Managing Working Parents During the Pandemic
Ellen Ernst Kossek, management professor at Purdue University, is researching how the pandemic is putting an enormous strain on working parents and the new challenge that poses for their managers. She shares how supervisors can offer much-needed consistency and predictability for working parents on their teams. She also outlines specific ways to give working parents more flexibility while still holding them accountable. Kossek is the coauthor, with Kelly Schwind Wilson and Lindsay Mechem Rosokha, of the HBR article “What Working Parents Need from Their Managers.”
CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
It’s pretty well known by now that the Covid-19 pandemic has put an enormous strain on working parents. It’s also put a new strain on the managers of those working parents. Leading a team to drive results – that’s always been the manager’s job. But how do you do that when your team members are suddenly managing childcare while they’re on the job?
The pandemic has forced many working parents to stay home. Their kids may be home during work hours too – maybe attending school virtually or because care centers are closed. Hiring help might not be safe. And on top of that, these workers might be sharing a home office with their spouse.
So working parents are stressed and stretched. And research shows that that increased burden at home during this pandemic is falling more heavily on women. So if you’re a manager, you need to understand this reality of your reports, but you also need to hold them accountable.
Today’s guest has researched this growing challenge and has some advice for managers. She recommends offering working parents two things that might seem to be in conflict: Predictability and flexibility.
Here to explain that is Ellen Ernst Kossek. She’s a management professor Purdue University, and she’s the coauthor of the HBR article, “What Working Parents Need From Their Mangers.” Ellen, thanks for coming on the show to talk about this.
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Thanks for having me, Curt.
CURT NICKISCH: Why is this a management problem and not about individuals basically just trying to hack their own work situations to better manage their time and responsibility?
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Well, I think a lot of the way that we’ve implemented flexibility, for example, has really been where companies passed policies, like you can request flex time. You can be accommodated. You can request to work at home. But whether you could do it or not in America has often been determined by whether your boss approves it. So we really have a lot of manager driven flexibility and manager driven support of work and family, and the employer sets broad parameters, but it’s really, approval depends on your immediate boss for flexibility.
CURT NICKISCH: And those broad parameters that you’re talking about, for some managers, that’s been something they can point to, to not have to work something out with you, either?
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Exactly. And I think what’s hard is that certainly your functions will vary in the company. So if you’re in a sales job that can be done mobily, then the manager’s going to able to support it. But in other parts of our companies, where you have front line workers, or even an all hands on deck culture for coding if you’re a tech company, managers haven’t really had to think about how to be flexible, but in our culture we always put work first, and the employee’s supposed to self-regulate and basically ask for help when they need it in an ad hoc basis. So COVID’s really changed everything upside down.
CURT NICKISCH: So what’s the manager’s role in improving the situation?
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Well, what we’ve found is that the manager should really try and think about two principles of making all work as predictable yet flexible. And it sounds like it’s two opposite things, but they really aren’t. Being predictable means that the manager helps the worker think about when are meeting times for face time required? And what would be a backup system predictably? And then flexible is when something’s going south with a child or someone gets sick, that the manager helps the employee be able to have a backup system or be able to restructure and maybe do work over six days, maybe working only some shorter days, six hour days, and then working on Saturday or going back on at night, what’s called split shifts. So predictability and flexibility together, and it’s kind of these alternative ideas, but I actually think it will help managers be better managers down the pike, post-COVID as well.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Well, let’s dig into that a little bit, because it does, when you hear about being predictable and flexible, it does sound like a contradiction and something that’s hard to manage, right, as a manager. I get the predictability part when you say, you know, know when you’re going to have meetings. It’s not the time to be like, hey, let’s all check in as a team this afternoon for a half hour, because if two parents are at home, and they’re trying to make sure that their conference calls are not overlapping, so that at least one of them can keep an eye out on the kids, whatever age they are, yeah, that kind of thing that drops in on your calendar at the wrong time can just be really hard to manage and is not very helpful. Right? What about the flexibility part of it, though?
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Well, I think a phrase that I love is the idea of learning how to be flexible in flexibility. Being flexible in flexibility is basically where the manager gives the employee some flexible options on workload, in terms of deadlines, on scheduling, and also flexibility on maybe what tasks are the most important. It might force the manager to look at what I call, and others have studied high-value work, and really prioritize what’s the most important thing to do, because today’s busy professionals online, most of us, we could probably work every day, all day long. So I think it’s being flexible on what is done, when it’s done, and when it’s delivered.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. How do you actually communicate that, then, to your team or to an employee?
