How leaders can best support working parents

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Our fabulous Circle In Co-Founders Jodi Geddes and Kate Pollard recently joined Employment Hero’s Ben Thompson to talk about how businesses can best support working parents. With so many working parents feeling the strain – emotionally, physically, financially – there has never been a more critical time for organizations to deliver the right support.

In this session, they tackled a range of topics including debunking working parent myths, balancing flexibility with structure, fostering a culture of trust and collaboration, setting expectations and accountability, and tangible ways to support working parents.

Read on for some highlights and top tips!

When Jodi returned to work from parental leave, she experienced a drop in confidence which unfortunately impacted her productivity – and ultimately had an impact on the business cost. As the idea of Circle In began to form, Kate and Jodi surveyed over 1000 working parents, and the call was resounding. 76% of respondents believed their company should be doing more to support them.  And that was before COVID!

51% of users on the Circle In platform are working parents which means over half are managing the competing priorities of homeschooling, career, household management, caregiving, and more.  It is therefore crucial for organizations to understand what support parents need and deliver it as soon as possible.

1. Debunking working parent myths

Working parents are not productive

This is a pervasive misconception stemming from the fact that working parents have too many demands on their time. The pandemic may have been a crazy and unexpected experiment, but despite parents having to juggle homeschooling and remote working amongst other things, the work has still been done. It’s not sustainable, but in terms of productivity, that myth has well and truly been busted.

Being a working parent and having a career are mutually exclusive

This myth about having to give up your career to be a parent is a huge one – and something that has likely contributed to many parents (especially women) leaving the workforce.  The truth is that having a career and being a parent is absolutely possible – you just need to be working for the right organization that supports you.

2. Balancing flexibility with structure

COVID is not a flexibility strategy

Just because the pandemic has fast-tracked flexibility doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a clear strategy and framework in place. While great seeing the number of dads at school pick-ups or helping with homeschooling, long-term change and structures are needed to create sustainable and equitable ways of working. Moving away from a rigid 9 to 5, must-be-in-office structure is a thing of the past. We’ve been doing things this way since the Industrial Revolution; change is well overdue!

Ensure systems are inclusive and holistic

Women are still carrying the lion’s share of caregiving and the pandemic only served to further highlight the discrepancy between the amount of (unpaid) caregiving responsibilities between women and men. This is having a significant impact on workforce participation so when approaching your flexibility frameworks, ensure they are inclusive and free of gender constructs. (for example, offering the same amount of leave for both primary and secondary caregivers). The more you support ALL working parents, the more equitable the share of caregiving can become.

3. Fostering a culture of trust and collaboration

Empower your people

Working parents want the autonomy to do their job when it suits them, but this can’t happen without the trust and support of their organizations and leaders. If you are truly committed to the practice of flexible working, you have to put some faith in the process – and it’s ok if it takes some time to adjust. This is new territory for a lot of organizations but the rewards – for both the organization and parents – will be great.

Survey, test and learn

If you’re a working parent, manager, or working on a wider policy for the organization, hear this: you don’t have to get it right the first time! Flexibility is not the same for everyone, so instead of committing to one path, approach it with a hypothesis and give it a go. And if it doesn’t fit? Change it. Try something else. The new world of work is ever-evolving and we need to evolve with it. Most importantly, don’t assume what your working parents want or need: ask them! Engagement and input is an essential step in delivering the right support.

Keep it real

Open communication is crucial to ensure that parents are getting the support they need; especially from the parents themselves. Having honest conversations with managers or colleagues about your challenges and capacity is essential.  Being a person, a parent, and a professional are intertwined in today’s world; empathy and vulnerability will be your biggest assets.

4. Setting expectations and accountability

Create a set of flexible working principles

With the 9 to 5 model (hopefully) obsolete for most companies, setting up a framework for flexible working helps provide clarity on new ways of working. Flexibility is everyone’s opportunity – and responsibility – but agreeing on some basic operating principles is a great way to start. This might be agreeing on specific collaboration hours, communication channels, in-person meetings, and opportunities for social connection.

Focus on the outcome, not the output

This is a huge step-change for a lot of organizations where work ethic has traditionally been measured by how long someone spends in the office.  But those days are long gone and many organizations are moving towards an outcome-based culture. In a nutshell, this means that it doesn’t matter WHEN you do the work as long as the work gets done. For working parents, having this level of flexibility and autonomy on their time is a game-changer.

Set clear boundaries and expectations

Ever heard of asynchronous communication? In a nutshell, it means that if somebody emails you at 10 pm, it is a given that you will respond to them at a time that is best for – which might be 6 am the following morning. Similarly, you don’t expect them to reply at 7 am; they’ll reply whenever they’re ready.  This might seem obvious but creating – and communicating – these boundaries and expectations will ensure true flexibility can thrive.

Lead by example

Ever heard the phrase “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”? Well, when it comes to flexible working, embedding the right frameworks and support is all down to role modeling. Imagine the CEO of your company sending a quick message during a meeting to say they’re logging off to help with homeschooling. Or your manager waving goodbye as they leave the office to do school pick up. These moments are both powerful and essential to drive a culture of empathy,  inclusion, and support for working parents.

5. Tangible ways to support working parents

Equip and inform your managers to provide support

While the organization usually owns the policies, practice is traditionally the role of the managers. Or in simpler terms, managers have the biggest impact on how working parents are supported.  As such, ensuring your managers are equipped with the right tools, resources, and language to support working parents, is essential. This is a huge part of what we at Circle In and closes the loop on providing holistic support. The role that leaders and managers play should never be underestimated.

Provide additional time off

Many organizations, in acknowledging the underlying risk of employee burnout, have taken to offering additional days of leave. At Circle In, we gave our team the last two Fridays off as half days, allowing people time to reconnect with their families or just have a break. The well-being of our team is tantamount, especially the many parents who are still juggling work, homeschooling, and remote working.

Give video calls a break

Zoom fatigue is a real thing! With everyone desperate to stay connected, it can be very easy to veer into too much connection and/or communication. Our solution for this was to nominate a “Zoom-free” day where we have no video calls and minimal internal meetings – and for those that do need to happen, we choose other forms of communication such as phone calls, emails, or Slack.  Not having to be “on” for a full day makes a world of difference mentally and also allows ample time for deep work – pending the demands of the other members of the household!

Ask working parents if they’re ok

This might seem like an obvious point, but it is perhaps the most powerful. Working parents are so externally focused at the moment that it’s unlikely they are taking time to stop and reflect on how they’re doing. This isn’t specific to workplaces (and we encourage everyone to ask the question) but the impact in an organizational context is enormous. As a manager, this is the single most important thing you can do right now.  And when you do ask, just give them the space to share. Listen, empathize and then take action.

There are numerous ways that leaders can support working parents, and while some of the challenges are unique to the current situation, the reality is that the balancing act of being a parent and a professional will never end.  There is no silver bullet – every organization’s journey will be different –  but there is a huge opportunity to ensure there is a framework for effective, authentic, and long-term policies and practices.  It’s not only the right thing to do; it will create deep advocacy from your working parents. They will tell their friends, their families, their networks, and your workplace will be seen as a family-friendly workplace that genuinely supports their people.

If you’d like to find out how Circle In can help you support your working parents and caregivers, click here to talk to us today.

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