"I'm not going!!! I've been on the road for four straight weeks! Why don't you send Gloria? She never has to travel. It's not my fault she has kids!"
In my early twenties, a less well-rounded version of me once uttered similar words in a heated argument regarding business travel. Today, as I reflect on that argument as a grown man, the founder of a startup, and much more importantly a husband and a father, my vantage point is quite different. As I have connected with family and friends during the COVID-19 pandemic, I have heard a number of stories that highlight the tough and unusual circumstances each of us are in and reflected on how good leadership can really impact people’s quality of life, especially right now.
A friend was recently scolded by her manager in a meeting with a large group of her colleagues for 'not paying attention' because she was muting herself and dashing out of the video frame. She went on mute and went off-screen because her two-year-old was climbing up the kitchen cabinets and reaching for a butcher's knife. She is home alone with her two-year-old toddler, her husband is a first responder. The manager missed an opportunity to display empathy, gain my friend’s loyalty and respect, and create a teachable moment in how to manage people in difficult circumstances. It’s easy to imagine the shame my friend felt from that rebuke and how unhelpful it was.
Another friend’s first reaction when the shelter in place order was announced was to request that her employer move her to 50% time because she felt so guilty about how much less work she would be able to do with her child around. My first thought upon hearing that was whether or not her husband would be requesting 50% time as well. I realized that such an idea would probably not even occur to him and that I couldn't think of a single male friend that would likely have that concern. I would hope that the same thought might have occurred to this friend’s manager and that helping this friend find a way to balance her time without reducing her pay would be a priority of her leadership team.
Another friend's male manager (with young children) is doing MORE work than normal, making his team feel inadequate and wondering to themselves why he’s got so much time on his hands with kids at home. No one can know for sure, but one can hypothesize that his partner is picking up the lion’s share of the childrearing. I wonder if this manager is aware of the example he’s setting and that it might not be having the effect he thinks.
Based on experience, I can offer a perspective on how to lead with compassion when managing individuals that are dealing with children or elderly parents in their care as they work from home. I recognize that many companies are under tremendous financial strain, but at this moment organizations also have a significant opportunity to build strong, loyal teams from this challenge.
Here are some suggestions:
- Recognize that the pandemic is likely impacting various populations differently. For example, many women are taking on greater obligations at home than their male counterparts. Sheryl Sandberg recently called this the “double double shift.” According to survey data collected by LeanIn, women are now spending 71 hours every week on housework and caregiving, including the new responsibilities of the pandemic. That’s nearly two full-time jobs—before they start doing her actual full-time job. Meanwhile, men in the same situation are doing 20 fewer hours of labor every week. For women of color and single moms, the demands are even greater. Keeping this reality in mind is important.
- Ask how people are doing. If you don’t know what kind of caretaker pressures your team members are under while working from home, you can simply ask them. I recommend using a Doodle or other polling software to ask team members when their best hours are (nap times for the kids, partner’s turn to do the caretaking, etc.) and use that to find overlap for scheduling meetings and the like.
- Encourage your team to block personal time. Make sure your team can put time on their calendar for childcare or other caretaking needs. Trusting employees to get what needs to get done accomplished means they don’t need to put in unnecessary or strictly 9 to 5 facetime. Make sure they have the flexibility to take kids on walks without guilt.
- Don’t add unnecessary pressure. Most parents are feeling like they are not performing at a level that meets their own standards - whether it is as parents, caretakers or employees. You can alleviate strain by setting reasonable and specific expectations, allowing for flexibility where possible, and emphasizing what items aren’t urgent.
- Say hi to the kids on Zoom meetings. Obviously, this can’t apply to every situation, but my daughter has barged into more than one of my meetings and no one has died as a result. I have tried to “normalize” the situation by picking her up at times and allowing her to sit on my lap while I continue with my conversations. She’s only two. She doesn’t know what’s going on and by briefly engaging with her I’m better able to refocus her attention than if I keep swatting her away. Make sure your team members feel okay with this.
- Compensate accordingly. It is perfectly reasonable to ask that employees with no children or other obligations step up and take on more work if they have the bandwidth, but they should be compensated and recognized for that extra work. It should never be assumed that someone has resources to take up slack for someone else, and communication and transparency on this topic is important. Make sure some team members don’t become overburdened or suffer burn-out because of unequal distribution of efforts. This may mean that you identify fewer ‘urgent’ projects overall, and add a couple weeks to timelines which is usually seen as pretty reasonable at the moment.
I once heard someone say "If you have the opportunity to put a goodwill chip in the goodwill jar, do it, because at some point or another we all need to reach into the goodwill jar." That saying stuck with me and has become somewhat of a motto I try to live my life by. Today a goodwill chip is worth 10x what it was worth only a few months ago. Managers and business leaders should use this opportunity to get closer and build trust with their teams. It will no doubt lead to a more loyal and engaged team and pay dividends down the road.