If you haven’t already asked these questions, it’s past time to.
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Covid-19 has changed the rules for working parents and made it much more difficult to perform professional and family roles without being overwhelmed. For example, in January 2021 alone, nearly 300,000 women left the workforce. Clearly, leaders need to step up and help. To do that, they absolutely have to know what working parents are experiencing and really need, and my experience has shown that a few points stand out.
1. What kind of flexibility makes sense?
Some parents find that their kids come in like a storm after school. Are employees going to need to do calls or meetings before then? Specifically, what time does class end? Is there a nanny, and can the nanny handle the kids so the employee can work? Do any of the kids need naps? What time is bedtime? Are there other people like elderly relatives that need care, too?
The answers to all of these questions can be dramatically different from employee to employee. But in this brave new world we’re in, home and work are more integrated than ever. So rather than focusing on the rhythm of your business, you have to focus on the rhythm of both the business and your employees.
So don’t try to come up with some kind of broad, blanket solution, because there just isn’t one. Instead, dig in and find out what the schedule and resource box is like for every worker. Once you have a sense of the parents’ days, you can try to put together some kind of individualized, flexible accommodations so they can be productive.
Getting information about your employees’ home situations and calendars admittedly can be sensitive, and you still must respect privacy. But the more open you are in your communication, and the more the working parents know that you empathetically care about them as people, the more they’ll see that you’re looking out for their best interests. Ultimately, that goes a long way to building trust that will last long after the pandemic is over.
2. What kind of technology are they dealing with?
Some workers have all kinds of devices at home with amazing internet speeds, and they might not need to be online when their kids do. Other workers might have to share devices or not really have the bandwidth to support everyone being on Zoom at the same time. And some network setups or pieces of hardware can be more complex to secure than others. It can all influence how and when you choose to handle communications with each working parent to a huge degree.
You have to understand the benefits and limitations of the tools the employees have in front of them. You might take a look at that and decide it’s best for everyone if you pay to get everybody on the same equipment. But not every company can afford that, especially now.
So, just try to emphasize security and your end goals, and if you have to, adjust your expectations so that they actually are realistic based on what the employees have. What really matters is that the employees are putting in their best effort with their individual setups. Ask each parent what they prefer, and if they are able to find good alternatives that you can monitor and support pretty easily, then let them.
3. Are workers able to get on video?
This ties back to the first two points. On my team, people have been pretty good about showing up digitally looking like they would if they physically came to the office. But some working parents might be so overwhelmed that it’s hard for them to get in front of the camera in their usual business attire. They might be worried about whether items or kids in the room are going to distract others during the video call. They might be concerned that they could give a bad impression if they look too exhausted. And some workers just don’t like being on camera because they’re more self-conscious.
So, encourage face-to-face. But if parents aren’t able to have their camera on the whole time, or if they need to schedule the video at a certain time, then be compassionate. See how you can help them connect in other ways, or see if there are other resources you can offer that could make it easier for them to stay visible.
Companies and working parents are in a territory they’ve never been in before. But if you encourage workers and are accommodating, and if you establish clear norms where everyone knows what everyone needs and stands together, productivity and morale both can stay high. Start by figuring out the flexibility, technology and video-availability areas, and then build more rapport with your working parents by diving into other specific needs.