Working from home with kids isn’t best practice, but during a prolonged crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, many of your parent employees may find this incredibly demanding scenario unavoidable.
Parents who work remotely while schools and daycares are closed must essentially take on an extra full-time job as teacher-caretaker.
While many of these parents can split caretaking responsibilities with partners who are also working from home, some may be the only person available to watch their school-aged children.
Under these dynamics, the boundaries and support systems that normally enable a person to be both a productive worker and a loving parent – all in a single day – are gone. The demands from their jobs and children are completely intermingled, competing round-the-clock for the working parent’s attention.
Business leaders must grapple with the realities of this situation and answer tough questions like:
- How can you support your employees working from home with kids while also helping them remain productive?
- What expectations are fair – to your employees and to your company?
- How can you ensure productive workers who also happen to be parents aren’t penalized?
There are no easy solutions – but here are five ways you can help employees who may be working from home alongside their kids.
1. Offer emotional support
If you were to poll parents working from home with their kids on what they wished they could hear from their managers, a top answer would likely be:
“We’re going to get through this.”
Offering empathy and reassuring the parents on your team that you’re committed to working together to make their responsibilities doable lifts a huge weight off their shoulders.
This is especially true when it’s you, the manager, who takes the initiative in conveying this message (rather than providing that support in response to struggling employees who reach out in distress).
When you communicate that you believe your employees can balance everything that’s on their plate, it reinforces their belief in themselves. Verbalizing your understanding gives them much-needed peace of mind and empowers them to find the strength they need to rise to an extreme occasion.
2. Focus on results over routines
To be successful, employees working from home while parenting also need your flexibility. Yes, giving them more leeway to tend to their families during the day will force you to sacrifice some control over when and how they do their work.
But knowing that you are flexible gives your employees permission to do whatever it takes to fulfill all their competing roles and responsibilities within the most logical timeframe.
This may look like an employee sending you an email at 2 a.m. while feeding an infant or taking an afternoon break to do schoolwork with one child while a younger sibling naps.
And that’s OK.
Giving schedule flexibility means weighing your employees’ ability to meet business needs over their ability to work continuously from 9 to 5 (or whenever you would normally expect them to be in the office).
Can you loosen up schedules and still answer “yes” to these questions?
- Are your employees producing quality work?
- Are they taking care of clients appropriately?
- Are they getting the job done?
If so, you can be successful in offering flexibility while still holding your employees accountable to their work.
3. Reset communication expectations
Another key piece of accountability when managing parents working at home with kids is setting clear expectations for how communication should happen between you and your remote team.
You should absolutely expect frequent, open communication. Let your employees know they’re in charge of regularly sharing what their telecommuting situation looks like and what they might need from you to make things more manageable.
Establish some core hours when you can count on your remote employees to be available for meetings and quick e-mail responses. Even your busiest work-from-home parents should be able to carve out a couple of guaranteed hours of availability each day.
In a sense, you’re continuing to hold the same performance expectations you would under normal circumstances unless your employees express a need for an accommodation.
Furthermore, telecommuting with children, partners and pets at home makes it impossible to hide the conflicts of interest inherent in being a working parent or simply a person with any loyalties outside of work. Allow your conversations and interactions with your team to honestly create space for those realities.
- If a child appears in a Zoom call unexpectedly, say, “Hello” and then give your employee a moment to redirect the child or be excused from the call if needed.
- If you’re on the phone with an employee and need to send a quick email response to a client, narrate what you’re doing.
- If you’re walking your dog when an employee calls, casually mention what you’re doing rather than trying to hide it.
This kind of transparency can go a long way in encouraging open communication among decentralized team members.
4. Reevaluate your HR policies
In a time where many or all your employees may be working outside the office, you may need to reevaluate some of your HR policies, such as your:
- Remote work policy
- Attendance policy
- Sick or PTO policy
- Communication policy
You can make company-wide changes or changes all the way down to the department or team level.
Perhaps a short-term policy change is all you need to get through a temporary remote working arrangement smoothly. If so, be sure to use the word “temporary” and announce the changes by e-mail or in some other informal way.
But it may also be a good opportunity to evaluate antiquated policies that you would like to permanently change. Any standing changes should be made within your employee handbook.
5. Keep camaraderie alive
A final way to support employees who are working from home with their kids is to provide opportunities for them to connect with your team virtually with no formal agenda. Social check-ins can improve morale and encourage your team to maintain good rapport while working apart.
For example, you could host a Zoom coffee break monthly or even more regularly if it seems appropriate. Keep these short (i.e., no longer than 30 minutes) so they’re easier to schedule and commit to.
For an unscheduled option, consider starting a Slack Channel or email thread about a fun topic, or even start a game. The only rule is that it can’t be work-related.
For parents whose work breaks consist largely of taking care of children, pausing for some social interaction with coworkers may be especially missed during an extended season of telecommuting.
One day at a time
Leading remote teams has always been challenging work for managers. Leading one alongside an upended childcare system is even harder.
Take on the unique demands of the situation one day, one employee at a time. Commit to supporting them in every way possible. And remember: you’re going to get through this.
For more tips on leading your employees through a transition, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to managing change.