2020 just keeps packing punches. First came winter, with whisperings of the mysterious COVID-19. Then a jam-packed, heartbreaking spring. A stressful summer. And now we’re heading towards autumn. The season that’s typically marked with back-to-school shopping and excitement now brings yet another hurdle to overcome. Back-to-school discussions have prompted tough decisions for families, as they learn the complicated arrangements that have been decided for them by the local school district.
Right now, the moms and dads within your organization need empathy and patience as they navigate this next phase of work-life integration. Though it’s never been easy to juggle the responsibilities of parenting and work, the pandemic has exponentially increased the challenges.
Here are a few useful and meaningful ways to support your parents during this pivotal month as home lives shift… yet again:
First: change your vocabulary.
Let’s clear up a common misconception and overused phrase: ‘work-life balance’ is a myth. And a big one. Gone are the days of either/or, if they ever existed. Now, nearly all parents must embrace full-on integration of their home and family lives, as work often bleeds into evenings and weekends, and parents are responsible for their children’s 24/7 care, education, recreation and meals – often with limited or no support. We must remove the idea that these “work” and “the rest of life” are completely separate and independently manageable, and that they exist on predictable schedules. As any parent will tell you, work and life have always had a more fluid relationship — the pandemic has only highlighted this misnomer. Instead, it’s much more effective to set a goal for work-life integration, giving general parameters and blocking out time for priority activities for each, but recognizing that often, schedules will have to shift. Sometimes, a meeting with a client may interfere with the weekly family game night. Other times, a Zoom meet-and-greet with your kid’s teacher is non-negotiable.
But words matter. So though it may not seem like a big move, companies can start to recognize this ongoing challenge for parents merely by calling a spade a spade. Let’s stop talking about work-life balance, and start talking about work-life integration.
Check-in with parents to understand their plan.
As schools across the country open, in various configurations, parents will be determining their level of risk tolerance. Some may choose not to send their children back to the classroom for fear of infection and exposure, and instead, seek to hire a former teacher to instruct, or even take on the role themselves. Others will have kids who return to revised schedules, and many will be searching for resources and structure to help their children navigate a blended approach. If you’re a manager, before making any assumptions about the parents on your team, you should check in with each of them to better understand the challenges your staff is facing. Take note of each person’s individual situation, so you can brainstorm and prep for ways them to remain productive at work while still being present for their children.
Ask parents to weigh in on meeting times.
Though everyone has struggled in some way during the pandemic, regardless if they have a child or not, August is the month when parents will be hit particularly hard.
That’s why for the next few weeks, at a minimum, it’s crucial to understand when working parents will be performing at their best. Perhaps the early morning is a better time for meetings than mid-afternoon, depending on their family’s schedule. Or maybe they can work around preschoolers’ afternoon nap times or be available during times when a spouse can be “on call” for child needs. Make the time to personally connect with the parents on your team to gauge their availability, and make a plan to help them communicate it to the rest of the team.
During this discussion, ask parents which recurring meetings require their presence and which ones can move forward without them. As families get into new rhythms, parents can rejoin these sessions. But for now, they may appreciate the flexibility to opt out when needed. Keep the lines of communication open. Try to check in often – every week or so – to see if any priorities have shifted or if anyone on your team has new challenges, since things are likely to shift and will need to be reassessed.
Encourage parents to take paid time off.
During this time of heightened anxiety and stress, parents will be distracted. Not only are they trying to manage work-life integration to their best ability, but they are also providing emotional support to their children. It’s vital that they feel empowered—and encouraged!—to take paid time off to focus on their families. The leadership team should send a company-wide email, so that employees understand that time off is a priority that is taken seriously at the very top. Managers, too, need to model their commitment to time off, by using their vacation time and taking real, scheduled time away from work to recharge, so that employees feel comfortable doing the same.
Review your work-life integration benefits.
This year, organizations that can afford it are adding and expanding their benefits to support families. Benefits may include extended paternal leave, additional optional or mandatory time off, and coverage for dependents on insurance policies. But some organizations are going above and beyond to remain an employer of choice. Additional perks may include:
- An education stipend for those parents looking to hire additional teaching support at home.
- A childcare stipend.
- A technology stipend to set up home offices.
- Access to pre-screened child and elder-care providers.
- Emergency and backup child-care provider finder services.
Build parent communities within the organization.
If parent networks are not in place already, now is a good time to initiate them, so parents can find a way to connect with one another. If these networks already exist, now is a good time to remind employees to take advantage of them. Leverage company resources such as collaboration tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams, and post resources on company-wide platforms and intranets. Be sure to check in occasionally with these groups, to see what they need from management for support.
Send a back-to-school kit for parents.
For those families with children going back to school in person, managers can spread a bit of cheer by sending care packages to parents. These can include a few backpack essentials for their children and some kind gestures toward parents, such as a gift card for a local coffee shop or meal delivery service, self-care skincare masks, sweet treats, and so on. It’s a perfect—and simple—way to express support. Plus, it’s a fun surprise and a break from the monotony to receive a special package in the mail.
And of course, be sure to send a care package to the non-parents on your team as well. The more personalized these can be, the better they will be received. So think about what each person on your team might need right now, and gift accordingly.
In our current environment, work-life integration continues to be a challenge for all of us. Regardless of whether we are caring for our family members, pets, or our own personal mental health, we can all use a little support with maintaining balance and perspective. As fall approaches, think about the extra stressors each member of your team is facing, and stay connected to them to find out how you can help them manage their responsibilities, focus on priorities, and even thrive in our strange new world.