Working Parents Deserve Their Managers' Empathy

August 18, 2020 John Rossheim

5-minute read

child drawing while mother works

With millions of children heading back to school in August and September, corporate managers are contemplating yet another COVID-19 challenge: how to manage the schedules of working parents on their staff through another fraught transition.

“In spring everybody was told to go home,” says management consultant Roberta Matuson, author of “Evergreen Talent.” “For the fall, it’s a lot more stressful not knowing” which workers should come into the office, and which of their children will start school online or in person.

Given countless newly jobless Americans, some employers might not be worrying about keeping the employees who are lucky enough to still have jobs. That’s a mistake, Matuson says. “You’d best be concerned about retention. I know at least five people who have recently been poached, and people with several offers in hand.” To keep key workers and bolster morale, wise employers will demonstrate empathy in making work arrangements for autumn and beyond.

How can managers decide who works in the office, who works at home, and when? Let’s discuss three steps you can take to optimize both worker satisfaction and business results in the ever-shifting conditions of the pandemic.

Step 1: Recognize parents' steep and varied work and family challenges.

This year, working parents – always among the most overburdened among us – have faced a challenge like no other.

Since the pandemic hit, working mother Erika Grotto has managed her job with meticulous short-term planning. “My husband and I have carefully scheduled our workdays around each other’s work,” while caring for children ages 6, 4, and 2 at home, says Grotto, content manager with the Healthcare Financial Management Association. “We’re taking it day-by-day, scheduling every minute.”

They expect to continue that strategy into the new school and preschool year. “Our school board voted for full virtual education for an indeterminate period at the start,” Grotto says. “We haven’t really talked about what we want to do if there’s part-time in-school for phase two.” 

It's not just the school day that will challenge working parents this fall. “Even if parents have kids actually in schools, there are still before- and after-school times to cover,” says Yvette Lee, an HR knowledge adviser for SHRM. “Some employers modify work schedules” to accommodate these families.

Empathetic managers are acknowledging the achievement of working parents in navigating this tumultuous spring and summer. “The fact that parents have made things work as well as they have is kind of miraculous,” says Scott Behson, a professor of management at Fairleigh Dickinson University and author of “The Working Dad’s Survival Guide.”

Step 2: Get input from employees about their work-family situations.

Managers who strive to serve their employees will be long remembered for their generosity. “My immediate boss has been incredibly supportive,” says Grotto. “He said, ‘Let me know what you need, and we’ll figure it out.’ My colleagues are all getting things done at different times of day.”

Lee advises managers to tell all employees, “If you have scheduling concerns, let’s have a conversation.” Keep in mind that people with school-age kids aren’t the only ones who find themselves in stressful straits; many workers have elder-care issues or concerns about their own health. “Employers have to be consistent and fair. You can’t simply give preference to working parents with small children over employees with other challenging family or personal situations. Employers should have the approach that we’ll do the best that we can to accommodate everyone,” Lee says.

“Employers need to have private conversations with workers to gather information on their personal situations and make assessments,” says Lee. “Employers do have to be cautious about the types of information they’re asking for.” The best practice to maximize employee privacy is to designate one or two individuals to have these conversations, she says. The organization must also ensure that personal information is not used in a discriminatory manner.

A word about gender: Working women with children are typically more hard-pressed than men. In two-earner households with opposite-sex parents where one parent spends more time managing children’s schedules and activities, the greater responsibility fell overwhelmingly to the woman, 54% to 6%, in a 2015 Pew Research Center analysis. But employers should beware of a lingering sexist assumption: that men are always the breadwinners. This generalization, no matter how flawed, can bias employers against accommodating their male employees’ family needs, Behson says.

Step 3: Map out where you can be flexible and where you can’t.

There’s one more thing that organizations need to do to support employees, including working parents: Keep the business successful. You can do that by telling employees that you’ll be managing for results, rather than counting keystrokes or time spent in the office. Be flexible wherever you can and unbending where you must.

Strictly mapping work arrangements to all the contingencies of work and of school – each of which might be in-person, all online or a hybrid – is just too complicated to be practical. You may have to make decisions about schedules and place of work on a case-by-case basis, considering workers’ inclinations – as well as their situations – whenever you can. “Some employees really want to get back to the office most of the time, others have the opposite preference,” says Behson. “Companies that can accommodate all the different styles will end up ahead.”

Finally, keep in mind that there will be difficult situations where managers cannot accommodate all requests, Lee says. “Just be clear in communications to all employees that their needs will be heard.”


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About the Author

John Rossheim

John Rossheim writes about healthcare, diversity, recruiting and human resources.

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