By Katie Diamond
To quote the Pussycat Dolls: “Be careful what you wish for, cuz you just might get it.” Working from home is the dream for many professional moms. It affords flexible hours, the ability to see your kids throughout the day, and of course, it comes with the ideal dress code: leggings.
When we’re appropriately set up from an equipment, space, and childcare standpoint, yes — working from home can be awesome. But when thrown into it with little warning, cancelled school, a super competitive caregiver market, and no known end-date, “the island of adults” (as one member of our community described her office) sounds luxurious.
I’m currently WFH with my husband, our three-year-old — who has an extreme preference for Daddy and is in a tiresome inquisitive phase — and our 10-month-old, who decided that this week was the perfect time to start crawling, pulling up on things, sprouting teeth, and crying every time I leave the room. It’s not easy to get any work done. With the closures of schools, daycares, playgroups, music classes, and offices, millions of moms and dads have found themselves in the same stretched position.
As managers and leaders, we can think of this as a moment of truth. How we manage through this crisis will be proof points on whether we are genuinely there to help working parents navigate work/life congruence, now work/life entanglement.
It would be absurd to imagine that parents with children at home will have undisturbed attention through the workday. If you haven’t experienced that conflation, imagine a boomerang, but of the human kind. You send it out (equipped with a snack, game, book or screen), and before you know it… whack! It’s back smacking you in the face. So, while you can expect these parents to find and embrace strategies to manage disruptions and optimize focus time, their human boomerangs are not designed to self-entertain for hours and days on end.
“It would be absurd to imagine that parents with children at home will have undisturbed attention through the workday.”
Here are five things to do and consider that we learned from The Sophia Project — in-depth interviews with 150+ working moms we conducted for Hacking Sophia, a digital platform designed to support women juggling careers and young kids. These findings are acutely applicable as our ‘islands’ take on new meaning:
1. Communicate with Radical Clarity
There will be fewer opportunities to “pop in” and clarify discussions and next steps. And every follow-up email, text, Slack message, is a potential distraction that risks a downward spiral of productivity. So clarify expectations, ensure alignment, and create check-ins so precious thinking time is allocated effectively. And, importantly, openly communicate that it’s not an exercise in micromanagement, but instead an intent to reduce miscommunication and achieve time well spent — a valued currency of the time-starved (working parents all the time) and now, the isolated (working parents in this COVID-19 world).
2. Declare War on Time Sucks
Time sucks are maddening for the time-starved in business-as-usual situations — and are agonizing when you’re trying to optimize work efficiency). Think: ‘reply all,’ ‘I have a quick request’ or ‘quick question’ (which are NEVER quick), ‘it would be great if you could jump on a call,’ or ‘can you do a write-up on x?’ Challenge the need for each email, small request, conference call — does it really move the business ahead? Is it worth sacrificing precious heads-down time?
3. Play the Subtraction Game
Fiercely prioritize, which is not just striking off ‘nice tos’ but also what’s not urgent. Delegation still matters, but be ruthless about whether what is being delegated is mission-critical. And here’s a tip: regularly subtract. Week to week, to-dos will be added. Subtract at least one for each you add by either completing or de-prioritizing it. That applies to your work and what you distribute to others.
4. Is Video Really Necessary?
To Zoom or Not to Zoom? It feels like a perfect solution for connecting given the ‘higher touch’ experience of video — but no one wants to look like she hasn’t had a chance to shower when on video chat, which at the best of times can make us all look like trolls. Ask: is video necessary or will audio do? (And that’s after asking, ‘Is the call necessary at all?’). Think about what other ‘professional expectations’ need to be relaxed. Are you going to comment if someone attends a call in a t-shirt rather than a button-down? Hair in a ponytail? Kid sitting on the sofa in the background (or running in requesting snacks)? Be ready for and patient with interruptions.
5. Relieve Technology Soul-Suckers
Tech hiccups are soul-suckers that feel even more significant as we navigate working from home with less IT support (either official or the trusty coworker who can solve any tech issue). That gut-wrenching feeling when tech fails you is intensified when time is even more scarce. Consider whether your new stay-at-home team has the technology needed to support productivity: hotspots to support extra wi-fi needs (when every device in the home is likely running, draining wi-fi), monitors, keyboards, or laptop stands to make home workstations ergonomic, noise-canceling headphones, to name a few.
And, if we dare add an apple to the above oranges: simply ask, from time to time, “How’s it going there?” and “Can I help in any way?” Remind them that their work is valued. Even with many check-in calls, texts or messages, sitting home alone you can be left wondering, does what I’m working on matter? Your concern, consideration, and validation — if delivered with authenticity — goes a long way.
Yes, we all love our children and when we go off to work, can harbor a desire to spend more time with them. But in the spirit of ‘be careful what you wish for,’ we’re now literally managing the collapse of work/life separation. How are you going to lead? Manage? It’s these moments of ‘beautiful constraint’ that can define if you are really walking the walk and helping working moms and dads cope, or if you are just checking the box.