Untouchables in the office: Working parents?

I have been a working mom since 2011. In those years, I have made a lot of choices: I left my five-week old to travel to Scotland for a conference. I spent 18 days just before Christmas across the continent from my toddler as I transitioned to a new job. I worked part-time for six weeks so I could show my 8-year-old around Spain. I understand the choices working parents make and I am grateful for a career that has allowed me to flex my work hours, engaging in frequent calculus to decide where my attention needs to be, knowing there are times the extra efforts go to my family and times they go to my career. Generations of working parents have similar stories.

For many caregivers, everything changed in 2020, though. The juggling of resources that we had historically used to make it all work became less available. Even after schools reopened in the fall of 2020, a persistent and pervasive childcare shortage continued to limit available options. In addition, for many parents, more time with their children had helped them see ways they could meet their children’s needs that they had previously overlooked, and they began to leverage greater flexibility to engage more fully with parenting responsibilities during typical work hours. In the past two years, working parents have placed more emphasis on “parents” during the hours of 9 to 5 than they used to (and probably more emphasis on “working” during the hours of 5 to 9 than they used to).

As workplaces strive to excel in a highly competitive war for talent, providing flexibility for working parents has become far more commonplace. While this is seen as both necessary (in light of an apparent talent shortage) and progressive (recognizing the way of the old workplace does not benefit how Americans live today), this shift is not universally loved.

The social media site Fishbowl offers a great tool to monitor workplace trends. People post work questions on any topic for community response. In a recent post, an employee expressed concern about being childless in an environment where her manager often flexed hours to handle childcare responsibilities. The most common sentiment expressed by commenters was that the employee should be very careful about voicing concerns. There was a belief that in today’s workplace working parents can do pretty much whatever they want with their schedules (as long as they use the kids as an excuse), while childless employees are expected to work any and all hours (including all of the extracurricular events associated with the workplace) to accommodate the needs of working parents.

As workplace demographics shift, hybrid and remote environments solidify, and organizations continue to experiment with different flexible working arrangements, consider the following tips:

  1. Be considerate of your coworkers. If you are a parent, there is a good chance your children are the most important thing in the world to you. You made a commitment to parenting them and they depend on you. Your coworkers did not choose to have your children, though, and your parenting responsibilities should not place an undue burden on them. Be thoughtful about how your flexed hours might impact those you work with. If you leave from 3 to 4 every day to pick your child up at school but make it up between 9 and 10 p.m., you might feel great about your contribution. Your colleague who needed something by end of day could be significantly less impressed with your late-night delivery, though.
  1. Be extra considerate if those coworkers report to you. In the post that got my wheels turning on this topic, the original complaint was that the employee’s boss flexed her work hours with the expectation that the employee would be available to the boss at her convenience. The boss would log off work at 3 p.m., then log back in at 9:30 p.m. to finish her workday—often even scheduling meetings at that hour. The employee did not resent her boss’ flexibility. She resented feeling like her own life and interests outside of work were less valuable because they did not center around children. If the employee had communicated her needs, would the boss have easily agreed the employee did not need to be available for extended hours? It was not clear how or if the employee had attempted to talk to her boss, but it was clear how the employee felt: She did not have flexibility. Her boss did. For years, managers who work extended hours have been encouraged to use delayed delivery on emails or to save drafts and send them during regular hours. These tips might be especially important when the manager is not just working longer hours, but different hours than the team. If you are flexing your hours and your employees are not available at your convenience, recognize that this relationship is not one of equals: The manager holds more responsibility for creating a comfortable environment for the employees. Consideration of both the intent and the impact of those late night/early morning/weekend messages is critical. Make sure your team knows that your choice to flex hours does not mean they must be always available.
  1. Consider how this impacts equity in your organization. This is for the policy setters at your credit union, whether or not you are a working parent: Often flexible schedules and flexed hours are benefits companies are proud to share as they attract and retain top talent. Often those benefits are not equitably accessed. Typically, salaried or management employees enjoy these benefits more than hourly or entry-level employees. (In other words, your teller is more likely to take unpaid leave to care for a child while your VP takes the time they need without issue or even reporting it.) Employees with children may also find less judgment in taking off early to watch their kids’ soccer game than a single man might experience when wishing to attend his recreational softball league game. Even reading that example made some of you feel squeamish: Why should someone get out of work to go play a game? That’s not what we pay them for! From the perspective of the childless employee, what difference does it make if it’s the game of a tiny human or his own game? If employees are allowed to flex their hours for personal commitments, should the organization deem which commitments are and are not worthy?
  1. Consider how to support diverse family structures. When you dig deep into who is using flexible schedules for parenting, you may find certain trends. Do working moms use this flexibility more or less? (Depending on your organization, the answer could be either: It may still be more socially acceptable for moms to take time off for parenting, but they also may feel judged as less committed for these choices, depending on your specific workplace.) Are people in same-sex parenting relationships or single parents as comfortable using the flexible arrangement as people in heterosexual relationships? Do parents of adult dependents or caregivers to adult relatives feel as comfortable using the benefits as parents of young children might?

Flexible work hours and work from home options have added value to the experience caregivers have at work, providing more options for them to make their greatest contributions. As your organization continues to build an authentically inclusive workplace, be cognizant of how those benefits impact every employee. If it feels like they come at a cost to your childless employees, evaluate how to continue serving working parents without minimizing the whole humanness of your other team members.

Jill Nowacki

Jill Nowacki

Jill Nowacki started her career with credit unions in 2001. She has taken on leadership roles at credit unions and state and national trade associations. Now, she uses her experience ... Web: www.humanidei.com Details