In the ever-changing new norm of the Covid-19 pandemic, parents are making up the playbook as they go. It’s an ongoing struggle to keep up with work while not only supporting but also educating children without the vital support network that kept things on track before. 

It’s not always perfect, but they’re making it work. 

In August 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 restrictions, we convened a panel to take a closer look at how parents and employers are coping and to share ideas about how to move ahead effectively. 

What we heard was that life in general has become more difficult over time and there is a great deal of concern about what comes next. However, as things have become more complicated and difficult, employees and managers are becoming more creative and exploring ways to get the work done while helping families to stay strong with confidence. 

Meet the panelists: 

Moderator Rachel Barek and her wife split their days to cover childcare and work responsibilities, sometimes getting up at 4 a.m. to get it all done. 

Zack Bernstein, Principal Deputy National Intelligence Officer, works every other week at the office while his partner works from home full time watching their 4-year-old son. Much of his work cannot be done remotely.  

Courtney Lagace, Manager Global Employee Wellness at Colgate-Palmolive, helps employees work through their childcare challenges as part of her job. She is also an active aunt to two nieces helping when she can. 

Benjamin D. Sommers, professor of Health Policy and Economics at the Harvard School of Public Health and a primary care doctor at a community health center, balances childcare responsibilities with his wife who works at a hospital. They have a nine-year-old and a five-year-old with no outside childcare.

As childcare options have dwindled, many schools are going back remote and employees are still working from home. What is the best we as individuals can do and what can employers do? 

Benjamin Sommers: From a public health perspective, there are huge issues in terms of whether and when we reopen. We need to look at the impact on students. 

In terms of what employers can do, it’s important to recognize that there is growing evidence that this prolonged time of not being in school has had pretty substantial effects on kids in terms of mental health and in terms of educational gaps, as well as food insecurity and rates of child neglect. 

What you have under the best of circumstances is parents trying to help their children through an unprecedented chapter of childhood that fortunately, none of us have ever experienced. It’s not just that there is child care that needs to be done, it’s even more intensive. Our children’s need of us is greater than it is under the best of circumstances. They really need parental engagement and support. This is especially true for those who are trying to do remote learning. A 5-year-old, a 7-year-old can’t do remote learning without heavy parental involvement. 

The world has changed so much and we’re good at adapting to circumstances. But especially for those who don’t have young children at home, you need to remind yourself every day when you talk to an employee who does, that this is unprecedented in their career. And just because we’re six months into it, it’s not easier. In fact, it’s gotten harder because of the cumulative toll.  

We’ve all gotten used to Zoom, but our kids have not gotten used to being out of school. That’s not the normal childhood.

How is this playing out across the country and globally? 

Courtney Lagace: What we’re seeing is a lot of companies making moves that will allow parents to plan for the long term. And that’s really important. We’re past the temporary point. We’re at our inflection point – what are we going to do long term? This is our new reality, and it’s a new reality for one in five of our employees around the globe. Thats a piece we’re all looking at. 

One of the pieces we’re trying to understand is looking at the policies we’ve pieced together and what will work for the long term. A study out of Mercer said 56 percent of those who are caregivers – those caring for children or parents – have not raised the fact that they are caregivers with their direct supervisors. So, as we’re trying to create policies, we’re creating them a little bit in a bubble. But we need to understand and create that connection of what employees need. 

Benjamin Sommers: One of the wrinkles here when talking about long-term, is that unless you say we’re going to have full-on remote schooling and write off the year for in-person learning, you’re going to have uncertainties. It’s not obvious that you can plan out the entire school year unless you commit to fullon remote. So, there is only so much employers can do.

How have hospitals and healthcare organizations responded? 

Benjamin Sommers: Hospitals, especially the larger systems, have the resources to set up child care or prioritize their child care services to increase capacity for front line workers. 

