Larry English is president at Centric Consulting and the author of Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture With Virtual Teams.
The school situation this fall is anything but normal. Parents are anxious, many facing months of full-time or partial at-home learning. How will they juggle remote work with their children’s need for help with their virtual schooling? Will they have to choose between their jobs and their kids?
The answer needs to be "no," and it’s on employers’ shoulders to make sure parents can continue to succeed at work and at home during these chaotic times. By providing support to employees, companies also win in the long-term with better retention of top talent and a more positive, productive culture.
This is an issue that affects the millions of parents who make up about one-third of the U.S. workforce, half of whom are currently without childcare. And it hits the more than 25 million working mothers especially hard, as they are more likely than dads to leave the workforce when childcare needs can’t be met.
In other words, this is nothing short of an HR crisis in the making. Yet research from the Society for Human Resource Management shows that most companies are severely lacking a plan to support working parents.
Those plans must include granting employees greater autonomy and flexibility. My company has been operating under an "office-optional" model for 20 years, and I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of taking this approach. Our anecdotal evidence is backed up: Typically, remote workers are more productive when they’re untethered from the office, research shows, even putting in more hours on average than traditional workers.
That said, if companies truly want to support parents struggling with unusual school schedules, it’s not enough to simply continue work-from-home arrangements. In the past two decades, we’ve learned many lessons about how a company can support remote workers. Below, we share our top tips:
Have a "life comes first" attitude. The lines between work and life are blurred for us all, whether we work in an office or out of our living room. When email, chats and texts can follow us home, it’s no longer easy to find work-life balance.
Balance, however, is needed more than ever. Employers must encourage employees to disengage from work and allow parents the breathing room and flexibility they need to prioritize both family and their jobs.
If your company has traditionally been a butts-in-seats, 8-to-5 kind of place, loosening the reins might feel uncomfortable at first. But you’ll be rewarded tenfold for taking this step: Employees will be happier, more dedicated to the company and produce better work.
Because life includes self-care, too, make sure to also encourage workers to take time to attend to their own mental and physical well-being. You could even reward employees with self-care opportunities for a job well done, such as an extra day off or a surprise gift certificate for a massage, a trip to the spa or a yoga class.
Let go of traditional schedule expectations. Managers and leaders should be open to flexible work hours wherever possible. Of course, employees need to attend meetings and be responsive to clients or customers. But outside of that, as long as employees block off time as needed in a well-structured calendar and keep their team informed about their schedule, there’s no need for a traditional work schedule. It’s all about the results delivered, not schedules or face time.
It’s also important to explicitly communicate this flexibility to employees — tell them it’s expected they might not work nonstop from morning to evening, and that it’s OK to not return a call or email immediately. Employees may need to block off days with no meetings, for example, or set aside some time during the day dedicated to childcare. The goal is to prevent employees from feeling guilty for attending to other areas of their life in the middle of the day.
Empower employees to share their stories. Employers need to create an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing what’s going on in their personal lives. Managers, too, need to be open to hearing about challenges and helping employees navigate them.
Facilitate this by creating parental support groups where employees can lean on each other, trade stories, lessons learned and more. Laugh at the stories that emerge, helping employees bond and find humor in the everyday.
Encouraging employees to connect with one another and open up about their experiences also helps establish trust, which is paramount to any positive employer-employee relationship. Research shows that companies with high-trust cultures typically have lower turnover rates and greater engagement and innovation, among other benefits. High-trust cultures also lead to more productive, less stressed and more satisfied employees.
Get casual, get comfortable. Kids, pets and other household members will drop into video calls. Meetings will get canceled or cut short for family reasons, and interruptions happen. These are all realities of remote work, especially when kids are home all day.
Accept these realities and learn to go with the flow — no one should feel embarrassed when their home life suddenly bleeds into the workday. Get comfortable with the less-than-ideal, sometimes outright funny things that happen when people are working from home while also supervising their kids’ virtual schooling.
Ask employees how you can better support them. In addition to taking all of the steps outlined above, it’s a good idea to outright ask employees how you can support them during this crazy time; don’t just guess. What do they require to succeed at work and at home? How can you help?
Also, regularly check in with them to see how they’re coping and to catch any brewing problems early on. If an employee is feeling overwhelmed, for instance, you can encourage them to take a day off or help them figure out if there’s anything on their to-do list that can be dropped or pushed to a later date.
As you’re navigating these challenging times, remember that we’re all in this together. Everyone is struggling. If your company can grant employees extra flexibility and trust and help them build a stronger community, the result will be a stronger culture and happier, more loyal employees — a true silver lining in the storm.