Prior to 2020, only 4% of U.S. employers enabled 40% of their workforce to primarily work from home. That’s despite the fact that flexible work arrangements (FWA) have been studied since W.K. Kellogg Co. deviated its staffing schedules in the 1930s. Common sentiment held that remote working practices helped most parents manage work and life; however, as we’ve seen with COVID-19, this was not always the case. Sixty percent of U.S. families have at least one child under age 18 and are dual-income households. We sought to explore the personal side of the parent experience and wonder how working parents forged through the new work territory to find success? Does remote work work for most parents?
Many issues arise when working from home that cause increased conflict and stress. In some cases, they force employment status decisions, which is why, for the first time in 50 years, a female recession was declared. As of January 2021, there were 1.6 million fewer mothers in the workforce.
Compounding this problem, COVID-19 caused many employees to be afraid of losing their jobs or else felt trapped to remain in them. Working parents felt especially vulnerable and tried to ensure their income was stable to provide for their families. After quit rates hit their lowest levels in nearly a decade, employers are expecting a turnover tsunami.
The time for self-advocacy is now. Working parents can express what they want or need to make remote or hybrid work as positive and productive as possible. Through research and interviews, we’ve found several themes that can foster success, or facilitate the decision to return to the office.
Ask for what you need to communicate effectively
Just like copy paper and toner in the office, employees should have what they need to get the job done. Although a handful of states have regulations, there is no federal law that requires a company to reimburse remote expenses. However, as work continues to normalize, nearly half of organizations are promoting either allowances or reimbursements for elements such as internet, mobile phone data plans, and home office supplies each month. Employees can self-advocate to make remote work easier by asking to expense telecommuting purchases.
Employees who may have volunteered to use their personal phones (and data plans) to get through the pandemic can ask for their office lines to be forwarded to any phone, enabling more secure home-office connections too.
Another real struggle for remote/hybrid office teams may be adapting communications. It is easy to shift what was once a multi-person video call to an in-person meeting, but what about the few individuals who remain working remotely? When everyone is in a conference room except a few people, wall-mounted monitors that enable video calls can mitigate the “outsider experience.” Elements like these may seem simple, but companies may need the nudge of employees advocating for them to actually happen.
While phone/screen setups are only one element of effectively supporting remote work, it is also a starting point for employees’ negotiations and truly make a difference in the remote work experience.
Keep enforcing boundaries and set expectations
“Work and home boundaries have been positively observed, and that has made me respect the company even more than I did before the pandemic,” reported Julie Otero, senior training and development consultant at John Hancock. In her experience, as with most of the others we interviewed, while the onus is on her to be available or not, the company has not trespassed into her personal time.
Companies that use online scheduling mechanisms such as Outlook show free time blocks when the person is available for work-related requests. Time for family obligations (evenings, weekends, or even the time it takes to drive children to school or sports) is labeled “private” to alert others that a remote worker is not available.
Parents have long been required to use paid time off (e.g., vacation time) for daily interruptions like bringing children to doctor’s appointments or attending school or sports functions. Flextime may be a useful model to consider instead. Employees work the equivalent of a full day time-wise, but those hours aren’t necessarily completed between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. “No eyebrows are raised when I send out very early or very late emails. But that’s usually after I’ve been AWOL for a chunk of the day,” shared Kristin Poulin, a private equity sales manager.
When working flexible schedules, companies may require that all employees are available during certain core hours, or for core meetings. Provided the work gets done, employees can advocate for flextime to enable them to take care of all of the competing demands for their day.
Organize work spaces
A recent study showed that 90% of the post-pandemic workforce values benefits over pay. However, a Tuesday taco bar and transit subsidy are less valuable to the remote or hybrid employee than location-independent benefits. What employees are looking for post-COVID takes many forms including remote versus in-office benefits trade-offs, deliberate actions to demonstrate a more inclusive and equitable workplace culture, and other means of demonstrating that the company has listened to employee input. The most coveted opportunities enable employees to learn and to live a healthy lifestyle.
Understand what health and wellness benefits are offered
Companies have seen the pandemic as a time to boost corporate wellness and benefits programs. Some are finding that paying health and wellness stipends, which can be used for things such as gym equipment or bike parts, significantly impact their workforce in a positive way.
Otero shared that John Hancock did “an incredible job” and did not limit activities to employees’ health and wellness. “A virtual camp for all employee kids, globally, was coordinated last summer with online activities and a daily schedule to follow,” she said.
Research indicates that companies average a return of nearly $3 for every dollar invested in wellness. From allocating additional paid time off to get vaccinated to bringing in guest speakers to discuss mindfulness, to Zoom-led workouts and meditations, organizations are playing an important role in supporting employee well-being.
Ask about options for learning and development
Companies that are invested in developing their talent have found success attracting and keeping the best possible workforce. For many, this has meant creating training and development programs that are equitable and available to all, including those workers who will remain remote.
A recent report of nearly 4,000 executives, managers, and analysts found that while training is seen as a key strategic initiative, only 34% of employees are happy with their organization’s investment in their development. And while leadership development programs are generally viewed positively, how those will work with remote employees is unclear.
Without a full, in-office workforce, companies are exploring methodologies that enable new modes of learning. Social learning, for example, encourages employees to observe behaviors so they can be adapted and employed. This, in turn, can foster learning as well as create organizational engagement via remotely joining meetings or talking to vet through ideas. In addition, employees may learn from external teachers, activists, or other programs taking place in their own community and leverage these learnings with their organizations.
Asynchronous learning is also an option for remote work employees. Instead of gathering in a forum to work with a live instructor, training participants can read and watch videos on their own time, participate in discussion boards of video logs, and submit work for evaluation and get certification when completed. Remote and hybrid workers need to determine if they see these learning modes as effective, and not a sacrifice. Then they can decide if alternative training arrangements both provide them with what they need to master and enable them to grow professionally.
Deciding if remote work can work is ultimately up to each individual. Working from anywhere besides an office can be lonely. It’s also frustrating when there’s no colleague to reach out to for vetting ideas or even just to fix the printer. For some, having a physical office space fosters focus and/or fuels emotional connectedness. While many parents appreciate working from home, it’s not always seen as a benefit.
For those who cannot turn being a parent off during the day, or the paid job off at night, having an office where work should happen regulates where work does happen. If returning to the office is an option, there shouldn’t be guilt if you’re making the return. The formal structure of a workday establishes the baseline for other activities, and this can be beneficial for the parents and family alike. If given the choice, one interviewee said, “I’d mostly like to go back to the office, since many of the things I do take much longer when done remotely due to the extensive coordination required. It’s easier to do that when people are in the office, and faster.”
For those who determine they want to continue to work remotely going forward, the headspace is different. If 2020 did anything for us, it showed us that a dog barking or a baby crying is not the end of one’s professional image. Parents who are most apt to thrive when working remotely have a good sense of humor, self-forgiveness, and are resilient.
How each parent proceeds into the next era of work will be a personal choice. What’s important is to take inventory of the experiences the pandemic generated, and determine options that work best for your situation.
Susan R. Vroman is a lecturer of management at Bentley University and is also an organizational and leadership effectiveness consultant.
Tiffany Danko is an adjunct associate professor at USC Bovard College and a captain in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.