Be the boss working parents need now: 6 tips

Be the boss working parents need now: 6 tips

Working parents face unprecedented stress in the age of COVID-19. Consider this advice to help ease their burden

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Woman working at table with baby in lap

We are living in an exceptionally difficult time for working parents. In the United States alone, one in five adults of working age who are not working cite childcare disruption due to COVID-19 as the reason. Among those who’ve been able to stay at work, stress and depression are skyrocketing as parents juggle distance learning, disrupted school schedules, and kids who are grappling with emotional difficulties themselves.

We may not be able to fix the pandemic (at least not on our own), but one thing we can do is to be a better manager (or co-worker) to working parents. Here’s a quick list of things you can do to make a real difference for the working parents on your team – and make their lives a bit easier at a time of consummate overload.

1. Don't assume you know what they need – even if you're a working parent yourself

I didn't need printable ABCs worksheets; I needed her to move the meeting time.

Trying to be a working parent during COVID is a “your mileage may vary” situation. Depending on the specifics of a parent’s family demographics, income status, geographical location, living situation, childcare options, and school options, their experience on a given day may be anything from placid to mildly annoying to genuinely challenging to seemingly impossible.

[ Read also: Pandemic parenting: 3 truths working parents wish bosses and colleagues knew. ]

Trying to guess what they need is at best incredibly difficult and at worst potentially insulting. I’ll never forget the co-worker who sent me a list of online learning resources after I asked her to move a meeting due to my daughter’s school being closed. I didn’t need printable ABCs worksheets; I needed her to move the meeting time.

2. Don't infantilize

What makes being a working parent tough is trying to balance the semi-controlled world of work with the fundamentally uncontrollable world of raising children.

For some managers, speaking to a parent about work-life conflict issues prompts them to slip into a tone like one they might use with that person’s children. What’s prompting this psychologically may be the belief that working parents who express issues have somehow lost control of their lives in a childlike way.

Regardless of the reason, if you find yourself doing this – don’t! What makes being a working parent tough anytime, not just right now, is trying to balance the semi-controlled world of work with the fundamentally uncontrollable world of raising children. Accept that working parents are marshaling chaos on one side of the equation and speak to them like adults.

3. Take no for an answer

Many managers, when confronted with a request for lightened workload, extended deadlines, or other sorts of temporary relief from accountabilities, have the instinct to try to talk the person out of what they’re asking for.

Understanding the incredible load on parents during COVID – and the fact that many parents are operating in terror of losing their jobs – it’s best to frame any sort of flexibility requests in the current era as likely “last resort” measures. No working parent is asking for flexibility lightly – so if they do ask, take the request seriously and try to default to “yes” (in some form) if at all possible.

[ Can you ask for a raise during a pandemic? Yes, read: How to ask for a raise during COVID-19. ]

4. Be sensitive to the margins of days

No working parent is asking for flexibility lightly – so if they do ask, take the request seriously and try to default to yes in some form.

The COVID era may feel like one long, unending day – but for working parents, many obligations keyed to a particular time of day remain or may have even intensified. Without a commute, they may be more willing to do meetings on the early or late side of the traditional workday, but be careful of too many obligations creeping into these hours.

Parents may have tricky challenges like getting multiple children on Zoom calls at the same time on the early side, or preparing dinner without childcare assistance they’re used to on the late side. Managers can be tremendously helpful simply by opening a dialogue with working parents as to what their “no-fly zones” look like right now.

5. Look at the team, not the person

Part of what causes the stress on working parents is the fact that there are certain family obligations that only they can perform. Alleviating some of this single-point pressure at work can be a major stress-reliever. Are there tasks that can go to team members instead – possibly as “trades” for tasks that are equally valuable but less time-sensitive?

As situations shift, such “trades” can go back and forth – for example, the Gen Z folks who took on work for parents grappling with remote school in the spring could then take burnout-fighting staycations while the same parents faced less pressure in the summer months and took on more work accordingly.

6. Keep your performance lens clear

Finally, just because working parents are facing incredible practical and psychological challenges, and sometimes asking for flexibility accordingly, does not necessarily mean their performance is slipping. Be sure to look at working parents’ performance through clear eyes – they may be putting in outstanding efforts, terrible ones, or anywhere in between.

Remain focused on output no matter what you know about their personal situation. In the long run, it’s this kind of empathic, fair treatment that your team will remember fondly.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

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Melissa Swift leads Korn Ferry’s Digital Transformation Advisory for North America and Global Accounts.

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