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Well, I think the manager has to first look at the team as a whole, and that’s also something in our culture, we don’t often think about the collective. So collective time for core hours, for meetings. And then collective times in terms of the overall work of the unit, and helping the employee prioritize. And so it’s a conversation. So one thing that I do think, going back to the predictability time that managers need to do, especially during COVID, is to have some one on one check in time with every employee, particularly the working parent, to find out how things are going and priorities. And so it’s a conversation.
CURT NICKISCH: Is that conversation harder to have if you haven’t had it before? I mean, I feel like for a lot of manager, especially let’s just say nine to five jobs, where people come in and then go home, all of a sudden, that family life is coming into conflict, or at least overlapping with the regular work schedule, and maybe you’re a manager who just like, you know, you just haven’t talked about or dealt with these issues before. Can you start being this kind of manager at a time like this?
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Great question. And this is something that doesn’t come naturally, as you suggest, to managers. And in fact, our research shows that if you ask managers, are you a supportive boss of personal life for anyone, whether or not they have kids, 100% of managers will rate themselves as supportive, and only half of workers will rate their bosses as supportive. So there is a gap that needs to be closed.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, I loved that statistic when I read it. I couldn’t believe it, but then I totally could.
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Yeah. So and you know what? Realistically, in the U.S., for years we were kind of a separate worlds culture, as Rosabeth Moss Cantor, who is at Harvard Business School, once wrote about years ago. And now COVID’s really made 100% overlap of work and non-work boundaries. So we need to teach managers some ways to be supportive, and we’ve identified four behaviors that managers can do so that someone will feel free to talk about their personal needs.
CURT NICKISCH: Well, let’s get into that practical, then. What are some things that, what are those four areas? What are some things that managers can do to create the kind of routine and stability that you’re talking about? Because that might seem harder than flexibility.
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Well, the first one is emotional support, and it’s basically just asking workers how they’re doing. Saying hello. So that having that, scheduling that one on one meeting for 15 or 30 minutes once a week, we found that a lot of managers don’t even take the time to humanly connect. And that’s when somebody’s going to tell you about a problem. Gee, my sitter has COVID. I need help. For example.
You were exactly right. Mangers don’t know what to do. They’re just told to be supportive. But what does that mean? So emotional support, at least showing that you care about employees as a person, and then instrumental support with the idea of just helping people basically with scheduling and availability. And that’s something that is really regulated a lot now by each employee and by the manager. And I agree that people are scared today. You know, some companies are laying off people. One interesting thing about availability might be for the manager to be flexible even on whether people use their video camera. So maybe somebody can be in a meeting, but they’re multitasking, and you don’t want to stigmatize somebody, like a mom, for example, or a dad that’s also, has a kid over in the corner while they’re trying to in the conference call. So I think that instrumental could also involve just how we’re managing teleconferencing as well.
CURT NICKISCH: What are some other examples?
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Giving some choice as to when people might want to have team meetings or being able to have a COVID, we call them COVID buddies, somebody that could back somebody up at a meeting when something comes up. That’s an instrumental system that the manager can set up.
CURT NICKISCH: Got it, so with a COVID buddy, you might actually get two workers who are able to negotiate workload and hand stuff off to each other and manage that relationship and sharing among themselves rather than one person helping the other person out with just the natural expectation that it’s going to go the other way when the other person needs it and you help kind of build some flexibility in the team without being the person to have to decide and manage that all the time.
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Exactly. If you can’t go to that 30 minute meeting, if you miss that 30 minute window, you could ask at your buddy what happened. And that also helps the team not lag in getting work done. And we actually debated, my coauthors and I, on the idea of recording. And I think it is important to record, but I think you have to be very, first get permission from the team, so people know you’re being recorded. Right? And then I mentioned role modeling, which is basically just talking about personal strategies you’re using, or just your own emotions, what you’re going through. I mean, it’s not like, you know, just in a professional way. And then the last one is this idea of creative work-life or work-family management, where you think about win-win solutions for the parent and the business to get the work done.
So maybe your company used to have a policy that someone could work remotely if they lived beyond 75 miles, 50 miles from the office. Some companies had that pre-COVID. But maybe now you might let somebody telework from anywhere. They still get the work done, but they’re able to, maybe if they’re by Grandma, Grandma can watch the child while you’re working. Or they’re able to live with their partner when they had had a commuting marriage before COVID started. So you know, it’s all common sense. But sometimes we forget these basic ways to support people.
