As the U.S. free-falls back into an uncontained outbreak of COVID-19, school districts across the country have announced they won't be fully reopening. It's become a major political battle, it's left parents struggling to figure out what to do, and it's a problem for employers, too.
Lots of employees have kids at home. About 40% of families include children under 18, and in 64% of them both parents work. Almost three-fourths of mothers of with kids under 18 work, and 93% of fathers do.
During the spring, many bosses tried to give those parents as much flexibility as possible, hoping that the children would be out of school for only two weeks … or eight. Now, the school-less future seems indefinite, and a more sustainable plan is needed.
After all, the status quo isn't working — for anyone. Many working parents are barely holding it together, while childless colleagues are burning out from picking up the slack. Recessionary pressures have managers wondering how much longer they can pay full-time salaries to part-time employees.
Bosses can't leave it to parents and schools to figure this out on their own. Managers should start having conversations with working parents about their plans for the fall, says Avni Patel Thompson, a founder of Modern Village, a parenting startup, and an expert on work-family issues. Have their schools announced reopening plans? What will their schedules be like? What can be done to prepare for the possibility of another shutdown in the third or fourth quarter? "A lot of people have been giving parents space, but now is the time to turn that into plans," she says.
Ask parents to be radically transparent; it's better to check in too frequently than not enough. If they're running behind on a deadline, they should say so. If they can put in only two or three hours a day — a number I've been hearing from a lot of parents — they should be upfront about that. Don't underestimate how hard this will be for people to admit; it's nerve-wracking to tell your boss you're not fully available, and even scarier when unemployment is over 10%. Emphasize that what you care about is predictability: It's better to know someone can be counted on for 25% than to wonder whether it will be 10% or 90%.
Ask all your employees to put their availability on their calendars to make it easier to schedule meetings and phone calls. And pare back any standing meetings to an absolute minimum. Be rigorous about using meetings for group discussions and decisions; save information-sharing for email. This will let people whose time is limited get the most important work done.
Managers should try not to worry about the hours employees are working, and instead focus on outcomes and goals. As long as the work gets done, don't waste energy keeping track of how people are doing it. And definitely don't be like the boss of the California woman who was allegedly fired after her kids were noisy on Zoom calls. That's a path to a lawsuit.
If the work itself is suffering, restructure the team's assignments. This goes deeper than asking childless employees to work nights and weekends. Reassign time-sensitive projects to people who can put in more predictable hours, Thompson suggests. Give longer-term projects to those with less certain schedules.
And of course, any recession is a good time to finally drive a stake through the heart of the zombie projects that, during easier times, keep stumbling forward. The same goes for busywork; take this opportunity to clean out organizational clutter. If you need suggestions, ask your staff. They've probably got a long list!
At the corporate level, executives should consider what kind of leave they can offer working parents, whether it's paid or unpaid. "The sad, sad reality is that there is a good percentage of working parents who aren't going to be able to do it all," says Thompson. Companies might be better served letting those employees off the hook for three to six months. For some families, the ability for a parent to take a few months off, even without pay, would be a godsend. Indeed, I've heard from parents who are secretly relieved to have been furloughed.
Reassure leave-taking parents that they'll be able to come back. "Because a lot of people are worried there won't be a back to come back to, they are hanging on," explains Thompson. Leave-taking carries a stigma, so do what you can to diminish it. And whatever form your leave program takes, please: Keep these employees on company health insurance.
Of course, not every working parent is living through hell right now. Some have either the means to hire nannies, a co-parent who shares the load, or kids who are exceptionally independent. But that's just another reason for employers to start this conversation — and to turn that talk into a plan.
Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron's, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.