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Despite years of experience juggling progressively demanding roles, I wasn’t prepared for how challenging this fall would be as a marketing executive with a kid starting school for the first time.
And I’m one of the lucky ones: I work in a company with progressive policies that recognize the unique challenges parents and caregivers face. Nonetheless, this season has been a crash course in adapting to new schedules, managing conflicting emotions and moderating my own expectations of how I show up as a leader and a mom.
For many parents, the transition to back-to-school for their kids means coping with scheduling conflicts and new demands on their time: from orientations and gradual entry schedules (and the mental and emotional labor that goes along with them), to inevitable sick days and the awkward discrepancy between school dismissal and standard business hours.
What has become clearer to me is that, in many ways, school is designed for a bygone era when it was the norm that one parent stayed home (which is no longer a reality for many families). Although I am lucky to have a partner who shoulders some of this load, what’s helped the most is having an employer with flexible, family-friendly policies and leaders who understand the reality for working parents.
I know I’m not alone in navigating the challenges that come with back-to-school season. A recent survey revealed that parents commonly feel overwhelmed at this time of the year. Yet, most employees want to succeed at work while raising kids, and helping them do so increases workplace satisfaction, loyalty and productivity.
Here are a few steps employers can take to make this transition less overwhelming for parents (and that I believe can be impactful for other caregiving situations as well):
Normalizing the realities of parenting
Remember those awkward moments during the early days of remote work when kids popped up on Zoom cameras during meetings? Thankfully, I no longer feel self-conscious when my daughter barges in during a meeting. It’s simply part of being a working parent.
The pandemic may have shed light on the juggle for employees with kids, but there are still significant challenges for those navigating this experience. One study found that 85% of women leave full-time work within three years of having their first child, and 19% leave work completely due to the lack of flexibility employers afford.
Employers can support working parents by normalizing and accommodating caregivers’ needs — and their experiences. I’m a huge advocate for parenting out loud in the workplace. It’s one reason I’m proud of our dedicated Slack channel, “#parents-helping-parents,” where anyone can share their caregiving struggles and wins. Not only does it provide an outlet for those facing challenges, but it also offers the rest of the team visibility into the unique situations parents and caregivers face — and inspiration for designing policies around them. Case in point: This year, we were able to be proactive about shifting all leadership meetings for September to accommodate back-to-school demands.
Related: Tips To Balance Work With Parenting
Treating employees like the adults they are
While there are many ways companies can support working parents, the irony is that when designing policies, many employers inadvertently treat their employees like children. Working parents, who are used to making the most of what time they have to get things done, know that flexibility is the ultimate benefit. It’s what has led organizations like ours to measure productivity based on outputs, not hours worked or rigid schedules.
This flexibility has shown up in other ways as well: When I started in my current role, I was four months pregnant and unsure what that would mean for my future. But the leaders I work with were completely unphased. They knew I would need wiggle room in my schedule, even when I hadn’t yet realized it myself. And they gave me the autonomy to set my own boundaries with the reassurance that, together, we would make it work.
It’s also worth noting that flexible hours and boundary-setting benefit everyone — not just parents. Whether employees want to pick up their kids at 3:00, come in late due to a medical appointment or work remotely from a different timezone, they can. All that matters to us is that the work gets done. It’s not always a perfect system, but it does allow parents to prioritize their family needs — and that makes them happier and more productive at work.
Leading with empathy as a North star
I am lucky that the people I work with understand just how much life — and priorities — change when you have kids. This was clear when I initially returned from maternity leave and was put through a rigorous re-onboarding process. Not only did I need a refresh on how the organization had changed, but it also reflected my team’s understanding that I had changed, too. To meet me where I was and allow me to reintroduce myself was highly empathetic on their part and reflects the old adage that it takes a village — both to raise a child and to care for its parents!
I know this level of understanding isn’t always the norm, especially in startups where the median age is younger and fewer people may have kids. But even in companies where leaders aren’t parents, it is possible to act with the assumption that all employees — and especially those who are caregivers — may be struggling to balance the demands of work and home, especially during high-stress times like back-to-school season. And what they likely need more than anything else is an ally as opposed to an adversary at work.
By embracing empathy, creating a culture where people can bring their full selves to work, and designing policies that allow for flexibility and autonomy, employers can make an already stressful time a little bit easier.