous workplace babysitting and out-of-office emails? In the same article!?”

So this one is for the thousands upon thousands of people that have insisted on reading this weirdly specific thing. You’re welcome.

Impromptu childcare

The closing of an office rarely aligns with school holidays, so quite a few parents have their children at their desks for at least part of a day. This scenario poses an important question: to iPad or not to iPad?

The advantage of an iPad is that your child will not interrupt your work and will instead be quietly engrossed in an activity they enjoy. The downside is the growing evidence that these machines and the software on them were designed to be addictive in a way that’s particularly harmful to the young.

There’s a reason the Silicon Valley professionals responsible for our black mirrors don’t want their own children to use them. The CEO of Apple banned his nephew from social networks, while Bill and Melinda Gates regret giving their teenagers phones.

According to the New York Times, Silicon Valley parents are going to extreme lengths to limit screen time, including making babysitters sign no-phone contracts. The article quotes the chief executive of a robotics and drone company as saying, “This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”

And while a couple of hours won’t hurt, my thinking is why keep children preoccupied when their keen minds can be put to good use?

I don’t have kids but I am the proud uncle to two nephews and a niece. And one thing I’ve learned is that children love to be part of a conspiracy (especially if that conspiracy is against their parents). So why not use your childcare responsibilities to your advantage?

For instance, you could have a prearranged signal – a cough and a scratch of the head – that means they start whining, “I need to go to the bathroom nowww”. And there you have it, an instant get-out-of-a-conversation free card.

Oh, you wanted to discuss a project we won’t start until March when I have work to do right now? Well let me just scratch my head and… what? I am so sorry. You know how kids are. They just love toilets.

The out-of-office email

Ah, the widely despised necessity of an out-of-office email. You can read all sorts of guides claiming that there are a multitude of ways to approach one of these, but really there are only two – the rest are either variations on this pair or atrocious innovations.

The to-the-point email

For me, this is your best bet. Emails were created to save time, so a long email that apologises profusely and gives abundant detail about holiday plans is a bad idea. Plus, nobody cares that you’re spending your Christmas abroad.  In fact, they might resent you for it.

Instead state that you’re on leave, and let them know when you’ll return and who can be contacted in your absence. I tend to think you shouldn’t even say “hello”. This is a robot message, and it’s odd if a robot with your name cranks out seasons greetings on command.

Of course, the downside of being laconic is that some feel it’s blunt and standoffish. It reads like a barbed “go away” rather than a helpful reminder. But there’s an advantage to this. It means people will be less likely to expect you to respond to their emails, even when you get back.

On the other hand, don’t be too to-the-point. I once encountered this reply in my inbox: “I probably won’t answer this until next year, but realistically I won’t answer it at all”. Which, fine. But they didn’t actually mention they were on leave – so I didn’t know why’d they’d been rude until I sent an angry follow up and the exact same thing came shooting back.

The funny email

We all feel the temptation to run with the excitement of an impending holiday and show off our wit. But you should remember that this email won’t just be going out occasionally. Your closest colleagues will be inundated with copies as they get CC’ed into every attempted communication. For their sake, you can’t just write an email that’s funny once. It has to be funny nine copies deep. So don’t try for comedy gold, aim for one solid laugh.

For me that means no whimsy, no puns and keep it short.

A quick joke about your holiday locale can work. People at my office like to go with the formula of location + amount + local dish. As in: “I’m in Mexico eating my own body weight in tacos”.

Over my birthday break I went with a koan. “I’m on leave until the 10th to celebrate/lament the fact that I’m getting older, but I leave you with this thought. It wasn’t until he was in his sixties that Winston Churchill invented the onesie. So you’re never so old that you can’t ruin everything.”

As long as we’re on images, if you’re going to go the meme route, don’t be too topical. Trying to be hip puts you under pressure to excel, not to mention that by the time you get back it might be passé. I recommend going with older, lesser known memes. Here are two, modified for holiday purposes:

Of course, depending on your role, there are thresholds of appropriateness you have to meet. This next meme will not meet most of them.

You got a lot of chutzpah, buddy

Now you might be wondering where I get the gall to presume any sort of expertise on either of these topics. Well might I refer you to (scratching my head and coughing) my prestigious diploma in – sorry, what’s that? You need to go to the bathroom immediately? My apologies, you know how kids are. They just love toilets.

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