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3 ways managers can better support working parents

Companies gain a lot by taking care of working parents

3 ways managers can better support working parents
[Photo: Laura Fuhrman/Unsplash]

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the workforce at large can better champion working parents. If you don’t have kids, it can be understandably difficult to empathize with the challenges that working parents may face.

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As a mom to two kids under 10, I know these challenges firsthand. I remember what it’s like to be pregnant and feel sick all day at work. I can vividly recall how it felt to return to my job after maternity leave. Not only did I have to adjust to how things had changed, but I also had to find time to pump with back-to-back calls and meetings. I also know about the feelings of frustration that come with 6 p.m. meetings—the time when I’m supposed to be headed home to have dinner with my kids.

The challenges are real at work and at home. All parents, regardless of gender, are spending increasingly more time on childcare. Yet research shows that among heterosexual couples, women still take the bulk of household responsibilities. This becomes especially apparent when they have children, so women are often forced out to look for jobs with greater flexibility.

How working parents can help companies

So why don’t more companies provide an inclusive environment for working parents? The fact is, working parents add immense value to the workplace. People who have kids can offer different perspectives when it comes to problem-solving and teamwork. They might have more empathy for customers, or prior experience tackling an issue in a certain way. Parents can also help teach prioritization, which is especially useful for team members who struggle to establish a healthy work-life balance.

We can (and should) do a better job supporting and retaining working parents, and doing so starts from the top down. Here are three things any manager or leader can do to make a difference.

1. Stop pretending that everything is perfect

Many people look up to their manager or a company leader and assume that person has it all together. What’s more, managers tend to want to shield their team away from personal problems.

But when leaders are transparent and open about the challenges they’re tackling at home or in their personal lives, others may feel encouraged to open up. Acknowledging difficulties helps people see that their career path won’t be impacted if they don’t have things in perfect order. In turn, parents will feel more comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work.

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To lead by example, be open about your priorities. If you’re leaving to go to your kid’s soccer game, don’t try to hide it; instead, let your team know. If you’re having a tough week because you haven’t been able to find any time to yourself, be honest with the people you work with. They’ll thank you later when they find themselves in a similar situation and worry that they’re off their game. Being real invites others to do the same, and everyone benefits from it.

2. Actively nurture a culture of transparency

Leading by example is important, but creating a culture of transparency requires everyone’s involvement. When I joined Opendoor, I had a conversation with our CEO, my manager, about the importance of time with my kids is in the evening. I set the expectation that I would be offline from 6-8 p.m. each night. As a result, he respects my boundaries, and I’m able to unplug with my kids.

Honest conversations like this are so important for managers to have with their direct reports. Here are a few questions every manager should have in their tool kit:

  • How can I support you as a working parent?
  • What’s important to you?
  • How can I help you find balance so that you bring your best self to work every day?

Nurturing a culture of transparency helps with inclusivity, too. One of the things I’m most proud of when it comes to Opendoor’s culture is our open-door policy for kids. Parents know that if childcare falls through or their kid is sick, they can bring them into the office.

When the teacher strikes shut down schools in Phoenix, we invited families that were impacted to bring their kids to work. We set up craft stations and ordered pizza to keep them occupied. We did the same thing in our San Francisco office when the wildfires impacted air quality so severely that schools closed for a bit. Because we have a kid-friendly work environment, people know a lot of employees’ children by name. This creates a lot more understanding and empathy when things do come up outside of work.

3. Create space for important conversations

There are a lot of things people don’t understand about childbearing. For managers who aren’t parents, some of the conversations can feel especially uncomfortable. I’ve found that a lot of younger men tend to shy away from talking with their direct reports about their pregnancies or life as parents. As leaders, it’s your job to help managers understand how to discuss these things openly and with empathy. Here are some appropriate questions to ask:

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  • How are you feeling?
  • Would you feel comfortable telling me if you need anything?
  • Do you need any adjustment in your schedule [if possible]?
  • Is there any way I can be more supportive to you during this time?

Be prepared by thinking about how you can share updates with a direct report on parental leave while respecting their space and new life with a newborn. Think about their schedule returning to work, too: How can they block out time for pumping? Will they need flexible hours? Has anything happened within the company that impacts their day-to-day? Make sure that you lead these conversations with your reports.

Retaining parents should be at the top of every company’s list of priorities. When we arm our leaders and managers with the tools they need to foster better communication and transparency with their team members, we also arm working parents with the tools they need to thrive in the workplace. And when employees are thriving, it only benefits a company’s bottom line.


Erica Galos Alioto is the Head of People and Development at Opendoor.

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