During a recent conversation with the leadership team of our Firm’s Working Parents Committee about the return to work as the pandemic subsides, a very smart colleague of mine made an astute comment. She said, “It’s not really a return to work—after all, we’ve been working the whole time. It’s more of a re-entry.”
She’s right. “Returning to work” sounds as though the entire workforce has been on a year-long vacation, taking luxurious bubble baths and sipping champagne from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. While this sounds like a fabulous way to spend a year, the depressing reality of the past 13 months makes it clear that the phrase is a bit of a misnomer.
The pandemic has had profound effects on many segments of the population. Indisputably, working parents is one group that has struggled in particular. As a large percentage of any employer’s workforce, their re-entry deserves a closer examination.
Isn’t this all a bit of semantics? No, it’s not. It’s important to accurately portray that parents have, in fact, been working—in most cases quite productively in light of daily difficulties—from home for over a year now. As employers are starting to think about what the re-entry to the physical workspace will look like, it is important that they understand that many working parents have come to create their own routines to balance the realities of the pandemic with their workload, and that these routines often allow for efficient and productive work.
With the vaccine rollout, many employers are looking to the late summer and fall with hopes that they may be able to welcome their workforce back into the office. Similarly, many employees are more than eager to roam the halls, to pop into their colleagues’ offices, and maybe even to eat in a lunchroom with other people. And while it’s likely there will still be many safety protocols in place, this will be a welcome return to some semblance of normalcy.
But many working parents, while also craving the return to normalcy, aren’t rushing back into the office. Aren’t they tired of working on the dining room table next to last night’s dinner?Tired of sharing a small office space with kids doing virtual school? Exhausted by crying babies or whining tweens interrupting their conference calls? For many, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” But despite a deep-seated desire to sprint back into the office, many parents are anxious about office re-entry for a number of significant reasons.
Currently, COVID-19 vaccines are available in the U.S. only to individuals over age 18 (Pfizer’s vaccine is also available to those over 16). While some experts believe that vaccines may be available to children 12 and older as soon as late summer or early fall, there is a general consensus that vaccines for younger children will not be available until the end of 2021 or more likely, 2022.
There is still only limited information on how long the vaccine provides protection and to what extent vaccinated parents are likely to transmit the virus to their children. Parents are likely to be concerned about being in an office (potentially with unvaccinated individuals) where they may bring home the virus as an asymptomatic carrier.
Very few schools have committed to specifics on what schedules will look like for 2021 and 2022. Parents don’t know if their school will be open five days a week for part of the day, every other week or a few days a week. Any permutation outside of the standard five days a week, full-day model is a stressor for parents as they need to fill those gaps.
In addition, while many schools are focused on returning to the core of the academic school day, programs such as “before-care” and “after-care” are not certain to be offered. Prior to the pandemic, these consistent childcare programs were what ensured working parents could be physically in the office when children are not in school.
The laundry list above doesn’t even take into account other realities of life during a pandemic that are unlikely to be resolved by fall—i.e., what happens when a class is required to quarantine for a COVID exposure for ten days? Parents to infants or preschool children have similar fears about daycare and what it will look like.
Employers would be well-served to listen to these concerns and support the working parents at their organization by taking some or all of the steps below.
It’s clear why employers may not want to make a decision on the process, timeline or parameters around returning to work just yet. The pandemic is a constantly changing beast, and putting time into temporary policies is not a wise use of resources.
However, this topic is on parents’ minds now, and it’s causing a lot of anxiety. A lot. Employers do not need to roll out a specific policy or timeline just yet. Simply taking the initial step of addressing that the organization is aware of these concerns can go a long way.
Better yet, a general indication (the more specific the better) of what direction the employer plans to go would be exceedingly helpful. For example, if management has determined that no one will be required to return before 2022, but has no idea when the actual re-entry will be, that would be very helpful information to share despite some uncertainty. Or if it’s certain that full-time in the office will no longer be a job requirement, that would be helpful information to share as well, even if the exact parameters have not yet been finalized.
Try to get a sense of what issues and fears your working parents are struggling with. The pandemic’s effects on different areas of the country and different segments of the population have been disparate. Consider a quick pulse survey of the workforce to get a sense of how many people want to return and what the pain points might be. This could also take the form of a more informal survey, a discussion at a Town Hall or a brown bag lunch.
Soliciting feedback also has the added benefit of signaling to employees that you are empathetic and hoping to support them. That said, manage expectations and be mindful that there should be no promises of what will or won’t materialize from the survey.
As much as everyone wants to feel that the pandemic is “over,” perhaps it’s better to think of the next phase as just that—another phase. On the other hand, many virus-specific parental concerns—schools on different schedules, daycares with smaller classes and fewer spots, unvaccinated caregivers and other issues—will hopefully be moot once the pandemic is truly over.
In that case, it may be best to weigh the benefit of prematurely requiring employees to return to office full time versus the cost to an employee’s mental well-being and their loyalty to you. This is in light of the fact that many working parents have been productively working from home for a year.
In a similar vein, avoid thinking in “all or nothing” terms—i.e., either someone is physically back in the office, or they are not. For example, a parent who has no after-school care may be happy to come into the office so long as they may be home by 3:30 to collect their child from the bus. Consider allowing the employee to leave at 3:00, pick up their child and finish work from their home office if their job responsibilities allow them to do so.
While the COVID-19 pandemic will at some point be completely “over,” there will be a lasting impact on people’s lives in ways we can’t yet imagine. There will be many individuals who will have a hard time simply integrating back into society, particularly many children who will feel the effects of a year with no social contact.
When thinking about what the long-term looks like, consider whether your organization could continue to thrive with more flexibility for working parents. This will enable parents to support their children in whatever form they may need. And in turn, that flexibility will allow parents to be both the best parent and the best employee they can be.
Finally, be mindful that even if you choose not to, in the wake of the pandemic, many companies will be changing their policies to support more flexibility. Don’t lose your talent to another employer.
Instead of thinking of the next phase as a return to work, frame it as a return to the physical office. Parents are already working during the pandemic. It’s simply up to organizations to determine how they will support that work not only as we move through the next phase of the pandemic, but also once the masks are tucked away for good.
The best organizations learn from experiences—particularly difficult ones—and apply those lessons to the future. Employers should make sure to consider what has been beneficial about working from home over many months and use those lessons to support and strengthen their workforce, including their working parents.
©All Rights Reserved. April, 2021. DailyDACTM, LLC d/b/a/ Financial PoiseTM
Meredith Kahan focuses on recruitment strategy to hire and retain top legal talent and career development to ensure that talent thrives in the law firm setting. Meri’s previous experience includes counseling students and working with employers in law school career services. She also has a former career as a litigator, where she handled securities litigation…
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