Empathy and flexibility—toward your employees as well as yourself—are the two skills we need most to be successful during the ongoing pandemic.
When CUES asked if I would focus this month’s article on advice for working remotely during back-to-school season, I struggled at first to think of what I could contribute. I want to preface my column with a caveat—I don’t know all the answers. I don’t have a magic wand to make things go back to normal. Every situation is different. But there is one thing we all have in common: Things are different. How we work and how we lead has significantly changed over the past six months. My intent is, by sharing a few things that worked for me, that you might glean an idea or two—or at the very least, that you’ll know you are not alone.
I publicly shared my own challenges when the pandemic hit this spring. I still struggle in many ways—having my three kids home for the past six(!) months has taught me that I am definitely not stay-at-home or homeschooling mom material. I’ve never been the mom who loves crafts. (In one weak moment in a Michael’s craft store last Christmas, I thought it would be a good idea to buy build-your-own gingerbread houses. Disaster.) I dislike Halloween—it’s just one more thing on my list of things to do. And during the holidays, I’ve been known to send my kids’ teachers gift cards and wine in lieu of homemade gifts. (But who doesn’t need wine and Amazon?)
So I’m pretty sure the biggest lesson I have learned through all of this is that I like my life to be compartmentalized into neat sections—kids in the morning, work during the day, a little bit of kids at night, and clock out of all parenting responsibilities by 8:30 p.m.
I always thought I was resilient, but I’ve found that I’m most resilient when things go my way.
But here’s the reality: My kids fight, all the time. They don’t listen. I think my nine-year-old daughter handed in exactly two assignments out of 20 last spring. My seven-year-old son whined for a half hour every day before his one-hour recorded math lessons. They watched way more TV then I ever thought I would allow. I bribed them with ice cream more times than I can count. My daughter has refused to go to bed before 10:30 p.m. for the past 62 days (yes, I’m counting) which has led to nightly tears (me and her) and meltdowns. All the parenting strategies I learned from the books have gone down the drain.
This is hard. Sigh.
I’ve heard the struggles from my clients—particularly women—who have young children. How will they balance working full time with managing their kids’ Zoom calls, assignments and interruptions? How can they get through their own workload and Zoom calls each day?
You can see the dilemma. The hours just don’t add up. It’s not possible to do it all. And if we try, we will break.
As leaders, the two skills we need the most right now are empathy and flexibility. To get the best from our employees during this time, we need to support them and understand the impact this challenge is having on each of them individually. And as much as possible, we should work to be flexible about how our employees get their work done.
One major shift that leaders need to make is moving from being hours-focused to results-focused. It will be impossible for many of your employees to work a straight eight-hour day right now. In my public-school district, the virtual school hours will be from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with a ninety-minute break for lunch. Many parents will need to support their children setting up for video calls and completing homework. (This is a full-time job.) If you are focused on the hours your employee works, it’s a lose-lose situation. No one can be successful. Instead, focus on outcomes. What are the outcomes you would like each employee to complete each week? Focusing on results or outcomes allows each person to manage their schedule the best way possible to get results at work and keep the peace (more or less) at home.
Here's the thing: Your employees will take care of your members if you take care of them. If you want member loyalty, you should build employee loyalty. You do that by treating your team members as human beings who need flexibility, support and empathy from everyone in their life right now—including their managers.
If you’re also a parent struggling to make it all work, below are some strategies as you navigate balancing remote work with kids at home:
Communicate with your child’s teacher.
When my daughter struggled to complete online assignments, I reached out to her teacher for support. I was able to negotiate my daughter hand-writing a report each week instead of completing paragraphs for online assignments. I also shared that I was struggling to keep up with her assignments while I worked full time. Her teacher was more than willing to help and created a plan with me that suited our family schedule better. The lesson: Often, teachers are more than willing to adjust to help you and your child be more successful. Keep the lines of communication open.
Be proactive with your own manager or supervisor.
This will be particularly important if you have a traditional manager who is not as flexible or shows less tolerance for the reality of your situation (e.g., kids interrupting your Zoom calls). Traditional managers tend to focus on tangibles like hours worked. Be proactive by approaching your manager about your personal situation. If you need to help your kids with school during the day, propose a schedule that will allow you to achieve certain outcomes done during the week. I have several clients who were able to adjust their schedule to work an hour before the kids are up, limited hours during the day and more at night. Suggest a schedule that is realistic for your situation and propose the results or outcomes that you can complete each week. Set up a weekly meeting to update your manager on what you have accomplished, and ask her how she would prefer you communicate results. (Weekly check-in call? Weekly email update?)
Create self-care rituals.
I know, you are probably tired of hearing this. I often roll my eyes when I read this suggestion in an article. But I know that I almost cracked trying to juggle it all during the first three months of the pandemic. At that point, there was nowhere to go, and self-care was a challenge for most of us. What I’ve learned is that I need to be creative. This might be asking a friend to watch your kids and trading off so you can each have some time to yourself. If you have family support, have your kids sleep over at a family member’s house on a Friday night. We let our kids watch a movie so we can exercise or have some quiet time. One of my friends created a small “learning pod” where four families rotate hosting the kids (socially distanced) one day a week for lessons and that parent manages the Zoom calls and assignments. Be creative and be resourceful. The only way to get through this time is to have periods of time where you can recharge.
Give yourself grace.
Above all, don’t be hard on yourself. I know things are all over the place right now, and you are probably feeling overworked, exhausted, and underappreciated. I have moments where I think I may have a mental breakdown (no kidding) and moments where I am so grateful my family is healthy. All the emotions we are feeling are valid and real. Don’t get down on yourself for not being able to be your best at all times. Take a breath. You are a human being having a human experience. Give yourself grace.
There are things we can control right now and things we can’t. We can’t control the school system. We can’t control all of the precautions we have to take. We can’t control the fact that our kids are learning in a less-than-ideal environment. But we can control how we show up as leaders to support our team. We can control our leadership actions—reaching out to touch base with each of our employees, showing empathy when someone is feeling challenged, and being flexible with schedules as much as possible. Our employees will not forget how we treat them during this time. Doing our best to support our team will pay dividends in loyalty and productivity long term.
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of CUES Supplier member Envision Excellence LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or email@example.com.