Redefining Work-Life Flow for Parents
Flexibility is the key to supporting caregivers through the pandemic.
When COVID-19 hit, some called it a wave. Parents and caregivers called it a tsunami. In one day, those with kids at home piled on multiple hats and did it all via Meet, Hangouts, Zoom, Teams, and Google Classroom. And while some kids have returned to school and daycare, the pandemic continues to impact daily life. A cough or runny nose can lead to time out of class and long waits for COVID-19 tests, and online learning requires the daily attention of working parents. To keep businesses moving and people productive, the role of employers has never been more important – requiring understanding, flexibility, and an openness to changing the way we have traditionally defined the workday.
Unsurprisingly, work-life balance was a point of stress even before COVID-19 across a variety of industries, from manufacturing and retail to hospitality and traditional office environments. And it is not surprising. According to the Oxford Dictionary, balance can be defined as “a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions”. This suggests balance is a static state; in reality, it is dynamic, always changing and requiring adjustment. Perhaps it can best be compared to a person on the tight-rope riding a bike and juggling – balanced yes, but if one element of this precarious state shifts, there better be a safety net in place. This was the tension when things were “normal”, and we managed competing needs at work and at home. Now, for many of us, work is at home.
In a 2017 Stanford Rathbun lecture the venerable Ruth Bader Ginsberg stated: “Work-life balance was a term not yet coined in the years my children were young, but it is aptly descriptive of the time distribution I experienced. My success in law school, I have no doubt, was due in large measure to baby Jane, my daughter. I attended classes and studied diligently until 4:00 in the afternoon. The next hours were Jane’s time…After Jane’s bedtime, I returned to the law books with renewed will. Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion…”.
What Ginsberg is describing here is flow from one part of daily life to another. Meeting the needs of family and work with fluidity and with flexibility.
So how can managers help? Internal communications from senior leadership must Boost the idea of managing work-life flow by encouraging employees to set boundaries and build in flexibility within their day. Empower the team to protect and block their calendars – to hyper-prioritize time by scheduling self-care first, then family and work will fill in the rest. Remind them to always put their oxygen mask on first.
Create Flexible Solutions
Building on the idea of flow is extreme flexibility. Remote work is not conducive to a rigid schedule, particularly if kids are involved. At the height of lockdown, parents toggled between the needs of family and the needs of work. The intensity of those first weeks showed us that the traditional, focused 9-5 workday is no longer sustainable.
This makes calendar prioritization that much more important. Employers must give staff the ability to manage their own time within certain parameters. For example, at Proof Strategies we have a 7-7 rule (no emails between 7pm and 7am) for the entire workforce. This gives people the opportunity to step away and recharge in the evenings. However, for parents who follow their children’s schedules, after 8pm is often a perfect time to catch up and get work done. The good news is technology within office environments allows for delayed delivery of emails and access to servers remotely so productivity can remain high without disrupting the work-flow and downtime of other teammates.
A recent article published by Canadian HR Reporter reported that seven out of 10 employees would like to work from home at least part of the time once the pandemic is over. In response, many organizations are transitioning to “hybrid workplaces” – a new model that is a mix of office-based and remote work. This approach to office design provides employees flexibility by accommodating those who want a permanent workstation for daily use, and flex space for remote employees who need a spot to touch down on days they come into the office. This is not a one size fits all solution. Conducting an all-staff pulse check on current attitudes around work-from-home is not only essential from an expenditure perspective (commercial renovation can be costly), it also shows employees that their opinion is valued and will be considered before changes are made.
These scenarios are appropriate for the office environment, but what about essential frontline workers in health, manufacturing, hospitality, and retail? Shift workers face added stress, and for parents in this cohort managing work and home demands has been taxing. Some ways employers have been helping is through modified shifts, the ability to switch shifts with colleagues, and even childcare support.
The best approach to supporting parents is to communicate flexibility and co-create solutions that will fit with individual work-life flow without disrupting productivity, business goals and overall team needs. This will optimize outputs, increase goodwill and trust, and relieve stress.
One of the most effective ways to reach employees with this message is through managers and supervisors. This key group plays an important role in the internal communications process and are integral to co-creating those solutions – they need to be empowered by senior management to communicate the company’s commitment to employees.
Reevaluate and Redefine
Now is the perfect time for HR functions to evaluate what is working and what is not working. A good first step is to conduct an audit of internal communication channels to understand how leadership is connecting with all employees (not just parents), what can be done better, what is missing, and what can go. The reinvention of internal communications is essential for business recovery. It will take innovation and the ability to think through the role of traditional and digital engagement channels. From intranet sites to newsletters to senior leadership email correspondence and video town halls, some channels will be reinvigorated, and others will be retired.
At Proof Strategies we have created a forum for parents to interact, share information, advice, and some laughs. This approach has also worked for working groups and other teams/groups across the organizations. Our CEO conducts regular all-staff town halls, and we have even received some surprise- and-delight packages on our doorsteps to celebrate company milestones. These new channels to connect have had a ripple effect on the organization – bringing people together and fostering culture.
For parents and employees alike, the manager one-on-one will never be replaced. This interaction is the key to delivering updates and messages from the top down, building awareness and desire to change, and getting a read on current culture climates. Managers and supervisors are on the frontline. They have regular touch points to understand workloads and can use this time to also get a sense of mental health. This group must lead with empathy and provide a safe, trusted place for parents and caregivers to be honest about challenges they face. From here, senior leaders can acknowledge, guide and support solutions that managers bring to the table. This approach builds a culture of resilience that will carry a team through a pandemic and beyond.
Bring in the Experts
For business leaders and HR functions, bringing in the right experts to support employees is the right thing to do and results in a healthier workforce. A survey from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto has found that parents and women are among the Canadians struggling most with mental health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. It found that 30 per cent of parents with children under 18 felt depressed.
Consider re-evaluating benefits and EAP programs, offering access to resources, having mental health practitioners available or getting wellness experts conduct sessions. And do not make meetings all about work and to-do lists – ensure there is space for the entire team to lean into mental health and self-care. For parents, it goes back to managing time and being allowed the flexibility to set schedules.
Yes, Parents Actually Have Kids
Over the last several months we have been getting a glimpse into the personal lives of coworkers. From roommates and partners to pets and children, our backdrop is no longer homogeneous, and every circumstance is unique. For parents, participating in video calls with kids in the room or sleeping on laps is common and not by choice. One of the best moments for me was when a colleague told me seeing my daughter was the highlight of her day – this immediately put me at ease. Consider this the next time a parent looks stressed by the appearance of a child in the frame. The bottom line is parents are parents first, especially in a work from anywhere scenario.
As we head into the coming months, we can expect continued change in how we work, how we build culture and how we communicate with our remote teams. It is imperative that employers acknowledge the challenges parents face, co-create hybrid solutions and support work-life flow with flexibility and empathy. It is also key to take an equal opportunity approach to internal communications and consider the needs of the entire workforce. Now more than ever, successful organizations will be the ones that see opportunity in crisis, embrace change and implement an employee-first approach.