Employers need to build more flexibility and empathy into their remote-working culture to make life easier for parents, who are struggling to fit their jobs around the needs of their children.
The closure of schools and workplaces has created a unique challenge for parents, many of whom are struggling to balance their professional lives with managing their children's education.
The numbers speak for themselves. Inof 1,000 US workers by software company Nintex, respondents with children were 50% more likely to clock nine or more hours of work every day than those without. Perhaps even more telling, 62% of respondents with children said they were "very excited to return to the office as soon as possible".
Women have been disproportionately affected by the move to remote work. McKinsey's Women in the Workplace Study 2020 found that the pandemic was driving more women to consider either down-shifting their careers, or leaving the workforce altogether. Many cited a lack of flexibility from employers that made it difficult to fit household and care-giving responsibilities around their jobs, and expressed concern at how this would be reflected in workplace performance evaluations.
Now, as many as two million women are considering taking a leave of absence, or leaving the workforce altogether.
"This is the first time we've seen signs of women leaving the workforce at higher rates than men; in the previous five years of this study, women and men left their companies at similar rates," says Sandra O'Sullivan, chief people officer of distance-learning company, Curriculum Associates.
O'Sullivan's experience will likely be familiar to the millions of parents who have found themselves with the challenge of trying to fit their career around the needs of their children during the pandemic.
Her youngest children, ages two and five, are in full-time daycare, while her older child, age 13, is doing hybrid learning – a combination of remote lessons done from home, and in-school education.
"I've experienced different challenges with all of them," she tells TechRepublic.
"For the younger kids, I'm constantly facing the uncertainty of how long their daycare will remain open and being able to quickly figure out a 'plan B' if it needs to suddenly close in the event of a [COVID-19] case. My two-year-old can't entertain herself for more than 10 minutes, so my husband and I need to determine how to manage that time while also working full-time.
"My 13-year-old manages her work well remotely. However, she's in her room for seven hours of Zoom classes and wants to be on her phone Facetiming and checking Instagram after school. We worry about the impact of so much screen time on her developing brain and try to make sure she gets adequate time outside to unplug and get in some physical activity."
Even with the increased strain on parents, many would attest to the fact that their workload hasn't lightened in the months since COVID-19 forced them to work from home.
In fact, most employees are likely to tell you that workplace demands have grown since the start of the pandemic – this would certainly explain why many employees report working longer hours than they were pre-COVID.
SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
Parents are also exhausted from playing catch-up from not being able to put in a full day's work, O'Sullivan says, often ending in them working late into the nightin order to get everything wrapped up.
There is room here for employers toO'Sullivan suggests. "The amount of work for many companies hasn't decreased during the pandemic, which can be an issue for parents who are working remotely full-time while their children are at home.
"Managers should regularly check in with their team members and ask them directly how they are doing, how they are balancing everything and whether there is anything they can help with to support them. Employees need to know that it's okay if not everything gets done as quickly or with the same level of quality as before the pandemic."
Of course, managers also have a tricky balance to strike. Recent research by Ricoh UK highlightedtrying to motivate workers who are struggling to adjust to their new remote-working environments, as well as the mental health and productivity issues attached to them.
Here, O'Sullivan says, managers need to manage expectations and help teams prioritize workloads. "If you empower your team members to set realistic expectations and ask for help before any balls drop, it will help them better manage their own work, reduce stress and keep them motivated," she adds.
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Flexibility as a culture
Culture change is going to be a huge part of businesses' move to long-term remote-working, and arguably will take more time for employees to adapt to than any of the technical considerations that such a transformation involves.
Workplaces, therefore, have a duty to engrain this flexible attitude into everything they do – not just in the way they allow employees to work, but their entire philosophy towards running a business.
"Businesses should foster a culture that rewards employees based on the great work they do, not the location where they are doing the work," says O'Sullivan.
"Traditionally, many companies believed that in-person meetings and interactions were more valuable than remote, with businesses flying employees around the world just to attend one meeting or a trade show or convention.
"In the age of the pandemic, these activities have all transitioned to remote, which has made them more accessible and led to many businesses realizing that they are just as valuable when done remotely."
Companies must also recognize that remote employees have unique needs, and that strong remote support and employee development practices will play a crucial role in the future of work.
Women in particular should be empowered to succeed at any level, regardless of whether they are working in-office or remotely, says O'Sullivan. The latter will require careful planning by businesses to ensure that women who opt to work remotely, and may also have additional care-giving responsibilities, aren't overlooked for advancement opportunities.
"It is key to create a workforce and company culture that empowers women to succeed at any role in the company, including C-suite and other leadership roles, without the pressure or expectation to always be in the office.
"Many parents prefer having a flexible schedule with remote or hybrid work options and minimal travel expectations, so ensuring that these opportunities exist will help them succeed. I hope more boards embrace remote-only board meetings as well – this would go a long way in making board work viable for parents with young children."
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