As we begin to reintegrate and settle into a new working normal, one big group is still dealing with a lot of instability and insecurity in their day-to-day routines.
It’s working parents.
Working parents have always managed a delicate balancing act between their career and personal responsibilities. Now, with many schools and childcare centers closed across the country, families are facing new challenges and increased stress when it comes to taking care of their families and getting their jobs done.
Conditions indicate that we’ll be dealing with different work schedules, more remote work, school closures and more for quite some time. With so much uncertainty whirling around us, how should you, as a manager, give support and guidance to the working parents who are important members of your team?
1. Give Your People Autonomy.
People naturally want to be autonomous and manage their life and responsibilities well. Not many people show up to work, whether remote or in-person, actively seeking to do a bad job. Instead, if they’re not meeting expectations, they’re probably feeling underinformed, unmotivated, distrusted or disengaged.
Mitigating these feelings comes back, at least partially, to you.
Communication is always so important in leadership; during times like these it’s absolutely crucial.
Make sure you are communicating thoroughly, curating information, and setting clear expectations. The more information you’re able to provide – both about their current situation and about your take on it – the more you’ll be able to show true leadership and give them autonomy to manage their responsibilities, instead of feeling uncomfortable or inadequate.
2. Don’t Make Assumptions; Ask Questions.
While you know your employees well, you probably don’t know everything about how their life has changed. Don’t assume that they have resources at their disposal for childcare support, etc. However, you also shouldn’t go the opposite way and assume that they can’t take on more or don’t want to be challenged.
One thing that’s been surprising to our team has been how much care children of all ages require in order to make it through this time.
Of course, infants and toddlers will take every moment of available time; however, even middle schoolers and high schoolers need more support than they might during their usual routine. They may need motivation or guidance to complete schoolwork; they need support processing difficult emotions; and they’re also feeling heightened stress over isolation from friends during this important period of social development.
As the leader, it’s your job to get a view into what your employees need; don’t assume employees with high school children are able to work 8 to 5 at the desk just because their kids are older. Also, don’t assume your employees with young children aren’t willing to take on more; they may have a partner or an extended family member willing to provide at home support to help them shine.
Either way, these employees may struggle with verbalizing what they have, need and want because many workplaces attach a negative stigma to children’s needs.
The parents on your team may feel afraid that if they ask for more time for a project they’ll sound needy or like they’re slacking off. Or, they may be nervous to ask for more responsibility if they don’t know how their situation may change in the future.
Either way, you’ll only know what they need if you sit down, virtually, and ask questions in a supportive and non-judgmental manner.
They’ll take cues from you, so watch the language you use and the way you phrase your questions.
3. Be Proactive When It Comes to Communication.
Let’s face it – right now, you’re carrying a large burden as a leader. You’re dealing with uncertainty and learning to manage in a new way, and you may also have your own children at home, just as your employees do.
It may seem like a lot more work to communicate thoroughly and proactively with your employees, but you must do it.
You’ve probably heard me say before – and you’ll continue to hear this from me – that change and communication must go hand-in-hand. You can’t let one get ahead of the other – talking a lot without creating change breeds discontent. Changing a lot without communication creates doubt and disengagement.
Right now, we’re in the midst of a great deal of change. What does that mean?
Your communications must keep pace. That doesn’t necessarily mean talking a lot or having daily decompression chats on Zoom.
Instead, figure out ways to communicate clearly, concisely and directly.
If it helps you to write everything out in an email, do that, then follow up during weekly 1:1 sessions with team members. Or, go the other way around and talk it out, then email a follow up/recap.
You can use these communications to outline expectations, highlight adjustments the team is making, or ask questions/gather feedback.
4. Give Work Hours Guidance and Determine Where You’ll Be Flexible.
This issue is a simple one, but one that many people, particularly parents, struggle with as they’re adapting to WFHWK (work from home with kids).
Work hours don’t have to be an “that’s how we’ve always done it” proposition, but they also don’t have to be a free-for-all. For many companies, setting schedules with slight variations can work. For example, your team members may typically be at their desks from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with lunch and a couple of breaks scheduled in there.
Do you expect them to stick to that same schedule at home? Consider what’s actually required for their jobs.
- Could they work six hours during the normal work time frame, then handle a couple of hours after bedtime?
- Could they work three days during the week, then put in other hours on the weekend when their partner is home?
- Could they split workdays with a partner, so they get half a day’s work in during the day, then handle other hours as they’re available?
Being fair doesn’t always mean being equal, so you shouldn’t feel like every team member’s schedule has to be exactly the same. Instead, look for ways to make things work. If you need all hands on deck for a weekly phone call, make that clear, but then give flexibility where people need it and where you’ve developed trust in their abilities.
Some workplaces are seeing great success switching to results-based models instead of work hour models.
The team leader and employee work out a list of responsibilities that need to be managed during the week, then the employee provides a weekly update. If you have a mature team that you trust with this level of autonomy, you may be pleasantly surprised at the results.
One note on this: I don’t recommend a day-based results model. Giving a daily update doesn’t allow for continuity in projects, can eat up time on micro-level reporting and can feel like micromanaging instead of autonomy.
5. Make it Clear that You Don’t Expect Explanations.
You’ve probably had that employee on your team – the one who is a superstar but who stresses too much about minor things. One of our team members remembers feeling this way as a young employee. She’d work 5-10 hours of overtime a week, then get worked up into anxiety when she needed to ask to leave 15 minutes early for an oil change. She was a model employee, but she felt like every request, no matter how infrequent, was a negative strike against her work ethic.
