For remote employees with children, work-from-home arrangements can be challenging.
Sure, WFH creates more family time thanks to no one having to commute. But when kids are also at home all day — perhaps they’re too young for school, or their classes have gone fully remote — parents must renegotiate their work life-home life boundaries.
That’s easier said than done, especially with younger children who might not recognize that dad is working when he’s on the phone, or that mom is working when she’s at her laptop with headphones on.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the best employers have recognized this challenge because many of the companies’ managers and executives have found themselves in the same boat. In response, those companies have created policies to support employees who are working with kids at home.
Here are five things those companies are doing to give people the space they need to be productive employees and good parents.
1. They Give Employees Flexibility in Their Schedules
In July 2020, editors at the Harvard Business Review published several leaders from readers on their experiences of working from home with children. One reader, “a single mom by choice with a toddler,” noted how she had to be explicit with her colleagues regarding availability.
“I cannot ever join a call during dinner or bedtime,” she wrote. “And, I can’t always dial in to an unplanned call outside of my normal hours either. It’s OK to set boundaries.”
The onus, however, should not be on remote employees to set these boundaries. That’s the job of responsive management, and it’s something top employers have done for working parents.
That work starts by employers talking to their staff, listening, and learning what those team members need, says Karsten Vagner, VP of people at family healthcare company Maven Clinic. “Maintaining those lifelines and relationships with your employees is more critical now than ever.”
Those lifelines and those conversations help employers understand where and how their staff need flexibility in their schedules.
And that flexibility includes the right to sign off at the end of the day, no strings attached. Don’t make employees feel they need to check their email before going to bed, or that they need to be ready to take a phone call during dinner.
“Working from home makes it tough for many to really ‘clock out’ at the end of the day,” Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza writes at InHerSight. “Make it clear to your employees that working from home doesn’t mean working at all hours.”
Though for many remote employees, scheduling work into odd hours is a benefit. They may want to have a short lunch with their kids, or pick them up from school, or help them log on to Zoom during the day. The flexibility to work in the evening or early in the morning is a positive.
2. They Give Employees Tools to Work Within Those Schedules
Having the freedom from a rigid schedule is one thing, but that right must be supported by a to get work done at whatever time is convenient for that person.
Julia Beck, a longtime advocate of working parents, writes in HBR about the remote-work policies adopted by management at Education Week, a publication that covers K–12 education in the U.S.
Beck notes how, in addition to fostering a “culture of flexibility and support,” management at Education Week made the following accommodations during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- They gave employees tools that allowed them to collaborate asynchronously in documents and that allowed them to share schedules so everyone could identify deadlines.
- They got everyone on Slack to streamline near-real-time communications.
- They asked employees what other tools they would need to create a comfortable, productive office at home, and gave employees a stipend to buy those things.
That last point is an important one because that was a policy that flowed from a dialogue between management and employees.
Kenji Kuramoto, founder and CEO of online bookkeeping service Acuity, noted how his company’s leadership team anticipated those discussions early in the pandemic and tried to proactively address remote employees’ concerns.
“We have been talking internally from a leadership perspective about, we should probably prepare for team members to be a bit more distracted because it is much more likely that the kids are going to be home and they’re going to be working there at home,” he told The Ladders for a July 2020 piece. “So what does that mean for us? What things can we provide? We have started having those discussions about, how do we find ways to support the parents?”
3. They Make the Virtual Workplace a Kid-Friendly Zone
There’s no need to put a firewall between work life and home life, however.
Top employers realize this, and they don’t create an expectation among employees that the virtual workplace is off limits to kids. Instead, they make it an inviting, family-friendly place.
“We have lots of kids attending meetings and listening in,” Samir Bodas, cofounder and CEO of cloud contract management company Icertis, tells Inc. “We had a meeting where a man had his 3-year-old daughter in his lap, and halfway through the meeting she fell asleep. It was a very touching moment.”
During the summer months of 2020, when school was finished for most kids in the U.S., several companies put together virtual summer camps to entertain and teach the children of employees.
Twitter did this. Its Camp Twitter program hosted all kinds of instructional streaming activities for kids. It also hosted parent-focused webinars in which attendees could hear from psychologists and other health professionals.
“We recognize the added pressure and responsibility parents have taken on at home during this unprecedented time,” Twitter VP of Real Estate and Workplace and Remote Experience Tracy Hawkins says. “With many schools and summer camps being closed due to the pandemic, we wanted to step in and provide a fun, educational, and meaningful alternative that is accessible to all of our parents around the world.”
Ultimate Software in Florida put on a summer camp, too, that included arts and crafts activities, talent shows, and outdoor adventures.
“While your organization may not have the resources to provide these kinds of comprehensive offers, anything you can do to welcome children and families into your culture will reap significant rewards,” Ultimate Software’s Karina Schultheis writes.
“Not only can these initiatives improve productivity by keeping children occupied, they also reassure parents that you understand the enormity of the pressure they’re under and that you fully support them as people, parents, and employees.”
4. They Update Their PTO and Childcare Support Policies
When parents need a little extra flexibility in their weeks, an unclear or vague paid-time-off policy can have a chilling effect. Parents might choose to play it safe and not take the time they need to care for a child, which only complicates and adds stress to their work lives.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, several employers recognized this and revisited their PTO rules.
At Zillow, for example, management introduced a policy in which employees were given 10 fully paid days of leave for caregiving purposes, Jennifer Liu at CNBC reported in August 2020. Employees also received 15 days of backup care, or daycare access provided by the company in case a child’s regular daycare facility had to close.
“I felt seen by my company as a working mom,” one Zillow employee told Liu. “ … I haven’t felt like I’ve had to choose between my job and my family, and not everyone has that choice.”
Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank extended a similar policy to its remote employees, the Chicago Tribune’s Robert Channick reports. That policy included 30 days of subsidized child care, either at home or at a dedicated childcare center.
“Your well-being and that of your family is my primary concern,” Fifth Third Chairman, President, and CEO Greg D. Carmichael told bank employees in March 2020. “Our leadership team has updated our policies and procedures to ensure our employees and their families are cared for.
“Fifth Third has created additional benefits to cover its employees in this time of need and its employees will continue to be paid if they become sick, are taking care of a family member who is ill, or are navigating daycare or school closures.”
5. They Leave the Door Open at the Physical Office
Finally, top employers understand that many people look forward to being able to return to the office.
The post-pandemic office will likely be a place where serendipitous conversations, idea sharing, and friendly chats thrive in a way that doesn’t happen in a virtual office. A lot of people miss participating in that kind of face-to-face culture building.
Lynda Gratton, a professor of management practice at London Business School, tells the story of one Chinese travel company that let its call center employees work from home for nine months.
This was in 2010 and 2011, a decade before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was a case study that Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom researched.
Citing Bloom’s research, Gratton reports that after nine months of WFH, half of the team wanted to return to the physical office. “They missed the social interaction,” she writes. “Executives need to be a great deal more thoughtful about what it is that face-to-face interaction brings to their organizations and seek to maximize these benefits.”
For many companies, a return to the office might not yet be in the cards. When that time does arrive, it will be useful to compare the benefits and challenges of both modes of work, for remote employees and on-site.
Think about what helps people feel productive in both scenarios. Then create policies and set aside funds to create that support infrastructure. For HR leaders, this will end up being one of the most important lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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