In smaller hospitals and doctor practices without that ability, there has been a lot of thought about who actually needs to be physically present. In my clinic, a lot of the referral coordinators and a lot of the billing is being done remotely. More of the mental health services are also being done remotely, and we’re prioritizing the visits that have to happen with nurses and doctors in person by clearing out space in the building. 
How do parents know how to make the right decision if they have the option to go back to school? 

Benjamin Sommers: It’s a very individualized situation. Parents should talk to their own health care providers. And, also understand that sometimes the risks you know are scarier than the risks you don’t. 

The idea of going back to school is scary, but the question is what happens if your kid isn’t in school? If what that means is they are going to be exposed to a circling cast of whoever is on the playground and you have a revolving cast of caretakers, is that better or worse? It depends. 

Here is what we do know. Outdoor spaces are better than indoor. More space is better than less. The use of face masks and hand hygiene is really important. But there is no simple answer to can I send my kids back? 

It’s very clear from the evidence that if you open any environment and don’t take precautions, Covid can spread rapidly. But if you take safeguards, your risk of transmission is low. It’s not 0, but it’s low. 

Are your employees coming to you and saying that they’re having troubles? Or are they just trying to keep going and slog through it? 

Zack Bernstein: We gave people the option to pull themselves from the office environment if they were high risk. We tried to offer remote options when we could, but much of our critical operations have to be done in the office. We have alternating teams that come in every two weeks. People wear masks unless they are in their own office and we have hand sanitation stations every ten feet. 

What we have done is to give people maximum flexibility in terms of hours to work around their family obligations. However, as someone who has a child, I am very conscious of avoiding shifting the burden onto people who don’t have kids. 

One of the biggest lessons we have tried to teach people is that there are important things and then there are urgent things and they’re not the same. There are many things that are important to do, but if it takes another month to do, then that’s okay. But if there are things that have to get done now, we have to shift our resources to take care of those as a priority 

Courtney Lagace: It’s coming out in different ways. In quarter two, we looked at attrition. Did we have people leave the workforce because of COVID? What we saw was that no one had left the workforce just yet. But as we move forward into the school year, the stress will really come out and there may be different decisions, and we’ll have to decide how to address that. 

What we are seeing is that people are not taking vacation time, especially in the US where we have more limited time off. They’re holding on to it in case something happens. 

We’re hearing about the stress as we talk with our employee resource groups that bring concerns from specific groups to leadership and through our HR Business Partners. We are seeing parents go to their HR Business Partners to explain that they are struggling. At Colgate, we’ve made that a flexible discussion. If it’s raised, we will get the manager involved and set up support for that parent. 

Some parents might be scared to raise the topic because needing help in our society – for better or worse – can be seen as a weakness. And when there is an opportunity for a promotion, maybe the person who doesn’t have caregiving responsibilities might get that. So, are you talking to managers as well? 

Courtney Lagace: The way that we’re starting that conversation is to destigmatize. It’s okay to not be okay. One of the things we’re trying to do is to give our managers the skills to have those conversations. One of the places we’re starting is with vacation time and having those personal conversations around taking time away from work. 

If I could give you the power to do whatever you needed in terms of policy, what are the areas you would zero in on? 

Zack Bernstein: The first is recognizing which work is essential to get done now and which is not. The problem that most parents have is that employers think they are being flexible, but you are still doing two jobs and that’s a problem. You need to cut down on the work obligations while still getting done what has to be done. There is no way to cram enough hours into both sets of responsibilities. 

And then, offer flexible work as you can. For us, that means at work, doing what you need to do to get the critical mission done, and if there is a day when you’re done early, go, because there will be other days when you can’t. 

Courtney Lagace: The biggest thing is having the ability for us to have certainty in areas where we can. On the performance side of things, it would be helpful to make it clear how people will be evaluated. Letting people know what to expect. Having certainty when there is so much uncertainty is helpful. 

