Cultivate empathy for your employees as they start the school year with uncertainty

Many of your team members are faced with new challenges this year as their children return to some form of schooling. The way you handle the situation can make a big difference.

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Image: Drazen Zigic, Getty Images/iStockphoto

We're well past the half-way point of 2020 and finally getting some certainty around things like remote working and even more important issues like whether our nearest warehouse store will actually have toilet paper on the shelves. Routines are being established, and some of the early COVID-19-related uncertainties have been replaced with routine. However, you may notice that some of your colleagues are struggling mightily, or your blissfully calm team members might remark on your stress. The key demarcation for this latest virus-driven stress is sending children back to school.

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

This is usually a time of relative joy for parents. After summer camps, relaxation, and family vacations, it's time to stock up on school supplies, perhaps purchase a new outfit or two, and send the kids back to their weekly routine. Obviously, school is a critical facet of child development, but it's also a dependable and consistent form of child care. 

Many employees who are working remotely dreamed of the day they could get their children back into the classroom, to the good of everyone's routine, productivity, and sanity. Even if you planned for home schooling, it was assumed that a well-structured and thoughtful remote learning plan would be offered versus the suboptimal approach of the spring, which was hastily thrown together as the world attempted to cope with COVID-19.

The school of empathy

What most parents are getting, however, are mixed messages, changing plans, shifting start dates, and just about everything but the consistent, reliable routine of Monday-through-Friday schooling. In my family's case, a plan was communicated, then changed days later. Details are still somewhat uncertain as the school district attempts to cope with a reemergence of COVID-19, and a return to relative normalcy has been replaced with alternating days in the classroom for a hybrid home schooling model. Transportation has also been a challenge, so like most families with school-age children, we're scrambling to plan all manner of logistics while maintaining both of our jobs.

If you don't have children, or yours have grown and are past school age, you might wonder what all the fuss is about, or why a reliable and consistent team member is suddenly distracted and frazzled. Before having children of my own, I was blissfully unaware of the central focus of school to the life and rhythms of a family. It dictates everything from when you take vacation, to how you schedule and plan each day. A disruption to this process can throw an entire family into near-chaos, especially as families might have to make significant decisions on whether to change schools, take on the task of remote learning by choice or local dictate, or even relocate to another district, all in a matter of a few short weeks.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Empathy, the art of putting yourself in another's shoes and trying to imagine what they're experiencing, has certainly been in short supply as many of us are pushed to the brink of our coping skills. A modicum of empathy for your team members will not only do wonders for their sanity, but knowing that their concerns are shared by their leaders can make the entire situation less stressful and ultimately help that person be more productive.

Simply asking how they're faring with the start of school, or sharing your own school-related challenges and then sitting back for some active listening is a simple tool that can have significant results. If you want to create a more significant impact, consider fairly simple and easily executed goals like setting up a weekly parents support meeting, or allowing staff to block their calendars for things like transporting their children or delivering homeschooling classes. Discuss some of these challenges with the broader team, so those who don't have to deal with back to school get some insight as to why their colleagues might be struggling, and create an open forum where people can ask difficult questions like, "Will I be punished by having to pick up the slack for all the parents?"

Most employees will be so thankful for the permission to have some flexibility in their work that they'll not only continue to perform their assigned duties outside usual business hours, but ultimately be more productive during the standard workday. They'll also understand the concerns of their colleagues without children, creating a "we're all in this together" dynamic rather than one of concern or resentment.

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If you want to explore more comprehensive tools to help your team deal with the variability of returning to school, check with your colleagues in human resources. Many companies have reduced scheduling options or are considering creating policies due to economic disruption. Simply knowing the option exists can be a relief to an overburdened parent, and might even create a win-win situation if you can reduce your staffing costs to deal with a rocky economy while providing flexibility to employees who need it most.

While it's still unclear what September will look like in many households, as leaders, a bit of empathy and flexibility will go a long way toward providing certainty, and ultimately allowing our teams to perform at their best given the circumstances.

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