When schools across America sent kids home, and offices shuttered in March, many believed they’d be back to business as usual in just two weeks. Months later, it’s clear that the coronavirus is here to stay.
With the safety of back-to-school in question, it’s time for employers to consider how they’re going to support working parents through 2020 and beyond.
Roughly 66% of employees are now working from home, either temporarily or permanently. Under normal circumstances, remote work would have been a long-awaited dream-come-true for many employees. But for the 41 million workers who must now juggle the same workload while also caring for children at home, the complexities continue to grow.
And now that summer is almost over, parents are facing yet another challenge: send the kids back to school or opt for distance learning? And, more importantly, how will that choice affect a parent’s ability to continue working?
Choosing to send their kids to school or maintain distance learning is one of the biggest challenges parents face today, if they’re given the option at all. On one hand, sending kids to school could increase their risk of exposure to the virus, and put teachers and other family members at risk. However, not doing so could result in students falling behind their peers, further widening the already vast achievement gap. Or, as in South Carolina’s case, students may lose touch with school altogether.
One study found that a third of parents in Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio are choosing virtual learning, with other states experiencing similar trends. The idea of closed playgrounds, kindergartners in face masks, and the potential for sudden closures paints a dark picture. Data surrounding increasing COVID-19 numbers only adds fuel to the fear that we may not be ready to return to “normal” any time soon, if ever.
Arguably, parents who have no choice but to work are feeling the most conflicted. A need for income and a lack of flexibility in their work schedule leads to overwhelming guilt and low morale when they feel they aren’t making the best decisions in their children’s interests.
Being in the “people” business, HR departments have a unique opportunity to strengthen the workplace culture during COVID-19, particularly for parents struggling to maintain a healthy work/life balance. And, truthfully, they should be willing to take up the cause.
Parents who are pulling dual roles at home and work are doing so out of necessity. They fear putting their kids in harm’s way, but they also dread repercussions from their employer if they aren’t at their desk from 9 to 5. And without proper childcare, some parents may need to make the difficult decision of leaving the workforce altogether. This puts the organization in a bind of trying to hire and train someone while temporarily shifting the workload to other employees.
The result is a dangerous mixture of mounting stress, low morale, resentment, and decreased productivity—none of which are beneficial to the company or its employees.
Instead, employers should be putting policies in place now to help mitigate the stress of balancing childcare issues with work, and HR has an important role to play. Here’s how HR can support parents during COVID-19 to help them maintain a healthy work/life balance:
Understand why employees may choose to keep their kids home even if they have the option to send them to school in person. Some parents may have immunocompromised children, a vulnerable person in the household, or a moral objection to putting teachers and school staff at risk.
Now more than ever, parents need to know they are more to your organization than just a means to an end. Show them you hear their struggles and are willing to accommodate them.
Flexible work at home can take many forms—working earlier or later hours or working a compressed schedule, for example. Using a set number of hours for a workweek is an antiquated way of measuring productivity. This method doesn’t take into account the actual work being performed during those hours. It can also discourage workers from using their time more efficiently. And in some cases, it may even reward those who are perceived to be harder workers just because they spend more time at work.
Better ways to measure productivity are data-driven. Setting key performance indicators (KPIs) and objectives and key results (OKRs) provides greater insight into what employees are spending time on and the outcomes of those activities.
Companies can also apply agile methodology metrics to measure velocity and output more accurately than the number of hours worked.
Regardless of how you approach productivity, it’s essential to communicate specifically what employees are being measured on. This way, they can focus on those goals without being distracted by the number of hours worked.
As long as employees can attend specific meetings, the rest of their schedule shouldn’t matter. Allow them to work at times when it makes sense for them. Their productivity will indicate whether they’re getting the job done.
HR managers and employers should stay educated on what is happening in schools locally so they can better support their employees. “An employer who is keyed in to the current state of education during COVID-19 will be better able to make decisions that support employees and contribute to more seamless business operations,” states Dr. Tyler Arvig, PsyD, LP, Associate Medical Director of R3 Continuum. If employers aren’t aware of local updates, employees are placed under higher stress and disrupted operations.
Two-way communication is critical to the success of remote work. Needs change, and HR leaders should be proactive in reaching out to offer support for remote employees. Don’t wait for a working parent to raise their hand—their hands are likely full and already doing the best they can.