CURT NICKISCH: H ow can managers make sure the work is still getting done? Because I think many are trying to be sympathetic, not be too harsh. But also want to make sure that they’re not setting up a situation where people don’t do the work or get behind on the work in a way that hurts the organization. How do you strike that balance?
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Once again, I think you do want to make sure that the work does get done, but I think managers have to help prioritize what’s most important. And if something is not a tight deadline, you can, well, say a parent to get their work done over seven days instead of Monday through Friday, or even a two week window. And then if people are running into problems, that’s when you step in, but you shouldn’t manage the whole team as the exception. You should start off with giving people the benefit of the doubt, but a little more what I call time buffers to be able to get work done. So if something does happen with the children at home, or your partner has a deadline and can’t watch the children if you’re childcare sharing, it gives them flexibility and flexibility.
CURT NICKISCH: Do you need to pay attention to making sure that you’re not sort of shifting a lot of the responsibility from people who are working parents who have these new difficulties from people who don’t have children? I’m sure that’s a temptation a bit for managers now to put things on people who don’t have children at home and aren’t dealing with this. Is that a mistake?
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Yeah, and so, I just tell manager that you shouldn’t get into backlash wars where you say that somebody’s kid is more important that somebody else’s need to have regular time to go for a run or have a pet or a grandma or eldercare. So the reality is, somebody that’s trying to multitask and getting their work done will be at a disadvantage. I do think that we might want to have some empathy sharing in the team of what people are going through. On the other hand, I don’t think you can burn out your non-parents either. And one way to do this might be to have people volunteer. Who would like to do this? Try to use the carrot first, rather than the stick, and have the team actually help you figure out how to cover it. If that doesn’t work, then you may have to be a little more focusing and trying to give more work to somebody who is a non-parent, but perhaps you can then reward them with something else after COVID, or let them pick a task that they like more. It’s a negotiation.
CURT NICKISCH: Can that lead to a situation where people feel like they need to volunteer, or they’re not going to get promoted?
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Well, you know, I really think this is a diversity and inclusion issue, and we’ve not included work-life issues as much as we should into the D and I discussion. I really think this is a 100 year pandemic. You know, we haven’t had something like this, and it’s trial and error. And I think that managers do need to understand their own unconscious bias about this, about who is an ideal worker. And this could be part of a team conversation sometime, but right now nobody wants to get on Zoom for another meeting. But I do think that it should be something that is at least talked about, that you know, you don’t have to worry about losing your job if you don’t volunteer, but once a month, everybody should try, should volunteer. Let’s hope that works out. And unless you have a special situation, like you got sick, or you have an autistic kid, right, and there’s no backup. So I think people understand that.
CURT NICKISCH: I wonder, too, for manager, they’re also feeling, you know, this financially difficult for many organizations, and they’re feeling pressure from their superiors who maybe are less tuned in to team dynamics and what people’s working situations are, and more tuned in to sales and productivity. And I don’t know, managers’ superiors may see those choices differently.
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Well, great point. And in fact, I have some research that we’re writing up right now where we found that if a manager’s boss, like at the director level, was supportive of the manager’s own work-life, the manager was actually able to be, able to enact support for their workers. So I think companies might want to intervene at the senior management level, because everybody’s feeling this. It’s just a matter of whether you’re in a traditional family or how much money you have. So I would say, let’s try and socialize our leadership. It’s up to the CEOs and C suite to get everybody on board. And even though I agree that companies are hurting, but what I’ve been finding for this national study for the National Academy of Sciences is that parents are double paying for school, for childcare.
CURT NICKISCH: What does that mean?
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Well, for example, if you have your child in a childcare center, and you don’t want to lose your spot post-COVID, they’re paying for childcare in the home or alternative system, and they’re paying the center. Or a private school, they don’t want to lose the slot in the school, but they’re also then coming up with alternative teaching approaches. So there’s a tremendous financial burden on parents right now.
CURT NICKISCH: A lot of what we talked about is really helpful when you talk about flexibility for people who can time shift their work, and people who are able to like move some to the weekends, or after kids go to bed, get in several hours of answering emails or heads down productive time. What about essential workers or frontline workers who have shifts or need to be on scene? Flexibility’s much trickier to try to work out there. What kind of advice do you have for managers of businesses like those?
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Well, I’ve actually done a lot of work with manufacturing or healthcare, and one thing you can do is to simply have shift trades possible. In some companies, you can’t, the worker can’t find their own backup, and a company can facilitate this by having formal cross training. There might be a machine that only one person can do, or a certain type of job. So that’s one way to give more flexibility across departments and then give employees a chance to just trade a shift, because if you don’t show up to work or not available, that can also affect your job security. Another strategy I’ve seen companies do is that they hire one, a floater worker, or they have a current employee be trained to just cover wherever work is needed if somebody is not able to come in, and even for frontline workers, they might be able to come in and shift their schedule an hour or something with someone else.
