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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Working Parents, Here’s How to Ask for (and Get!) More Flexibility at Work as the Pandemic Drags On

parent sitting at home working on a laptop while holding a baby on their lap
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Rebecca Kallman is the head of brand management at ARGONAUT, a San Francisco based advertising agency. She’s also the mom of two very busy kids, ages 6 and 3 1/2. When the pandemic hit, she faced many of the same struggles so many other working parents have now that everyone is at home.

“It was (is?) a constant circus with dogs barking, kids screaming, and my husband and I on Zoom calls all the time,” Kallman says.

One of the biggest struggles Kallman is currently facing is juggling her children’s education with her work schedule. “Just as we were feeling like we had a new routine, school started and we’re adjusting to this next ‘new normal.’ We’re trying to ensure our 6 year old is on the appropriate Zoom call and that we’re supporting her learning while staying on track with work,” she says.

It’s a lot, as most working parents can attest right now, especially those with younger children who have greater needs. How do you remain available for your own work while still attending to the kids you no longer have adequate childcare for?

“Originally, my husband and I tried to split up our day with the kids,” Kallman said. “I tried to jam all of my meetings in the morning while he took the kids and we switched in the afternoon.” Unfortunately, because they are both in advertising and often have schedules ruled by their clients’ needs, they realized quickly that accomplishing this routine without their teams’ buy-in and support wasn’t always as easy as they had hoped.

“Above all else, I needed understanding, flexibility and support.” Kallman says. Other working parents know all too well what Kallman is going through. Many are continuing to work from home far longer than they anticipated while schools are also operating virtually across the country.

If you’re a working parent, you already know you need flexibility to get through this. And you may have realized, like Kallman, that you need to work with your employer to get it. Here’s what you can do to make it happen.

Consider Your Company’s Willingness to Adjust

Deloitte’s Global Human Capital leader, Erica Volini, believes that most organizations are highly aware of their employee’s ever-shifting needs in light of COVID-19. As a working mother herself, she points out that the struggles of working parents have been especially visible, with managers also having to help their own kids tackle virtual schooling.

“We’re seeing organizations respond, either with additional money for home office equipment or childcare support, knowing that’s going to be an additional expense,” Volini says. She believes that because everyone is struggling right now, empathy among management teams is at an all-time high.

That may be true, with the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) finding as early as in April that about 1/3 of employers who’ve made or are considering making adjustments due to the pandemic were extending additional paid and unpaid leave to their employees to help get them through this crisis (and another 18% and 25% respectively were considering doing so). As a new school year neared, tech companies that intend to keep their workforce remote into 2021 are offering extra paid leave, paying for backup childcare, and looking into tutoring as a perk for employees.

If you work for a company that has already taken steps to help make your work-from-home life a little easier, there’s a good chance your manager and leadership will be open to additional requests you may have.

But Be Aware There May Be Challenges

Of course, some companies still haven’t grasped what this new working environment looks like for their workers—and that may be especially true for certain groups of employees. Susan Hodgkinson, a 30-year executive coach and author of The Dignity Mindset, has been witnessing many of the companies she’s worked with through The Personal Brand Company navigate COVID-19. Based on what she’s seen, she believes select companies are struggling with what she calls “awareness gaps” right now.

“These gaps are very large,” Hodgkinson says. “There is too much distance between C-suites and rank-and-file employees. At the average organization, the salaries of the senior leadership are so much higher, and the likelihood that one parent is at home full-time, or there is a nanny, is so much greater.” This, she explained, can lead to a lack of understanding regarding what employees actually need to succeed in this work-from-home environment.

She says women and Black employees, especially, are facing resistance from their companies in regard to evolving needs, mostly because their leaders don’t understand how much harder it can be for these groups to balance all the responsibilities currently on their plates. Research has found working mothers are shouldering more of the household burdens, in addition to their keeping up with their work, than their partners right now. And the mental and physical toll of COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color, creating increased stressors for them to face along with instances of police brutality and racial injustice.

You may be working for a company with significant “awareness gaps” if your leadership teams are made up of mostly affluent white men or anyone else who hasn’t yet taken many steps to help employees adjust to the demands of this new normal.

Identify Your Needs

These awareness gaps can mean companies don’t necessarily know how to best help their employees right now—even if they might want to. Volini believes that’s exactly why employees need to communicate their needs to their boss (and she does suggest starting with the manager or managers you work most closely with, as opposed to HR, since they know the demands of your current position best.)

But in order to communicate your needs, you first need to get clear on what those needs are. Think about the friction points you’re encountering regularly and try to find the patterns. Is there a certain time of day that’s really difficult? Is there a particular type of task you just can’t seem to get done these days? Does one kind of project or another totally overwhelm you given everything that’s going on?

Then think about what could make those things easier. Perhaps you need more flexibility with your hours so that you can break your workday into two blocks with time in between to help your kids with schoolwork. Or maybe you simply aren’t able to turn around last-minute assignments in a short timeframe so you need to agree on some minimum amount of lead time. You might find you need to transition as many of your clients as possible to email communications as opposed to phone or Zoom, which can be more difficult to manage with small children at home. Or maybe you even need some time off.

