To a young child at home in these COVID-19 social-distance days, that’s a sound they might shout as they skate a toy truck across the living room floor.
To a parent now working at home, it likely means yet one more online conference call.
It can be a real challenge for a working parent to juggle both zooms in one room.
Even as some Chicago area law offices and the clients they advise look to reopen offices, others are eying work from home as a long-term or even permanent arrangement. With a camp-less summer and an uncertain fall, working parents, including those in the legal profession, face many more months juggling full-time childcare and full-time work.
Between Zoom calls and zooming toys, these working parents are doubling as teachers, homemakers and child wranglers — managing e-learning, mealtime and activities alongside professional responsibilities. Single parents may have no backup as at-risk grandparents may continue to isolate and hiring in-home help is costly and COVID-risky. Under any scenario, parents working through this pandemic have greater caregiving responsibilities, fewer resources, and far more stress than ever before.
It is critical that employers recognize these challenges and take steps to ease the burden. Parents make up a significant portion of the workforce in most industries. Companies cannot proceed with business as usual. They need to take a fresh look at what it means to work from home.
Supporting working parents now will pay dividends down the line, too. When the pandemic has passed, employees will remember the support they received — or did not receive. Companies today have an opportunity to build loyalty and increase productivity now and in whatever the future brings.
1. Establish COVID-specific policies
Companies should look anew at their work from home policies. Many now require full availability during working hours. Others may require employees maintain a quiet and professional environment for calls or prohibit childcare during working hours. Employers should consider greater flexibility for optional or mandated work from home.
Allow at-home staff to self-determine eight hours of work over a 12-hour period and consider having employees identify times they are most available for calls and online meetings. Although nights and weekends may be set aside for family time under normal circumstances, some employees may prefer these less distracted by child care and e-learning support. Employers may also encourage employees to respond to non-urgent emails by acknowledging receipt with a timeframe for answering. By explicitly acknowledging children’s schedules and the competing demands on employees’ time, companies allow parents to shift more effectively between working and parenting.
Companies should also review their paid time off policies and consider a more flexible approach that takes home-work into account. Where an employee with primary caretaker responsibilities might ordinarily be expected to take PTO instead of trying to manage work and childcare simultaneously, easing requirements and permitting parents to wear multiple hats may be in everyone’s best interests. Companies also might consider allowing half-day PTO for parents whose childcare responsibilities are simply too significant to juggle with work. Companies can add flexibility and ease stress by establishing a clear set of expectations.
2. Start a dialogue
Employers should also actively foster open dialogue about new challenges for workers and companies. Balancing work productivity with childcare, e-learning and other household responsibilities is a Herculean task that employers should acknowledge and openly address. Employers can also ease the stigma associated with juggling family obligations and engage parents in an interactive dialogue about meeting goals and ways the company can support them. Employers should consider various platforms to allow working parents to connect, submit requests and offer feedback to management.
3. Check in
One of the working parents’ most frequent requests is for employers to simply acknowledge the challenges and recognize how hard they are working to balance work and childcare obligations. Simply checking in can make an enormous difference in helping parents feel appreciated and supported. Supervisors should make it a practice to ask about an employees’ children and ask how they and the family are managing. This may be particularly important in offices where only a handful of parents have young kids, as those parents may feel more overwhelmed and distracted compared to co-workers. Pay particular attention to those employees to make sure they are coping and don’t feel judged for juggling competing priorities.
4. Lead by example
Company culture starts at the top. Managers who acknowledge their own struggles with work, child care and the rest, without trivializing their employees’ needs, can help normalize issues and create a safe space to talk. When the boss talks about nap schedules and the difficulty of taking calls with children screaming in the background, employees feel more comfortable doing so, too. Parenting while working becomes a relatable challenge and not a source of guilt.
5. Encourage collegiality and community
Colleagues can also provide practical and emotional support to one another. Consider scheduling evening or weekend happy hours via Zoom. Seeing one another, even virtually, fosters a sense of community and gives people an opportunity to share experiences and commiserate. Hearing from others may make parents feel less isolated and less alone in their struggles to balance. Employees without children can be more empathetic when they hear colleagues talk candidly about challenges and when seeing parents interact patiently with their kids during conference calls.
Companies should also consider creating a specific virtual space for co-workers to share their experiences and tips for helping kids learn, play and thrive. Simply thinking of ways to keep cooped-up kids engaged and educated is work in and of itself and resources to make that easier can help ease the burden.
Smart policies, dialogue, checking in, leading by example and encouraging a strong community — all things successful employers do routinely in the workplace. It’s time to try them in the remote workspace and provide much needed support to our parenting colleagues.