How tech companies can help parents and caregivers work and show up for their families post COVID-19

We’re living amidst a crisis that has brought forth deep issues we have long ignored — the work-life conflict of parents and caregivers. Now that an entire workforce of parents are forced to work remotely with children at home, there’s a spotlight on the plight of juggling work, caregiving, and self care. For now, we’ve been able to prove that work from home is technically possible. But in order to fully integrate work and life and make this sustainable, we must re-imagine how we define work.

While I focus a lot on parents and caregivers because they represent a marginalized group, all employees deserve the ability to integrate work and life. In tech specifically, we have the privilege to do our work from home. However, working at home has resulted in people logging more hours and being “on demand” at all times. This will only lead to burnout, and employees need to feel empowered to set boundaries and prioritize their mental health in this new context.

Let’s dig into the current state of work for most parents and caregivers at the moment:

  1. Schools are closed for the remainder of the school year and summer options aren’t available. This means parents have no childcare for the foreseeable future. The are juggling the responsibilities of work, education, caregiving, and household tasks simultaneously.
  2. Caregivers are responsible for ill family members who may be high risk and need the very healthcare facilities they’re trying to avoid.
  3. We’re seeing a new level of depth into peoples’ lives as kids, pets, and roommates make cameos on Zoom.
  4. Managers may scrutinize productivity in light of the newfound autonomy of employees working from home.
  5. Boundaries around when work starts and stops are unclear, and people are logging in more hours since there’s no physical separation between home and the office.
  6. Fear around the uncertainty of the economy and job security runs high.
  7. Stress results in lack of sleep and mental space for self-care.
  8. People are battling burnout, resulting in mental health implications.

Here’s what real parents are saying:

“I get the most stressed when I can’t get my work done because I have to watch my kids, and they have such a short attention span and deserve my attention in these scary times.”

“I don’t feel like I want to take more paid time off as we are seeing the impact on our customers, and this has me scared for my job should layoffs come.”

“The idea of taking PTO is tempting to me, but I keep putting it off because A) If I’m off then I’ll be responsible for childcare all day, and my turn working is the only break I get and B) I’m already barely keeping up. Given how distracted I always am, a day off will only increase my stress.”

“My manager doesn’t have kids and doesn’t get it. I’m afraid to speak up and be found out for my lack of productivity.”

“My daycare re-opened, and I started sending my son again. I struggle daily with the fact that I’m exposing him, but neither my husband nor I could work with him at home, so this seems like the only viable option.”

“I just need a break.”

It’s clear parents are struggling. We need a whole host of changes from policy to benefits to leadership support to plain empathy. But the degree to which an individual feels the agency to change their situation can be highly impacted by their relationship with their managers. Even at a company with incredibly empathetic leadership, an individual’s experience is mostly shaped by their day-to-day interactions with their manager. It’s up to managers to proactively check on their reports, seek to understand the situation, and collaborate on solutions. As individuals, it’s important to seek community, set boundaries, and take care of our mental health. We also have to be brave and ask for help.

So now, if we can identify some of the root issues, how might we address them? I’d love to say, let’s start small. There will obviously need to be a sequencing of events to make change possible. But the reality is, we fundamentally need to rethink how we define work.

A few ideas of the top of my head that could help parents and caregivers:

– Incentivize the use of paid time off and sick days

– Offer flexible schedules (such as 6 hr days or 4 day work weeks) and remote work options

– Subsidize childcare and offer emergency back-up care

– Provide better family health coverage/lower costs

– Increase paid parental leave; make it equal regardless of caregiver status

– Acknowledge standard school hours, summer closures, holidays, etc.

-Normalize home life while at work (ask “how are you,” introduce your family, make family appointments public on your calendar)

-Train managers on how to support working parents

-Incentivize the use of mental health resources

-Create community and support for parents (inclusion resource groups, Slack, etc.)

There’s probably a whole slew of ideas just waiting to be unleashed. Here are some prompts I’ve started to get people thinking in a new direction:

  1. How might we consider alternative work options such as part-time, contract, job share, etc.?
  2. How might we re-imagine work schedules that differ from Mon-Fri/9–5/40 hour weeks?
  3. How might we extend benefits and policies to all workers regardless of status?
  4. How might we collaborate productively without needing to meet face-to-face?
  5. How might we reduce meetings and incentivize documentation, thorough notes, action items, and asynchronous work?
  6. How might we create different metrics for productivity that reward individuals on impact created versus hours worked?
  7. How might we help enforce boundaries and incentivize healthy habits to increase mental health?
  8. How might we address inequities so everyone can thrive?
  9. How might we encourage everyone to be more human at work, and show their full selves without fear of bias?

This pandemic is teaching us that our old ways are unsustainable, and I personally do not want to go back to the way things used to be. I hope this is a wake up call for us to slow down, question the status quo, and create the change we have long deserved.

For parents and caregivers specifically, I see you. You can’t do it all, and it’s imperative that you do not. Because trying to hold things together will only keep our issues private and buried. To demand systemic change, we need to be vulnerable and brave. We need to speak up and out. We need to lean in to the breakdown so we can rebuild.

So now the big question: how will you define a future where work and life are fully integrated?