Hodgkinson suggests asking if paid time off could be scheduled as a work team. “The idea is: everybody takes time off at the same time, so no one is tempted to break the ‘work break’ by emailing colleagues who are supposed to be regaining some personal energy and renewal,” she says.

The options really are limitless, but your employer can’t help you unless you first consider what specific changes might allow you to be more successful.

Explain Your Context

Once you’ve identified what accommodations would help you in this new work-from-home environment, it’s time to reach out to your boss or team leader. Since you’re already working from home, Volini says it’s perfectly acceptable to do so over email, or to ask for a quick video conference. The right way to communicate your needs really depends on your working relationship and how you’ve been best communicating with your leadership team thus far.

But before you jump into the actual requests, Volini suggests painting a picture of your current work life. “You might think, ‘Doesn’t my work know I have an 8-year-old with special needs I’m trying to help too?’” Volini says. But depending on the size of your team and your relationship, your boss or department head might have no idea.

“So be very clear,” Volini says. Lay out what your situation looks like and what the challenges are so that they can easily understand the constraints you’re facing that prevent you from doing your best work. “The context is important. And also, it leads to more empathy.”

Make Sure Your Asks Are Really Specific

After you set the stage by describing your current environment, you’ll want to be ready to suggest solutions that you believe will not only make your life easier, but also set you up to succeed in your role under these unusual circumstances. And it’s important to be as specific as possible.

What would more flexibility look like for you? Employers are currently juggling hundreds of employees in different work environments with a variety of needs—don’t make them guess at the best way to accommodate you. Show that you’re proactive and dedicated by thinking through the details and being ready to explain what you’re proposing and why you think it will help.

Kallman, for example, needed to block her meetings into certain windows in order to be present and effective during client calls while her husband was responsible for the kids. She needed to keep other windows free of calls so that she could take over being the parent in charge and allow her husband to focus.

Having struggled to make this happen informally, she emailed her senior leadership and core team to work through solutions to some of the struggles she was facing. “When I did formalize what I needed with leadership, it was quite simple: ‘I don’t have childcare and I need as many meetings as possible to fit within this timeframe.’”

From there, the battle to control her schedule ended. Her team leaders understood that set meeting hours weren’t just a preference of Kallman’s, they were a requirement for her success. In her case, that was all it took to get what she needed.

Be Open to Other Suggestions

You may not be as lucky as Kallman was. It’s possible your company simply won’t be able to accommodate your needs exactly as you’ve envisioned. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to give you anything at all.

For instance, let’s say you ask to work a split schedule from 5 to 8 AM and from 5 to 10 PM so that you can supervise the kids during the day while your partner works regular hours. Your boss might not OK you working completely asynchronously with the rest of the team, but could come back with a compromise that allows you to work mostly off-hours but to sign on for team meetings and other check-ins as needed. That might be enough for you as long as you get advance notice of meetings you’ll need to join and your boss is aware your kids might make guest appearances in those meetings during the day.

“Once you’ve helped your team leader understand where you’re coming from and what you need, the conversation goes from there,” Volini says. They will either agree outright, or come back to you with some alternatives if your specific asks can’t be accommodated. If you think of this as an ongoing conversation where you can negotiate a solution that works for both you and your employer, you should at least end up in a better position than you were in before you broached the subject.

Know Where to Turn Next

Ideally, you would have this conversation and the end result would be having all your needs met. But that may not happen. It’s possible your leadership team comes back to you and explains the company is stretched too thin. What then?

Don’t take no as the final answer, Volini says. “You may get a no to one request, but that’s when it’s time to stretch your creativity and think about things that can be done.” She suggests asking for trial periods to test different solutions out, and coming up with variations of options your managers may be able to get on board with. That way if one doesn’t work, another might, and if that’s no good either, well, then you have a third suggestion to try.

If you find your manager is being uncooperative, that may be when it’s time to go to HR and discuss your needs. But if you hit a wall there too? “I hate to say it, but… I do think there are other opportunities available,” Volini says.

Does that mean you should just leave your job in the middle of a pandemic? Not necessarily. But if you’re in a position where you simply can’t keep up, your mental and physical health are being impacted, and your company doesn’t seem to care to help at all? That isn’t exactly a healthy work environment.

Of course, the challenges that got you here in the first place might mean the last thing you have time for is an all-out job search. For now, you may prefer to keep trying to think of creative solutions that could work for both you and your company. But it doesn’t hurt to start opening your eyes and ears and mentioning to trusted friends or contacts that you might be ready to move on if something comes up. (And if it does, you’ll want to find out how the company has—or hasn’t—offered its employees flexibility!)

Think Beyond the Pandemic

If nothing else, Volini says our current global circumstance has the potential to change work life as we know it for the good.

“Look at this as a moment of empowerment,” she says. “Look at this as a moment to unleash your creativity.” Now is the time employees can reimagine what their optimal work life would look like—and have an opportunity to build it as companies become more open to unique work arrangements.

These changes don’t just have to be about surviving and thriving through the pandemic; they could be about designing the work-life balance you’ve always dreamed of. “I think there is a moment for that,” Volini says. “I think it’s right now, and I don’t think it should be missed.”

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