More than six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies have adapted to the disruptions by transitioning to a remote workforce, often to great success. A CNBC/Change Research survey found that while nearly one-fifth of respondents are working remotely for the first time, 60% of all workers reported being as productive or more productive at home.
For working parents, however, the virus has painted a murkier picture. A caretaking gap emerged in March as schools and child care centers paused in-person attendance, leaving most parents without a safe place for their children to go while they worked. Now, as schools across the country reopen, the situation shows few signs of improvement. Thirty-five of the 50 largest US school districts planned to start the year with virtual instruction. Even more concerning is a report from The New York Times that four out of five parents won’t be hiring in-person help to care for their children—a decision that has far-reaching ramifications for working parents’ productivity, engagement, and satisfaction.
“Parents who are balancing working from home with child care and helping their kids with remote school are feeling incredibly stressed,” says Dr. J. Stuart Ablon, associate professor, child and adolescent psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and author of Changeable: How Collaborative Problem Solving Changes Lives at Home, at School, and at Work.
“Stressed employees simply are not productive. The more stressed we are, the less ability we have to utilize the critical thinking skills we need most at work – skills related to collaborating and problem solving.”
Reducing that stress requires companies to work with parents to find solutions that will keep both morale and productivity levels up.
Data from the University of Oregon’s RAPID-EC survey of 1,000 parents found that 63% of parents reported they had lost emotional support during the pandemic. This loss of support looks different for every parent, and, as such, Dr. Ablon believes companies should allow potential solutions to be employee-driven.
“The most important strategy is to listen,” says Dr. Ablon. “Don’t assume what parents need. Ask them directly. Solicit their input in crafting the solutions. This will not only ensure that the solutions address parents’ real concerns, but that parents will be more invested in enacting the solutions as co-authors of them.”
Ablon, an expert in collaborative problem-solving, believes there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Companies must engage working parents in an effort to collaboratively solve the problems they face.
“Companies should make sure they are clear on [parents’] concerns rather than jumping to possible solutions. Focusing on concerns first will help companies to remain open-minded as to what flexible solutions might be possible,” he says.
Businesses also can draw inspiration from the steps other companies are taking to support working parents. Twitter and Square have made remote work a permanent option, while many others have committed to remote work through early 2021. Of the 256 employers surveyed by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, 53% of companies—including Target, Starbucks, and PwC—are providing additional emotional and mental health programs to their employees as a result of COVID-19. PepsiCo offered a free virtual summer camp that included cooking lessons, science experiments, and theater productions. Google increased its paid caregiving leave from six weeks to 14 in response to the pandemic.
Listen to your workforce and create solutions that fit your company’s size, budget constraints, and culture.
Redefine Productivity Expectations
Rohit Bhargava, Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Non-Obvious Guide to Virtual Meetings & Remote Work, says companies also need to rethink their definition of what it means for parents to be productive as they attempt to balance work, home, and school under a single roof.
“A big part of productivity comes down to finding the right rituals, and every parent of school-aged kids is going through an extreme disruption right now in what each day looks like,” he says. “This is clearly going to affect their work, whether they are coming into a workplace or doing their work virtually.”
While some parents have developed a solid routine and may even have access to child care resources, those same employees may no longer be able to work the same long hours they did prior to COVID-19. To accommodate them, Bhargava says companies need to focus on output, not time on the job.
“A full-time employee, for example, might deliver 30 excellent concentrated hours a week of productive work whereas one without kids might work 60 hours,” he says. “It is important to separate the question of productivity from the volume of work.”
Address the Productivity Gap
Most likely, working parents without additional caregiving resources won’t be able to replicate their output prior to the pandemic. Working mothers are being disproportionately affected. In April, female participation in the labor force dipped below 55% for the first time since February 1986. Dr. Ablon believes companies, especially those with limited resources and smaller staffs, must work with their employees to address any shortfalls that have arisen.
“In most high performing teams, workloads shift continually according to who can handle it best at that time,” Dr. Ablon says. “The best teams operate from the understanding that team members help each other and that everyone will need help at some point. Parents need and deserve it now.”
Involve the entire team—not just parents—in an open discussion about the best, fairest ways to divide and conquer a team’s workload. Identify key activities and functions that must be done and allow each team member to assume duties that best fit their current situation. If your company doesn’t currently utilize RACI (a matrix that outlines who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed for each process and project in your company), consider instituting it now. This will help every team member understand their defined objectives and responsibilities.
When there are roles and responsibilities still unmet, Bhargava believes it's often a better strategy to employ freelance or on-demand talent to augment the team instead of simply giving that work to the team members without kids.
“This isn't a fair burden for them to bear either, and it’s sure to create discord within a team if there is a perception that those without kids need to deliver extra to cover for those who do have kids,” he says.
Meeting disruptions have become normal in our remote work world. A barking dog or a screaming child are no longer punitive offenses now that they are potential landmines for everyone. Allowing grace for interruptions, however, is only one small step to align your company’s meeting culture with employees’ current needs.
Bhargava, adjunct professor of public speaking and pitching at Georgetown University, says one simple, no-cost adjustment is to rethink the timing and necessity for standing meetings. Does your team have a meeting at the same time every week? Start by asking if that time still works for everyone. Virtual school requires assistance from parents at different points throughout the day, and a previously agreed-upon time may no longer be ideal.
“Small changes like this can have a big impact in helping your employees find their new balance between work, parenting, and real life,” Bhargava says.
Another simple step is to make off-camera attendance acceptable in your company’s meeting culture.
“One of the most underused skills is learning to go on and off camera as simply as most of us go on and off mute during a phone conference,” Bhargava says. “Just because you start a meeting on camera doesn't mean you need to be on camera every second of the call.”
This allows parents of younger kids to address any urgent caregiving needs without disrupting the meeting.
Foster a Flexible Culture
Today’s pandemic-world workday isn’t linear, and allowing employees to operate outside of normal business hours can ensure they have the time they need to finish their work. Cloud-based productivity and workflow-management tools, such as Asana and Trello, can keep teams in lockstep with regard to workload, project management, and assignments, while allowing employees to manage their own work schedules.
For parents who need to scale back their work commitment for the time being, Bhargava says companies should consider job-sharing opportunities or reduced schedules for employees who are willing to accept decreased compensation for reduced responsibilities and work hours. Shortened workweeks, which allow employees to work a full 40-hour week in fewer days, can also help parents have the additional caretaking time now required.
Both experts agree it’s vital to clearly communicate your company’s leave policy and address any gaps that don’t support the current needs of parents. Make sure policies allow caregivers to utilize PTO, sick leave, and/or vacation time when child care shortages arise. Some companies, such as Bank of America, offer employees free access to websites that help secure backup child care when primary care falls through.
Dr. Ablon says anything companies can do to help their employees feel supported and less stressed will only come back to help the company as a whole be more effective.
“People remember how companies manage times like this,” he says. “Being there for your employees will be remembered and rewarded in loyalty and commitment down the road. Feeling emotionally connected to your managers and colleagues is one of the best predictors of internal motivation at work. Companies are only as good as the people who work in them, and the people are only able to be effective when they feel supported.”