Benjamin Sommers: We ought to be doing a more aggressive job on a national level of reducing rates. If we did that, we would in the short run incur some economic pain, but what we might be able to do in a shorter time is to realistically and safely open schools and allow employees to return to what they’re used to. But a push to reopen prematurely will hurt businesses in the long run. 

Zack Bernstein: I would give permission to parents to cut themselves more slack. Under normal circumstances, a lot of us struggle with finding the right balance. Right now, I feel like I’m failing at everything 90 percent time. I would give parents permission to be happy with a “Gentleman C.” If your kid is reasonably happy and healthy and has eaten a vegetable in the last five months, cut yourself some slack because this is really hard. 

As global citizens of this world, what should we be doing to help this overall for everyone? 

Zack Bernstein: From my perspective, there is a certain amount of internalizing the idea of burden sharing that we’re all going to have to do. As someone who chose to have a child, I am going to have a tougher time than someone who doesn’t. There will be some extra amount of stuff that employees who don’t have children will have to take on. We need to find the balance between the two. 

Are you creating policies that affect everyone or are you catering to employees based on their roles? 

Courtney Lagace: There are different approaches for those going out into the community in general. When we look at safety, there are different needs, so there are different policies and procedures. Does everyone have access? Yes. If you’re going to go out into the community for your job, here are the things for those people versus those who are going to be doing their job remotely. 

Something we’re trying to do universally, is if someone has blocked off time or says they’re away, that is respected. This is for everyone, not just parents. Also, we’re shortening meetings and having no meeting days so people can have more flexibility. 

For managers who aren’t parents, there isn’t a playbook. Are you rewriting the script? 

Courtney Lagace: Leadership needs to model the behavior first. What we’re doing is we’ve come up with guiding principles that we’re socializing with our leadership team. We’re looking at this on the team level. Empowering and ensuring that the norm changes. 

We’re making sure to reframe conversations. Instead of handing a deadline, we’re saying when can you get this to me? Another example is that we’re ending meetings earlier. An hour meeting ends at the 50-minute mark so everyone can say what they’re going to do and take away. 

Do you have any advice? 

Rachel Barek: If I could give one piece of advice – if a kid runs on screen, applaud them. Give them a break. Everybody needs the hug you can’t get right now and the break you can’t get now. If everyone could be just a little kinder, a little more forgiving. Take a breath and lower expectations. 

Zack Bernstein: Cut yourself some slack. You are doing two jobs. It’s hard. 

Is there anything we can do to make this easier for kids? 

Benjamin Sommers: Outdoor time is really important for kids. So, do what you can to get outside with your kids. Outdoor spaces are relatively low risk. And to the extent that your kids are old enough, share your frustrations. This isn’t normal and acknowledging that is really validating for them. 

How are you feeling on a personal level? How does back to school look? 

Zack Bernstein: This whole process has been hands down the hardest prolonged time I have ever been through, and it comes with emotional waves and ups and downs. One of the biggest decision points for us was that we needed our kid to have more contact with other kids for his mental health although that meant having less time with grandparents. It was tough, but it was good seeing our son have more time now that he’s getting more interaction.  

Rachel Barek: We made the decision to pod in with our neighbors and that has been extremely helpful. But now I’m working on a pre-school contract to have a pod in our basement. This is not something I expected to do, but as a parent you need to be making these decisions. It’s challenging on the best day. 

Benjamin Sommers: This has been the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. I used to think first year residency would be the hardest, but having a 100 plus days straight with just the four of us takes a toll and you feel like you’re treading water. 

You really do just take it day by day because if you look to the horizon, it’s overwhelming. The school picture is quite unclear and it’s hard to prepare. You just try to not dwell on what you can’t control. 

Courtney Lagace: My one piece of advice is around self-care. Whether you have children or not you have to think about that. What are you doing for yourself? If we all think about that collectively, it will help us support each other through this time. 

Watch the live panel here:  
Find more WorkReduce Live sessions here to access conversations between executives and thought-leaders on the issues, challenges and opportunities facing brands and agencies today. 

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