School’s Out … Forever?

Even though many schools may not reopen this fall, firms are still struggling with how to help parents balance childcare with work.

A woman sues a large firm, saying she was fired because her two young kids kept making noise during work calls. A large university, meanwhile, bans its employees from taking care of kids while working remotely. After an uproar, the school shifts, telling them to work out their schedules to cover both parental and work responsibilities.

Since almost the start of the pandemic, companies have understood that with many schools shut down, parents have been facing unprecedented work-life balance issues. Now the latest news suggests that many public schools, particularly in the United States, are still debating whether to open this fall with in-person classes. And that’s forcing leaders to come to grips with finding at least some answers on their own—or risk having workers unproductively juggling two lives or some just leaving.

Indeed, Alina Polonskaia, global leader of Korn Ferry’s Diversity & Inclusion practice, says if employees are pressured to perform at the expense of caregiving, then leaders may find themselves losing their highest performers. “We will probably see people dropping from the workforce because they can’t take care of their children and risk performance,” she says.

To be sure, many schools in countries outside the US have reopened or plan to. But with every unexpected surge of COVID-19 cases, the debate for either all-virtual learning or in-person classes resurfaces—and nowhere more so than in the US. Texas and New York, for example, are looking to reopen classrooms, but there are already delays in Texas, and New York City will reopen them only partially. California has said schools will operate remotely in the fall. Experts say all this may be a moving target for corporate leaders, but it’s affecting the largest proportion of their workforce; working parents make up over 72% of the US labor force.

What’s more, although data varies, women continue to be the primary caregivers for children. Experts say gender inequality issues in pay and promotions will only increase if firms don’t create a plan, expecting working parents to be at their home desk for all meetings.

In the case of the university that prohibited childcare during remote work, officials later asked that working parents coordinate their schedules with their managers. That seemed to defuse the backlash, but experts point out organizations that take such steps may also have to confront growing resentment over any special treatment toward child-free workers. Indeed, one recent study found most employees without children feel less privy to work-life balance policies like flextime or telecommuting and feel less comfortable asking for those privileges. And when these benefits are unevenly applied, experts say, it can lead to workplace friction that eventually erodes performance and productivity.

But Polonskaia is one of many who believe leaders need to take a much broader approach to ease tension—reimagining the workday and what constitutes a “good” one. “It’s a broader question about how the work gets done in the COVID environment or any other crisis,” she says. “Organizations have to be flexible.”

For example, many leaders still equate strong performance with workers who are available at least 9 to 5 and use Zoom calls to create a physical presence. “Face time has become a bad proxy for productivity that organizations can’t really measure and consequently can’t manage,” says Melissa Swift, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global head of the firm's Digital Transforation Advisory. As a result, some managers expect employees to be completely present at work, without interruption, even in the face of a widespread pandemic where “everybody is trying to balance a weird assortment of life things,” she says. Leaders, she adds, need to question their assumptions behind what they think is a normal workday, and lose those practices that “are reinforcing inequities like disparities around who can afford childcare,” says Swift.

Experts say minimizing business interruptions by working with parents will make life easier for everyone in the organization. Leaders willing to change conventional thinking can develop better work-life options. By solving for those extreme cases first, you’ll likely get great ideas that end up being a solution for everyone,” Polonskaia says.

For her part, Swift recognizes that the solution may not be one-size-fits-all for most organizations. Already, many working teams inside firms have had to learn to balance the needs of their different teammates during the pandemic, something the C-suite can build on empowering those teams to make rules for working parents. “It builds a lot of long-term engagement and loyalty if organizations can do that right,” she says.