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When I have video conference with my supervisors during pandemic, it happens often that her/his child would e.g. barge into the room or he/she appear in the video with his/her child in his/her arm. He/She would almost always apologize to me for the child e.g. barging in. I would always say "It is OK".

I wonder whether I should compliment the child? E.g. by saying "Look what a cute child you have"?

(I am in Germany, but tips for other countries are also welcome.)

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Your best bet would be to act as if the child isn't even in the room.

If it's not having an impact on either their or your performance it's irrelevant. The professional thing to do would be to continue on about work business.

It's a tough time for a lot of people, many I imagine are finding childcare hard to come by. There's a good chance that your supervisor isn't entirely happy about the merging of family life and work, but sometimes it can be unavoidable.

If they bring it up be polite, but don't bring it up yourself.

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    @Aqqqq no you don’t need to compliment. – morbo Dec 25 '20 at 13:49
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    @Aqqqq I mean, if it's in context of what she brings up I guess, I can't really write you a script. If she asks you "what do you think of my kid" and you say "your kids cute, good job!" that would probably be fine. It's all about context, best bet is to do what you can to keep conversation professional and separate from both yours and your supervisors home life. – BobKayser Dec 25 '20 at 13:51
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    I don't think this is a very good answer. Pretending it's not happening will just make everyone involved feel awkward and uncomfortable about something which is a normal part of life in 2020. Sam's answer is much better. – quant Dec 26 '20 at 2:27
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    @BobKayser this might be a cultural difference. I think where I live (Australia) the work/personal boundaries tend to be more liberal compared to those in Europe (I can't speak to America). Having lived in Germany for many years perhaps your answer might be appropriate there (given this question is about Germany), but still seems a little conservative to me. Personally I think the world would be a better place if we stopped thinking of professionalism as diametrically opposed to being a normal human being. – quant Dec 26 '20 at 3:44
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    If your supervisor apologizes, one good thing to say is, "It's not a problem" and move on. Saying, "Your child is cute" or something along those lines could be interpreted as inappropriate interest in the child. Speak to the adult, not the child, and continue on with the meeting. – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Dec 26 '20 at 4:20
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I am a fellow parent and manager. I had to un-stick Lego, wipe little bottoms (off-cam) and stop fights during professional presentations. Or tell my 5 years old to put on some trousers before he comes into the camera.

Other answers talk about ignoring it if it doesn't affect work performance.

Having to take care of children while trying to work does affect performance. It will make your boss more distracted during meetings. He might work less hours or be less effective during working hours.

Still, that does not matter. It is a hell of a time to go through, and literally hundreds of millions of people have to work while juggling childcare.

In my company, senior managers (of one of the largest in the world) made a point of normalizing that by bringing their own kids to video meetings.

As for how to respond:

  • acknowledge the child: "Hey, nice to see your daughter! What's her name? How old is she?". Ignoring her presence completely makes it feel like you're annoyed or frustrated by her.
  • in subsequent meetings, you can greet the child directly: "Hello Adele, great to see you again".
  • don't offer to reschedule the meeting. A parent can't plan that in 3 days' time at 4pm the child won't need to pee/eat/hug. And asking about a reschedule sends the subtle message that you don't find these interruptions acceptable.
  • don't dwell on it. It's likely that your supervisor wants to work, not to talk about children. So after an initial acknowledgement, move on to whatever work topic you have
  • look for some time (maybe a separate meeting or your regular 1-1 if you have one) to ask how they've been doing. How online school works. Is their partner also working? It's kind, polite and helpful to build a more humane connection with others during a difficult time. Take your clues and don't intrude if they don't want to (Germany is known for its cold professionalism).

And last, please don't forget that while the world has, by now, got bored of everything the pandemic landed on us, the children's needs are the same as they were back in spring, when all of us were taken by storm by the shock and and stress of the sudden changes. Parents need the same patience and understanding.