One other thing that we’ve seen is the idea of a guilt free sick time or call in number. So I saw a manufacturing company do this with workers in the winter, when you know that school’s closed because of the snow, or cars don’t start. Is that you staff one extra person that can be on call to come in. And that does give workers a chance to be able to be, have time off and not lose their job.
So those are simple things, but it really makes a huge difference, and every job, even essential workers even more, need to have some work-life support, because they’re bringing COVID into their house when they go to work every day, to maybe take care of people in the hospital, or get our food ready at the grocery stores.
CURT NICKISCH: And so that’s part of your job as a manager, is to say, this is what my team needs, and this may even cost us more money. Right? To have a floater or set up this support. But you’ve got to make the case for your team.
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: It sounds like it costs money. It does. You’re exactly right, Curt, in the short run. But in the long run, if somebody quits, there have been studies on customer service, and if you’re understaffed, it actually hurts productivity over the long run. So I think we have to help managers think differently about this, and if you give a little bit of resources to support this, it may pay off for you financially. People also are less likely to come to work with COVID if you, if they’re a frontline worker, and that could also shut down the store. So I think we have to re-socialize managers about what is cost in this situation.
CURT NICKISCH: What do you say to managers who feel like they don’t have control, like that they don’t really know what the situation is. They were able to monitor people in the office, see stuff getting done. And this is a much more chaotic world, and they feel like they don’t have tabs on their teams and what’s happening?
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Oh, you’re exactly right that everyone has less control now, particularly I think managers, and I do think that it could also help companies rethink about how do we assess productivity. But there are companies for years, like IBM early on did a mobile workforce, where they had many of their salespeople and consultants working 100% remotely. And they learned to manage by output. And I really think we have to think about how are we measuring performance today? And then help managers reassess on basically what is good performance in the age of COVID and beyond.
I just read that Microsoft has come up with a policy on flexibility that will let people really have the option to work flexibly as long as they feel that the culture isn’t being sacrificed. So I actually have had a number of companies talk to me about wanting to think about post-COVID, now that people have enjoyed this flexibility, not having to commute, not having to spend as much time getting in a suit if they’re not working with a client that day. And so how can we then have a more flexible workplace and schedules, and where people work into the future. And I think Microsoft is one company that I’ve seen taking the lead on that.
CURT NICKISCH: As a management professor and somebody who studies this, what do you think some of the long term effects on workers, what do you think things are going to look like five years from now based off of this experience?
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Well, for one I think there will be many more companies having remote workers and telework as an option. I think what many are struggling with now is how to do this in a phased approach, and not promise long term telework, and you really can’t take back something very easily once employees try it.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, it kind of feels like the toothpaste is out of the tube with all of this. Right?
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Exactly. And they’re worried about their culture and how to maintain their culture. And so, long term we’ll have to think about new ways to keep the culture going if we’re all working remotely, or more remotely. I think it’s not an either or situation. What I’ve found is the best situation usually is where you can work at least a day a week in the office, and then at least a day at one company that I worked with and wrote up a study on, they basically migrated whole workgroups by function to be a mobile worker, but they required the workers to set up their laptops with a phone so they could work at home one day a week, share a desk in the office one day a week, and gave some choice in between that so that nobody set their whole life up either by always having to work in the office, which doesn’t work when there’s a hurricane or some other emergency, or their whole life at home.
So that’s one thing. And I think that’s really important, that it could be a stress reduction strategy, because it might lessen long commutes. It might enable parents to be able to work and not just force people to take a long maternity leave. It might entice people to work part time or come back sooner if they’re able to do that with telework. Another is, I’m worrying about gender, and the long term effects of retaining women. I think that we were making a lot of progress pre-COVID for both women and minorities, and I’m worried that post-pandemic, we may have lost a number of women dropping out of the labor force, and that could be bad for diversity and inclusion in leadership pipelines.
CURT NICKISCH: Ellen, thanks so much for sharing your research and pointing some positive ways to move forward amid the difficulty.
ELLEN ERNST KOSSEK: Well, thank you so much for having me.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Ellen Ernst Kossek, professor of management at Perdue University. And she’s a coauthor of the HBR article, “What Working Parents Need from Their Managers.”
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholtz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.