Instead, HR leaders can conduct regular check-ins (more often than before) to see how parents are faring. Support moms and dads by asking how they need help and offering realistic solutions. Show that you understand the boundaries of work and home life are blurred and try to remove the pressure they may be feeling to continue working at the same capacity they’re used to in the office.
Many employees may find it beneficial to join a special Slack channel just for parents so they can share tips and foster a sense of community. As a parent, staying connected to the outside world (and other adults) can have a huge impact on productivity, focus, and sense of belonging.
With the uncertainty of back-to-school processes, it is likely that children will be home for extended periods. Keeping children engaged and busy for long periods of time may prove to be quite difficult. Charlotte Adams, Founder of MBS with Calie, suggests, “Try to keep meetings at 30 minutes or less and go straight to the point. This will give parents the opportunity to balance meetings and attend to their children’s needs.”
Furthermore, recording all of your meetings helps keep parents in the loop, even if they weren’t able to join the live meeting. “Parents need to manage and combine their professional and private schedules at the same time, and often have to deal with unforeseen events. The need to be present for synchronous (live) communication is a thing of the past,” adds Raphael Allstadt, Founder of tl;dv, a software that enables meeting organizers to record and annotate real-time all meetings from Zoom and Google Meets.
Support during these times of uncertainty isn’t one-size-fits-all. Many HR departments are used to diving into problem-solving mode and finding solutions that benefit the masses. But these are unique times, and not all parents will benefit from a cookie-cutter support system.
Some parents may need assistance with acquiring learning supplies and tools for their children. As Laura Handrick, a contributing HR Professional for Choosing Therapy emphasizes, “Employers are now left with tons of in office ‘stuff’ — from laptops to headsets. These items can be repurposed as learning tools for employees with kids who need laptops and headsets for school work.” HR can get creative in offering up these items to support families. “I work with one firm that offered up all of their office assets to remaining employees to use at home, laptops, chairs, standing desks, headsets, etc.”, Handrick adds.
The best approach is to invite employees to voice their concerns and co-create solutions that work for their situation.
Amidst the pandemic, parents are worrying about nearly everything, particularly how to support their families. Karl Armstrong, Founder of Epic Win Applications notes, “One actionable tip that employers can do to support parents in the workplace is through establishing an educational assistance program.” These assistance programs benefit employees by helping them with the burden of employee’s educational expenses, potential tuition reductions, and scholarship grants for their children. Employers can consider extending help through loan assistance.
Many organizations are setting strong examples of what it means to support working parents. For example, L.A.-based Kaiser Permanente was offering its employees $300 per week to help pay for childcare, which could take the form of a childcare center or a friend or family member. Cedars-Sinai Hospital was offering a similar benefit to frontline employees who came in direct contact with patients.
Mental health is equally as important for employees and their children, so non-profit organizations like Parents Anonymous are offering a Parent and Youth Helpline which provides immediate emotional support from trained helpline advocates. “Since March, schools and daycares have been closed and children have been socially distancing and banned from extracurricular activities,” states Lisa Pion-Berlin, President and CEO of Parents Anonymous. “This disconnect from peers will certainly have an impact on a child psyche.”
Pacific Workers, a law firm in Northern California, offered to pay for online tutoring for its employees’ children in an effort to prevent learning loss during the pandemic.
Companies like ZenDesk, Square, and Facebook are already known for their generous paid parental leave policies, and the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown an even greater need for other businesses to follow suit.
Many businesses aim to give employees more time to wind down and focus on personal matters. Nabila Salem, President of Revolent Group, says, “We have various initiatives in place such as ‘Wellbeing Wednesday’ where employees are actively encouraged to power off an hour early and spend time doing something for them each week.”
Brett Downes, Founder of Haro Helpers states, “We are offering a new scheme called ‘Save Our Spawn’ (SOS) where once a month, a parent can call the office if/when they need that day off, as a mini emergency — paid.”
In April, it was estimated that 6% of parents would quit their jobs as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, that number is projected to reach 27%.
Companies should recognize that offering parents HR support during COVID-19 isn’t a perk for the parent but rather a necessity for both parties. Acting sooner rather than later can help mitigate job loss and the detrimental effects that poor work/life balance can place on your organization as a whole.
For more HR insights, head back to the GoCo blog.