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    My go-to in voice calls "Aw, someone's background sounds adorable!" Generally, someone says "Oh, that's my little boy/girl, they're X (years/months old)." And I say "Well, I'm sure they're super-cute." And then we go back to whatever we were talking about, with the parent assured that I don't mind the kid, without having to ask. – gatherer818 Dec 26 '20 at 0:30
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    While I haven't lived or worked in Germany for some years, I do keep in touch with relatives/friends over there, and I had some virtual meetings with representatives from companies in Germany over the lockdown. In my personal opinion this answer would be perfect even there. I think over time more people (worldwide) realize that humans still are wholly human with all that entails (children, bodily functions, illnesses, ...), even if dressed in suit-and-tie, and the clock is between 08:00 and 17:00. – fr13d Dec 26 '20 at 11:55
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    @fr13d to me it feels bad advice for my cultural norms in Germany. It would sure be tolerated, but most people would be annoyed. By addressing the child or starting the child as a topic you draw out the unwanted distraction and make it more likely to happen again. It's nothing against the child, but we're at the meeting for a work purpose and typically all people involved want to be done with it not increase the time it takes or even risk not everything can be covered when the time schedule is fixed. So yes, be respectful of everyone as a person - by keeping unavoidable distractions short. – Frank Hopkins Dec 27 '20 at 18:25
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    @frank-hopkins it's not the child that is an unwanted distraction that must be tolerated, but work that has invited itself in that child's space. You are the unwanted guest so the onus is on you to be kind, regardless of your feelings about children. Applying German office standards in a child's living room is just wrong. I think this is what other answers failed to recognise. – Sam Dec 27 '20 at 22:55
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    @Sam the meeting is the work space, not the living room. And it's not about office standards but applies the same to regular home office. As I said we already account for this being unplanned and unsupported, but the view here is the view from work and in that the child is the disturbance. Sure, from the child's view the work taking place is the disturbance and in a question on "how to react to an incoming workplace call to your mommy while you're being breastfed" I'd say the same, ignore the call because special circumstances and keep feeding, but don't encourage it to continue either. – Frank Hopkins Dec 28 '20 at 0:06
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As a parent working with no child-care and a lot of meetings, I've needed to navigate this a lot, and I'm not really satisfied with any of the current answers.

The problem is that the current answers all make assumptions about what the parent would want. Instead, I recommend a simple, adaptive heuristic: match the parent's level of talking about the child.

My kids have been in many hundreds of my meetings since the pandemic began. But every day is different and parenting is always a moving target.

As a result, what I want and need from my colleagues is often different at different times. For example:

  • Sometimes my toddler just needs a hug or a snack, and I'd really prefer to have us just going on with the meeting with my multitasking not disrupting at all. I'm not going to bring it up, and would prefer that other in the meeting not do it either.
  • Other times, there's something really disruptive happening in the background, and I'll need to apologize, ask tolerance, mute myself as much as possible, etc. Acknowledging that you understand and making allowances is great, but if we focus on it or try to shift the meeting, we may just be rewarding and enhancing the tantrum.
  • Yet other times, I may be feeling more relaxed and informal, and actually enjoy including the kids a bit.
  • On rare occasions, there will be a genuine crisis (e.g., injury with actual blood, diaper explosion) that means I need to request that we pause or reschedule the meeting while I deal with it. Unless you're actually in the room and know the child well, however, it's often difficult to tell the difference between a real crisis and a passing upset.

In every case, the last thing that I want is for a helpful person far away to assume they know what's best for me and my kids with respect to my professional life. If you focus attention on my kids in a way that rewards disruption, you may be undermining my parenting and making my work-life balance more difficult and stressful. If you want to act like nothing is happening when I've asked for tolerance as I'm dealing with a crisis, then that's a problem of another sort.

In short: don't assume you know what the parent wants or needs. Follow their lead, and be generous in your tolerance for interruptions and challenges.

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    This answer fails to recognize the level of stress that parents are under because of the situation. There's a clash between office norms and the forced work from home arrangement. It's kind to go out of your way to reassure them rather than just being an impassible spectator. – Sam Dec 27 '20 at 23:03
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    @Sam Personally, I do not find somebody "go out of your way" to be normalizing the burden, but instead putting a spotlight on the burden that makes me more aware and uncomfortable. That's why I emphasize listen to the parent above all else, because the situation is different for every working parent. – jakebeal Dec 28 '20 at 1:30
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    @Sam I agree with jake re: the overt acknowledgement "instead putting a spotlight on the burden that makes me more aware and uncomfortable." We have 3 young kids but fortunately don't have overlapping meetings so one of us is nearly always available to manage them. Still, I would prefer for everyone else on the call to just smile and nod, then move on. In fact, engaging the kid can have different effects depending on the kid. We have a really shy kid who wouldn't like it, and an extrovert who would take it as encouragement to find ways to interrupt again in hopes of interacting with everyone. – Solomon Rutzky Dec 28 '20 at 16:08
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I'd assume that having the child visible in the video / present in the room does not affect the work. If so, then:

  • If you're in the middle of a conversation and your colleague apologizes, don't stop or interrupt, just nod / say "absolutely fine" (or any variant thereof) and carry on with the normal flow.
  • If the other person is apologizing at the end of the call (or even before beginning), passing on a little compliment is always welcome. Just ensure you neither encourage the behavior nor condemn it, take it as any other random incident (ex: dropping the pencil) and try to pretend as if it never happened.
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    I agree that it should be treated as like "dropping a pencil". It is a home environment, not a newsroom broadcast. – Steve Dec 25 '20 at 15:33
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    "ensure you [don't] encourage the behavior." There's absolutely nothing wrong with saying a kind word like "I am glad we have the flexibility to work and take care or children". Or even "Don't apologize. I am not bothered at all". – Sam Dec 25 '20 at 23:01
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    I downvoted for suggesting stiff, un-realistic expectations during the biggest crisis of our generation. This is a time to be kind, not stone-faced. – Sam Dec 25 '20 at 23:06
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    The "don't encourage" part is the bit that I think transmits the wrong message. Yes, parents in such a situation need encouragement to get over the social pressure of showing an in unrealistic kind of "professionalism". Being actively kind and friendly would be a more helpful attitude. Also the "doesn't affect work". It does, but so what? Is she supposed to tell him off in that case? – Sam Dec 27 '20 at 8:36
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    @Sam Your suggestion is lying. The meeting is typically negatively affected by having the child interfere, but yes due to the current circumstances we all accept that as a matter of fact. That doesn't mean we should generally encourage it or want more of it. Sorry, most of us want to get done with work and then go on spend time with our own families/friends. That doesn't mean one needs to be unfriendly or an asshat, but you also don't need to project the idea that having the child in the meeting is no bother at all or even preferred. – Frank Hopkins Dec 27 '20 at 18:29
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I don’t have kids, but I have worked in both Germany and the United States. While the top answers are both right, there are some contextual considerations you might want to make.

