It’s 8am on a Tuesday. I stand at my kitchen counter responding to yesterday’s messages that I didn’t get to, packing lunches, and chugging coffee. My husband has already left to take my youngest to preschool. At 8:40, I shut my laptop, grab my Air Pods, throw on my shoes and rush out the door to walk my oldest to kindergarten. We say our goodbyes just in time for my 9am and I start the walk home. “Sorry for the background noise”, I say as I jump on a Teams call (camera off). A phrase I must have repeated thousands of times since March 2020. The caravan of other working parents buzzes by me to drop off their kids in time for their 9ams.
I get home and my house is quiet for the first time in 18 months. I, like most, have been working remotely. Prior to September 2021, my two kids, 2.5 and 5 years old, were at home too, making noise and having unlimited access to me, while I tried to “show up” for work as my most professional self. Some days I am more successful than others. Some days, I can give my undivided attention, my hair is done, and I’m not in sweats. Other days, not so much. Already today, I’ve responded “tentative” to several meeting invites during drop off and pick up time—usually with the caveat of, “I can join, but I have to drop at 3:50”, because I wouldn’t dare miss the sight of my son excitedly running towards me after a full day of school. He’s already endured enough of my distracted parenting while I tried to work. But I want to work. I need to work. For myself and for the passion and energy I get from what I do. Even during a normal week, it feels like an impossible balance of prioritization and then re-prioritization, distractions, vulnerability, and difficult choices. But in weeks that involve covid exposure scares or quarantining, there can be insurmountable pressure and anxiety to “show up” for work.
But I’m one of the lucky ones. I work for an organization that doesn’t put me in a position to choose or add to my stress. When a child pops into a Teams call or I have to go on mute to prepare a snack, I am not met with judgment. I am met with smiles, a friendly hello, and warm questions about how my children are doing. If I need to cancel a meeting because someone is home sick, I get responses of encouragement and empathy from my teams. My coworkers and leaders are unaffected by my chaos. And their response is genuine.
My pandemic parenting story is not unique. In fact, a study by Pew Research Center found that 50% of working parents say they felt like they could not give 100% at work during the pandemic.1 So, how can organizations create a culture of support for working parents as they continue to navigate the covid world of work? Real culture change requires consistent, thoughtful, and intentional effort. Here are four ways organizations can create and sustain a culture that supports the pandemic parent.
- Communicate. Communicating openly, honestly, and frequently about the organization’s support for boundaries, flexibilities, and understanding, is the first step to cultural change. These messages should be communicated broadly and at all levels of the organization, from top leaders, to managers, and employees. It is critical to outwardly acknowledge the challenging and unique situation of a pandemic parent—especially if children are in the home while an employee is working. Childcare is ever present in a parent’s life. Ignoring the impact of children on a parent’s work-life or expecting a clear delineation between the two worlds during this time is not realistic. This is a critical part of demonstrating empathy and understanding for these employees and communicating cultural support at an organizational level.
- Reiterate. In addition to offering consistent messages of support, take it one step further by operationalizing those messages into ways employees can exercise flexibility. This can be accomplished through encouraging flexible schedules and setting realistic expectations. For example, encourage employees to set boundaries by blocking their calendars and giving them the option to be “offline” during periods of time in the morning or afternoon when things might be particularly busy at home.
- Model. Here is where organizations “walk the walk”. Respect established boundaries by not scheduling meetings during blocked times and show outward support for those boundaries to the employee both in front of others and during one-on-one conversations. Interruptions, cancellations, and re-prioritization is inevitable and recurrent. But how leaders and colleagues react to those interruptions is a great way to show support for employees already feeling stressed and insecure about their ability to “show up” at work. When interruptions happen, laughing it off, or offering a friendly “hello” is a great way to show support in the moment. Or you can suggest ending the conversation and continuing it at a later time or follow up in an email instead. Understand that oftentimes parents are catching up early in the morning or later in the evening when things in the house are calm.
- Repeat. Every parent faces the challenge of scheduling and limited availability. This challenge has only been amplified during the pandemic, the prevalence of working remotely, and limited childcare options. Much of this struggle is attributable to employees not feeling like they can give their undivided time and attention for eight consistent hours a day, leading to insecurity or feeling like they aren’t contributing as much as others. Sometimes these feelings are self-imposed, but parents can also feel pressured by unrealistic expectations, or cultural norms that lead to unspoken rules. Allow and actively encourage flexibility where practical and actively work to dismantle cultural norms—spoken and unspoken—that do not align with the values you’re communicating.
The pandemic has impacted everyone in different ways, and it has gone on for longer than anyone expected. Creating and sustaining a culture that acknowledges the long-term impact of pandemic parenting will help working parents feel valued, supported, and ultimately increase their retention. A supportive culture does not eliminate the challenges and choices parents face, but it can make what seems like an impossible balance, possible.
Marni Falcone is a Managing Consultant and an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. Marni leads many of FMP’s competency development and implementation projects, is a Project Management Professional (PMP), and the President-Elect of the Personnel Testing Council of Metropolitan Washington (PTCMW). She lives in Alexandria with her husband and two young boys.