My house is full of new books, there are two pairs of shiny shoes in the hallway and the hot, sunny weather has arrived – which can only mean one thing. It’s back-to-school time.
But while schools and nurseries have started back with relative normality, the number of unknowns that parents are dealing with are higher than ever.
I have all the usual back-to-school concerns: will my children like their new teachers? How will we all be dressed by 8am? When’s their first fancy dress day?!
This year, however, there are even more. I’m worried about the regular testing, the inevitably worrying spikes in temperature for an unknown reason (or is it COVID?!), or the entire family needing to isolate. Never mind all of the things that I want to achieve in my career before Christmas.
I’m sure many of you reading this feel the same. Because now, we’re expected to get on with our lives and go back to the way things were, despite the huge number of unknowns.
And that’s hard.
So, what’s fuelling the uncertainty?
Childcare in autumn
There’s a big question around what childcare will be like this autumn. Even though bubbles are being disbanded, COVID-19 hasn’t disappeared: when schools in Scotland returned at the end of August, cases among young people surged. Coupled with the added admin of carrying out regular tests and staying on top of changing rules and regs (including individual school- and nursery-specific guidelines), it’s no wonder that many working parents are starting the autumn term filled with trepidation and anxiety.
The future of hybrid working
Most working parents I speak to are still unsure about how hybrid working is going to pan out. They know they have to go into the office more, but few have a clear understanding of what this looks like or how they will manage it.
Adding to this unease are vague expectations from employers. During the constant change of last year, it was easier for businesses to let employees take manage and design their working week. But now – as normality starts to creep in – this isn’t enough. DIY flexible working may seem like a good thing, but it must have clear boundaries and expectations to work.
Too much change, too few breaks
On top of all this, there’s a real sense of exhaustion. This last year has been relentless. And with summer breaks off the table for many – whether that’s due to extortionate costs, bouts of isolation, re-integration anxiety, or fears over travelling abroad – not everyone has had the chance to properly switch off and recover.
How can you best support working parents through this uncertainty?
From small gestures to bigger policy change, there are a number of things you can do to help your working parents through this transition stage.
Acknowledge the situation
Here’s the thing: working parents have been doing an amazing job. They’ve adjusted to new working patterns and moved their entire support networks online. They’ve become maths, geography, music, PE teachers – and balanced that with endless Zoom calls and a changing workload. And they’ve done this during one of the toughest times in all our living history.
So, take a moment to acknowledge what they’ve achieved – and what you’ve achieved if you’re a parent too.
There’s one really simple thing you can do right now: recognise what working parents are going through. By understanding that going back to normal isn’t attainable, you’ll ease some of the stress and anxiety that many working parents feel right now.
Set clear expectations around flexibility
If you’re going to offer flexibility or a hybrid working model, avoid saying: ‘oh it’s flexible, pick your own hours’.
Many working parents have concerns about how they’re viewed in the workplace, so they’re always going to go above and beyond – and sometimes, that’s to the detriment of their own wellbeing.
One of my biggest worries is flexible working going the same way as unlimited holidays. Remember a few years ago, where it was all the rage to offer limitless holidays? Well, it didn’t last too long because people didn’t take any. It became a corporate competition to see who could take the least number of days off.
To avoid this from happening with hybrid working – and to give your people the best foundations to plan their weeks on – communicate clear expectations around what they need to achieve, what they’re doing well, and measure value based on goals, not hours worked.
(You can find more tips about developing your hybrid working environment in this blog.)
Encourage open team conversations
I hear the same thing from many working parents: ‘I work really hard between 8.30 and 5.30 and get all my tasks done. After I put my children to bed and log on to check an email, I see that loads of people are still online – so I feel I should be too.’
However, the reality is often far from the truth. In a remote or hybrid environment, it’s easy to see when and how long people are online for – and forget to consider why. When you don’t have the context, this can breed guilt and resentment, and ultimately impact how well your team works together.
One way to deter harmful, unhelpful comparison is to facilitate open conversations.
By encouraging team conversations, you remove that uncertainty and comparison. Instead, your team can support each other in their different ways of working, and recognise that everyone has a pattern that suits their lives and responsibilities.
So, facilitate conversations where people can say what’s working, what’s not working, and – most importantly – whether they feel like they’re getting enough time away from work.
It’s not time for normality
Lockdown was hard. There’s no denying that. But trying to act normal in a world that’s anything but, has its own set of challenges.
Resist the temptation to rush back to normal. Take stock of your team’s personal responsibilities and get curious about their lives outside of the 9-5. And help foster an environment that lets people work the way that works for them.
If you’d like more help or guidance in creating a better culture for your working parents, you can get in touch with me here.