  1. Relationship to the colleague - if you’re very friendly with each other, it might be weird not to acknowledge the kid, honestly. If you’re more like strangers, then a short acknowledgment (“don’t worry about it”) - as other answers state - is fine. That said, it can also be a good icebreaker to get closer to said colleague.

  2. Your personality - if you’re generally pretty friendly and complimentary, saying the kid is cute is probably not going to be construed as “inappropriate interest,” especially if you are a parent or expecting children. (Even if you’re normally quite reticent, it might be endearing to your colleagues if you’re suddenly super sweet when a child is in the picture.)

  3. The workplace culture. If you’re in a stuffy or highly competitive environment, then by all means be as professional as possible. But a LOT of places are trying to promote a “startup” culture with a “laidback” atmosphere. This is true in both Germany and the USA. If you’re at such a place, I don’t think it hurts to be friendly to your colleague about their child’s surprise cameo.

  4. The circumstance. This is probably an obvious one, but you’re not going to drop everything you’re doing in a presentation to acknowledge a surprise guest. But if your colleague brings in the child (“hey ___, want to say hi to my coworkers?”), you’ll think differently. For this consideration, I agree with jakebeal’s answer: match how the parent speaks about the child.

I’ve been based in the US since the pandemic started. So far I’ve been in a couple of meetings where one colleague or the other will have their toddler sitting with them, and you can hear a bunch of people saying hi to the child (before we carry on with the meeting or the child scurries off). While this could simply be a cultural thing, I think it’s more likely dependent on the group dynamic.

In short, these answers are right but you’ll have to decide for your own circumstances what makes the most sense.

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To add one thing to previous answers: You said sometimes the child "barges" into the room.

There's a well-known, pre-COVID video of an economist being interviewed in his home office. When his toddler daughter comes into the room behind him and he doesn't notice, the off-camera interviewer interrupts to tell him the girl is behind him.

I think that's wise. As a parent, your supervisor needs to know that the kid is -- unsupervised. When you say "Did you know your little boy is behind you?", be sure to sound helpful, or even amused, not annoyed.

(BTW: While the economist in the video tried his best to handle the little girl and continue talking, her baby brother followed her into the room. Then their mother leaned in and extracted them both. It's adorable.)

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    Hmm, I'm not so sure about this. I don't think there's enough information in the question to conclude that the child is in fact unsupervised - or more to the point, that the child is in a potentially dangerous situation. Without some additional reason to think the child needs a caregiver's attention, I think it could easily be out of place to react in this way. – David Z Dec 26 '20 at 7:52
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    Absolutely as David said. A child in their own house, with the parents around, is exactly where they should be. The intruders are work-related matters and they should be treated as such. It's inappropriate to use language like "unsupervised children" which carries with it the implication of neglect or breach of parental responsibilities. – Sam Dec 26 '20 at 11:03
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    Shawn, your comment (esp. "could have started pulling breakables") still seems to imply a sterile view of parenting. The moral of that famous video is about how unrealistic social expectations are making loving parents stress out over absolutely normal moments and not about risks. Children don't need 24/7 line-of-sight supervision. – Sam Dec 26 '20 at 21:42
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    I'd be worried this would make the parent feel immediately uncomfortable, as if you're objecting to the child's presence and are upset about the intrusion into your meeting. Asking "Did you know your little boy is behind you?" could prompt the thought "well, yeah, the kid lives here. Now they expect me to always keep my background free of family members too?" It surely makes sense to speak up if you see something actually dangerous happening, but that's not usually the case. An international TV broadcast is different than the many day-to-day meetings we have by video conference these days. – Zach Lipton Dec 27 '20 at 5:18
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    In other words, "do you know what's going on behind you?" is a warning. If mundane activities in the background of a video conference don't require a warning, and the comings and goings of family members and housemates usually do not, there's no need to give one. if the child actually becomes a part of the foreground/a participant in the meeting, that's the point where it's usually polite to say something nice. – Zach Lipton Dec 27 '20 at 5:23

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