Have you ever been on a Zoom call that was interrupted by a crying baby? Or maybe a ringing doorbell? Or even a talkative toddler? Over the past year what was once considered a work from home faux pas has become the reality for most remote workers. For millions, the shift to remote work due to COVID-19 was not only abrupt but uncomfortable. One group at the center of this has been working parents.
Erica Woods, the Head of People and Culture at Stacklet thinks of these interruptions as part of the “intimacy of remote work.” She has spent the past year helping organizations accept this new normal and embrace policies built around an open workplace that support remote working parents.
Over the past 20+ years, Erica has carved out a professional niche, going into small and mid-size companies and leading the charge when building out the People Operations function.
Erica has experience with mergers and acquisitions, IPOs, tiny non profits, larger organizations, and distributed teams (85% remote across 30+ countries before Covid). She considers herself a generalist who has seen just about everything when it comes to the logistics of a well functioning people operation.
It’s no surprise that she has spent the last year offering guidance and consulting to several companies faced with the challenges of work from home. But for Erica, a self-proclaimed evangelist for remote work, these “unprecedented times” offer a prime opportunity for organizations to look at long-term hybrid plans and create policies that champion compassionate leadership.
It’s almost impossible to escape the online jokes and memes about working from home. With overstimulated pets, packages being delivered at all hours, and childcare options severely limited, the internet has had no short supply of funny takes. But for working parents, the expectations associated with remote work pre-pandemic may not be possible anymore.
Erica stresses that work from home during the pandemic has not been the usual type of work from home in the past. Because teams were forced remote, they did have policies and systems ready. Supporting employees — especially working parents — has looked different.
Because team members are at home, working remotely has allowed a peek into the daily household of your teammates. One thing Erica encourages is accepting that households are unpredictable.
The uncertainty of the home set up allows us to see the realities of work from home, like a child interrupting a meeting, as a fun, joyful moment, rather than a distraction from the bottom line. This flexibility is crucial as working parents adjust and establish a balance between completing work in an efficient manner, making sure their children feel safe and happy, and building healthy expectations/boundaries with their teams and managers.
Understanding that work from home looks different may pose some challenges for company leadership. This mindset shift is not only going to help your working parents establish a work life balance, but it can also drive company-wide policy.
When thinking about the changes necessary in your workplace, a good rule of thumb is to always approach supporting your employees with compassion first, says Erica. It may sound basic, but your people are your most important asset.
Let’s break down some necessary considerations you’ll need to make when creating company policies for working parents.
Recognizing the baseline needs and passions is critical for company leadership when approaching policy. Stripping things down to need-to-haves versus nice-to-haves helps people leaders understand what should be prioritized when working with parents to create sustainable habits and workplace goals.
Once the baseline is established, you can look at your current policies and make changes. Even if it’s only “for the foreseeable future due to COVID.” Erica says that keeping a pragmatic and practical perspective will make the difference here.
We can’t all offer unlimited parental leave, Erica says, but, we can work to understand whether there is room to extend parental leave and other policies like it. Especially for distributed companies, understanding the legal requirements for parental leave should always lead the conversation (it may look different for international employees!). When faced with vague or insufficient legal requirements, Erica said asking a question like, “Can we find a middle ground that is generous, doesn’t break laws, and is more supportive to employees with minimal governmental protections?” is a great way to protect working parents and bring compassion into decision making.
Building a supportive workplace for remote working parents (and remote employees in general) will require you to both establish company-wide policies and work with individuals when needed. Erica says, “we create policies so that we can break them.” In practice, this looks like making sure policies exist and have strong foundations, and then accepting the fact that there are going to be one-offs within that framework.
According to Erica, it’s less, “we do things against policy” but rather, “we do things in addition to our policy.” For example, for some parents getting an earlier start to the day or getting online after bedtime may be a game changer. Proactive management and open channels of communication are key here.
For a lot of working parents, remote work can bring the assumption that if you’re at home it should be easier to take care of your kids. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, Erica says. Many working parents feel that they are being asked to be in two places at once - providing childcare or teaching children while simultaneously being the best employee they can be. As companies begin to consider long term and post-pandemic hybrid work plans, it is the job of people leaders to get comfy with the realistic side of work from home.
Not only is this time a chance to embrace flexibility, but to find joy in the intimacy of remote work. Creating a supportive workplace for remote working parents doesn’t mean changing every aspect of your company culture or making concessions your team cannot afford, but rather it means making little changes, taking an individual’s experience into consideration, and approaching policy making with kindness and understanding.