What do you do when you’re on a Zoom meeting and someone’s child suddenly pops up on the screen?
It’s bound to happen in this new reality, where parents are forced to run day cares and remote classrooms while keeping up with professional duties. And these aren’t the only employees with caregiving responsibilities; many are also caring for parents or spouses. This new normal is something we need to plan for if we’re going to support our teams so that they can work to their full potential despite the challenges facing us all. Your response to the hypothetical kindergartener’s intrusion would not only set the tone for your meeting, but also send a message to employees about the culture and expectations of your workplace.
My company, WorkReduce, consists entirely of remote workers, many of whom are parents. As the pandemic shut down day cares, schools, and community support networks, these parents had no choice but to integrate their family lives more fully into their business lives. These parents demonstrated amazing creativity and commitment in meeting their professional responsibilities under extraordinary circumstances, but it quickly became clear that they could benefit from extra support and understanding. We made accommodations accordingly, and we discovered that doing so did not only help our families, but it also made our company stronger and cultivated a better work environment for all.
COVID Could Drive Parents Out of the Workforce Unless Employers Act
Parents clearly want to take on the dual challenge. This was recently highlighted at a panel my company held in August, titled “WorkReduce Live: What Back to School Means for Working Parents.” During the panel, data from a survey of employees at a large consumer packaged goods (CPG) company was shared. According to that data, no one at the company had left the workforce due to COVID-19 over the summer.
“As we move further into the school year, the stress will really come out and there may be different decisions,” said the company’s manager of global employee wellness.
During the panel, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health professor and primary care doctor Benjamin D. Sommers noted that things have not gotten easier as the pandemic has worn on. “In fact, it’s gotten harder because of the cumulative toll,” he added.
For those without children — and I am on that list — it’s important to understand what parents are going through.
“What you have is parents trying to help their children thrive during an unprecedented chapter of their childhood that, fortunately, none of us have ever experienced before,” Sommers said. “It’s not just that there is child care that needs to be done. It’s even more intensive.”
The demands on working parents have been amplified as schools have reopened with varying levels of remote learning. Many students have been learning entirely at home, while others have been at school a few days a week. To make things more complicated, these plans may still abruptly change.
Employees Need Flexibility, Now More Than Ever
As much as possible, our workforce needs flexibility in terms of the hours they work and what work gets done.
“One of the biggest lessons we have tried to teach people is that there are important things and then there are urgent things, and they’re not the same,” said Zack Bernstein, a manager in the federal government, during the panel. “There are many things that are important to do, but if it takes another month to do, then that’s okay. But if there are things that have to get done now, we have to shift our resources to take care of those things.”
The CPG company referenced earlier developed guiding principles for its teams that include reframing conversations to ask when something can be done rather than mandating a deadline. The company also shortened meetings, ending at the 50-minute mark to give participants time to review what they will do next.
While we’re thinking through how we can restructure work for all, it’s important to create avenues for employees to speak up when they are struggling. This can be a big challenge in our society, which often regards asking for help to be a sign of weakness. Employees may suffer needlessly out of fear of jeopardizing their careers. Countering this concern starts at the top with assurances from managers that it’s okay to ask for help. Employees should know that their companies want to be part of the process of finding individual solutions.
Although much of what has been done to this point has been reactive, companies are now making longer-term plans as it becomes clear that the effects of the pandemic will extend for many more months. What we need to do is provide a level of certainty for employees on the job to help counter the ongoing uncertainty we’re all facing outside of our work lives. Being clear about the company’s expectations for how work will be done and evaluated is one key way to deliver that certainty.
In some cases, companies are deciding to extend work-from-home options for months, giving teams more time to settle into routines and set up new norms. Plans will undoubtedly have to evolve along with the situation on the ground, but everyone will benefit from a break from the constant upheaval.
Our goal in giving parents and other caregivers extra support through this extraordinarily stressful experience is not to reduce productivity, nor is this about shifting the workload from those who have children to those who don’t. This is about everyone working together for the benefit of all.
Overall, we are looking at layers of benefits. By being more open to other ways of doing things, we open the door to better opportunities for our employees and our organizations. When employees are supported in taking care of themselves, they can come to work happier, healthier, and with better insights and more energy. Providing support when employees need it also shows employees that they and their contributions are valued, which cultivates greater commitment and reduces unnecessary attrition.
Brian Dolan is CEO and founder of WorkReduce.