Fall has brought a new productivity challenge for working parents and the leaders who manage them—how to get work done from home, while also trying to supervise online schooling for one or more children.
Here’s the truth that no one wants to address: It’s almost impossible to consistently do both in a reasonable work day.
Many of my clients have always had an unrealistic amount of work to get done. In fact, most professionals I speak with say they have too much to do and not enough time to do it.
And they said this back when their kids were being occupied by school or daycare.
Now, with many schools and daycare centers closed, my clients say they’re spending the bulk of their days wrangling their children, while perhaps squeezing in a few emails and a meeting or two. And then burning the midnight oil to get their most important work done.
This is a reasonable strategy for a few days, maybe even a week or two. But longer than that depletes both physical and emotional resources. It’s one major reason why burnout is rampant. And burned-out parents can’t offer their best to their families or their employers.
The reason for our collective avoidance might be that it doesn’t appear to have a solution. There seems to be a pervasive assumption that “work still has to get done while children are at home, so we all just have to deal with it.” This may be true, but there are ways to make it easier.
To help working parents cope, fellow Forbes writer John Hall provided some great tips in his article How To Manage Working From Home While Being A Parent. I have also offered suggestions in 3 Steps to Managing Work Stress.
But in addition to providing ideas for parents, I’d like to share 5 strategies for leaders to implement in organizations. By shifting the organizational culture, leaders can amplify individual employees’ efforts and improve parents’ professional success.
Implementing these five suggestions will help leaders face this challenge head on and create a culture at their organization that supports all employees during this unusual time. If you’re not a leader, you can be an influencer by suggesting one or more of these ideas to your boss.
Get the Leadership Team on the Same Page
If your leadership team is made up of more than one person, it’s critical to have a frank discussion with managers around expectations of their team. You need to identify everyone’s honest feelings about the fact that many employees will not be able to put in the same number of hours as before the pandemic. It’s also important to recognize that when they try, it’s likely to end badly for both the employee and the organization. The research is clear: long work hours backfire for people and for companies.
The research is also suggesting that this pandemic is taking a greater toll on women, and if your organization is one of the many that are focusing on diversity, this will be important to keep in mind. More comprehensive support for families can alleviate some of this burden.
If there were ever a time for compassionate leadership, that time is now. While it can feel like a choice between compassion (allowing employees to put in fewer hours) and economics (the business that needs to get done to keep the company afloat), the truth is that it’s not zero-sum.
Consider that it’s not the hours team members put in that matter, it’s the results they achieve. And for knowledge workers especially, results improve when stress and anxiety go down.
Once you accept this critical fact, ask yourself these key questions:
- How will you evaluate employees in these unique circumstances?
- How will your operations need to change to account for this basic truth?
- Can you provide training on workflow management skills to help bridge the gap between fewer hours and better results?
Effective leaders will acknowledge that it is possible to achieve a successful balance during this time and create a plan to achieve it, rather than carrying on as if nothing is different.
Recognize That Everyone’s Situation is Different
I often see sweeping generalizations in the media about the impact this pandemic is having on people. While it’s true that many people are struggling and that shouldn’t be underestimated, some businesses are thriving, and some professionals have more time than ever before.
That’s why it’s important that employees be treated fairly, but fairly doesn’t necessarily mean “the same.” Speak to employees individually, ask them what they need, and take their situation on a case-by-case basis (or have an outside party or service do this anonymously).
There will be a vast mix of employee challenges and accommodation options to support them. Partner with employees to understand their unique circumstances and find solutions. Don’t assume solutions will be impossible or too expensive. Leadership should research and evaluate options, and base decisions on evidence. There may be no more important role of a leader right now, since the success of the organization depends on the success of the employees.
An unfortunate truth is that many leaders still evaluate performance by attempting to measure how many hours someone is actually working, and the more the better. It’s time to intentionally abandon this outdated metric. Managers should agree on weekly objectives with team members so the emphasis is on the outcomes rather than the number of hours spent working.
Remote workers are going to be working odd hours, and leaders won’t have much influence over this. However, keep these flexible schedules from turning into an “always on” environment with simple solutions like globally turning team app notifications to “do not disturb” on evenings and weekends, and teaching your staff how to use the “delay send” feature of their email programs. Knowledge workers do their best work when they have appropriate leisure time. One reason is because different experiences create new neural pathways that spark creativity. Also, downtime restores motivation and energy, and improves physical and emotional well-being.
Get Creative with Benefits
A temporary investment in extra benefits can pay exponential returns. Consider group resources like virtual tutors who can keep kids engaged while parents are working, or on-site childcare if it’s in line with your local safety guidelines. Also consider making sure that employees have access to the training, tools and software they need to keep their work and personal lives well organized.
Invite team members to offer suggestions about what they need to help them get through their current circumstances. Back to my point about fairness above, recognize that employees without children may be putting in long hours too, but on-site childcare won’t help them. Distribute resources differently depending on needs.
Get Advice from HR Professionals
Now is the time to look to human resources staff or consultants whose training has prepared them for situations like this. They can be useful intermediaries to learn about the needs of the team members, keep the organization on the right side of the law, and promote the organization as a “great place to work.”
Some employees may find it difficult to be candid with their boss regarding their challenges, and HR experts provide the buffer to encourage honesty.
Melissa Bixby of Red Shoe Consulting notes that some employees may be in crisis. She advises ensuring that employees are aware of various leave policies available to them and how to access that information. She also suggests encouraging your team to take advantage of EAP (Employee Assistance Program) resources for mental health and other support.
If you don’t have an EAP, an HR consultant can help you find employee support resources that are a good fit for your organization’s size and budget. Some vendors you already engage, such as payroll companies, may have add-on EAP resources that you’re not accessing.
Pretending that working parents can successfully juggle the same amount of work while working from home and supervising their children’s remote schooling will put your organization at a disadvantage. Use the ideas above to face these challenges head-on, craft solutions with intention, and protect your organization’s culture and reputation.
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