Your working parents on your team feel like this all the time. Don’t believe it? Someone actually wrote into the New York Times recently asking if they could keep the birth of their child a secret because they didn’t want it to negatively impact their job.
The working parents on your team hate asking for extra time, space, allowances and support. They especially hate asking if it has to do with their kids, because so many workplace cultures expect parents to work like they don’t have kids or consider their needs in conjunction with their careers.
You can make this culture shift in two ways.
First, don’t ask your people to always explain why they are away, AND BE EXPLICIT ABOUT THAT.
Tell them that you trust them, that you know they’re handling their responsibilities and that you want them to feel valued and supported. And tell them clearly, “When you need time away, just tell me you need time away. We don’t need to go further than that.”
Trust that whatever is taking them away is important for them to manage the other aspects of their life, especially now that all aspects of life – from school to work to play – are all taking place in the same location.
The second thing you need to do is model this behavior. You don’t have to keep your activities a secret. Instead, tell them, “I’m going to be away for an hour this afternoon because my daughter has a math test that I need to oversee,” or “I’m going to have to run by my sick mother’s house today to take her groceries.”
Give them more information than you expect them to give you, so you can model that personal responsibilities are an important part of this strange time we’re currently living in.
6. Outline The Specific Rules You Want Followed.
Flexibility is important during this time, but there are also areas where sticking to the rules is still important.
One of those might be work attire.
Zoom went from being an occasional way to connect to being a communications lifeline for most businesses. Because we’re all connecting on Zoom so often, maintaining a dress code can be very important.
If you expect them to get up and be dressed in work-appropriate attire each day, let them know. If you are fine with them being comfortable but expect them to be properly groomed for any client-facing calls, make that known as well.
You may need to be willing to give a little grace – after all, they are working from home and serving as art teachers, PE coaches and cafeteria workers all day. However, if your expectations are consistently being unmet, have a follow up conversation to reiterate your standards.
You can also provide some coaching and guidance on positioning for a Zoom call, which can help them feel more confident and comfortable being in front of the camera.
7. Set Regular Check In Times.
At the office, so many check-ins happen casually.
You stop by each other’s desks/offices. You go to an impromptu team lunch. You’re able to observe your team members and inquire about their wellbeing in addition to having a handle on their work.
When everyone is working remotely, it can be harder to gauge how they’re really feeling and managing. Make an intention to communicate more frequently than you are accustomed to connecting.
A weekly check in call can be valuable, for example. Mondays are especially good, since you can get the week started on the right foot and allow some time over the weekend for them to get caught up, organized and refreshed.
8. Communicate the Expectation of Self-Care.
Your employees are – for the most part – doing their best for you, their kids and their families, often to the detriment of their own well-being.
Encourage them to make self-care a priority, and give them permission to get it done, particularly when it comes to exercise and nutrition.
They shouldn’t be bolting down granola bars at their desk while they try to prove their ultimate dedication. Encourage them to take time for a healthy meal and a mental break.
The same goes for fitness. Encourage your team members to take time for a walk, a workout video – whatever works for them. It’s a win-win because exercise can actually increase productivity and improve cognitive skills.
Global companies like Google are recognizing the importance of self-care time in the new work routine, declaring company-wide days off to stem burnout. During trying times, you need your employees at the peak of their creativity, innovativeness and flexibility; self-care helps facilitate that level of function.
9. Don’t Make Decisions in a Vacuum.
So, you’ve planned out a schedule for your team where everyone works on a rotating shift.
You’ve set weekly calls on Monday at 9:30 a.m.
You’ve booked 30-minute exercise breaks in the afternoon.
Sounds great, right? There’s just one problem.
If you never asked your working parent employees before making these decisions, you may find that Caitlin can’t get on the Monday call because her daughter’s seventh grade class does a regular Zoom call at the same time and she has to facilitate. And Tom may struggle with a 30-minute exercise break because it takes nearly that long just to coax his two preschoolers to put on their shoes and get outside with him.
Your planning may be thoughtful and purposeful but if you do it in a vacuum, without input from your employees, it won’t lead to team growth and success. Instead, you’ll see further disengagement and disenchantment from team members as they struggle with telling you that your plans don’t fit their needs.
What’s the solution?
Ask your employees what they need and listen openly and diligently. Get them together on a Zoom call to collect their input.
Ask them what they need, where they need flexibility and where they might appreciate more structure. They can help create the guidelines that work for them, and if they’ve had the chance to give input, they’ll give buy-in.
Long-term, getting their buy-in means they’ll be invested in the new plan and they’ll support it when other team members question it or when new employees are onboarded.
The working parents on your team are valuable; make sure you’re showing it by honoring their lifestyles and their commitment to work. Above all, as we move forward, being flexible and agile is not just nice; it’s mandatory. Make it clear to your team members, working parents or not, that this new work/life situation is a moving target and ask for their collaboration in being honest, open, reflective and flexible.
As we continue developing this new work culture, it’s important for us to consider the various situations our employees have to contend with to get back to work and to acclimate with confidence, peace of mind and a sense of safety for their jobs and situations – at work and home. Finding ways to support and lead the working parents on your team will yield dividends through their loyalty, commitment and support of your ongoing team efforts.