The realities of a pandemic force us to confront our ability to embrace a 21st Century workplace

By Jennifer Stewart, CEO & President, and Michelle Coates Mather, Director, Strategy, Public Affairs and Government Relations

Dear Employer,

We get it. Your worst nightmare is upon you. What many of us naively thought was a seemingly harmless and isolated virus has transformed into a global pandemic turning everything you believed to be true about a “productive” 9-5, bums in seats, workforce on its head.

If leaders have learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that we have perpetuated a culture over the last century that guilts people into going to work when they are sick. It has turned us into workaholics who fear retribution should we dare to prioritize life and health over the bottom-line.

Make no mistake. The bottom-line matters. Those of us who have chosen client-facing, billable-hour careers know that better than most. But we’re here to remind you, a healthy bottom line is fully dependent on healthy employees.

In this 21st Century, where many workplaces have been armed with the technology and tools to change our workstyle behaviours for the better, we wonder: have employers really shifted their traditional norms and attitudes enough to tackle the reality we currently find ourselves in?

With school closures obliging most parents to work from home the next three weeks (possibly more), employers who have not leaned-in to the flexibility and benefits a 21st Century workforce can create will need to do so quickly.

Employers must understand, as a parent, working from home with small children at your feet is hardly a vacation. If you’ve ever had to prep for a conference call while attempting to calm your 3-year old’s tantrum, you know it is far from a relaxing experience.

The closure of schools, the promotion of self-distancing and mandatory self-quarantine measures, are all prudent actions that must be taken by all of us to help reduce the alarming rate by which this virus has spread. But the reality is, for many parents, this is going to be a very challenging and stressful time. Figuring out how to juggle our kids’ emotional, learning and social interaction needs with our own work deadlines, meetings and other real-life pressures will be far from an easy task.

And while conceptually all parents understand this juggling act is part of the deal when you choose to bring a life into this world, let’s all be real: many of us are in unchartered territory here. This is no longer a business as usual environment. We can’t apply a business as usual approach.

For many employers, adapting to this new reality is going to require swiftly changing leadership and management mindset, behaviours and assumptions.

Even seemingly subtle shifts in actions make a big difference in lightening the mental stress for working from home parents, helping to set them up for success. Here are some examples:

  • Be reasonable and clear about what is a priority deliverable versus what is a nice to have and accept that the latter will get done later.
  • Show your working from home parents you trust that they are doing their best in an extremely unfortunate situation. Check in on them not for a status update on deliverables but simply to see how they are coping and ask how you can help support them.
  • Assess your workflow – do you have team members with lighter workloads who have capacity to take on a bit of an extra share for a short period of time?
  • Stick to conference calls rather than video calls – we promise you a parent working from home with their child/children has barely had a chance to shower let alone comb their hair. Please don’t make them pull themselves together for an unnecessary video chat.
  • Be flexible. 9-5 really isn’t an option in this scenario. Understand your working from home parents are likely going to attempt to crunch as much work time as they can into the few wakeful hours they have left after their kids go to bed.  But don’t expect them to put in a full work shift until 2:00 in the morning to make up for lost daytime hours. This is a sure-fire way to burn your employees out.
  • End the guilt trips. The time for adult daycare is over. If you don’t trust that your employees are doing their jobs to the best of their abilities, then you either aren’t hiring the right employees or you have seriously flawed expectations – either way you are the source of the problem. Consider that.

These few behavioural shifts can have a significant positive impact for your working from home parents. Practice these habits now and we promise you, your employees will never forget it, always appreciate it and work that much more effectively for you.

For the optimists among us, if there’s one small silver lining to the COVID-19 crisis for the corporate context, it’s that it’s freeing employers from the shackles of traditional workplace views and  productivity expectations allowing them to explore new approaches they never thought possible.

Those who do will most certainly be rewarded with a healthy bottom line and an even healthier workforce.