This article is a part of The Human-Centered Work Project, a hub of research-based insights and resources on redesigning work. The following insights come from research exploring what remote work looks like today as homes have become offices and classrooms to uncover what actions can improve the precarious work and life balance for caregivers working from home.
We’re conducting research to understand what remote work looks like today and what can be done to improve the precarious work life balance for those working remotely. Balancing caregiving with job responsibilities is an ongoing challenge for many, and how employers respond can make or break the experience.
We spoke with 18 employers and employees from a range of industries about their remote work experiences and what they’re doing to improve their company cultures. Here are just a few stories of our participants and ways they and their companies are surviving and innovating during this time.
Employees working full time from home had a variety of experiences, but balancing caregiving with work, especially for those with young kids, was a universal challenge.
Mitchell*, a tech-savvy innovator, coparents his three kids (ages 1, 2, and 5) with his wife while they both work from home. To do this, they coordinate their calendars on a weekly and daily basis so one of them is always available to watch the kids. Mitchell* works in IT and much of his day requires time for focused work, which can be difficult to communicate. Just because he’s not actively in a meeting doesn’t mean he’s available for childcare responsibilities. Mitchell* shared that technology has been extremely helpful to him and his wife during this time. He’s created a smart home so his kids could accomplish more on their own, setting up “routines” on Google Home for bedtime or playtime to automate some activities and tasks for his kids. His 5 year old, especially, is very curious and constantly asking questions, so setting up the Google Assistant has been invaluable to keep him occupied and engaged without disturbing Mitchell’s* focus time.
Mitchell* has also set up cameras throughout the house so they can keep an eye on the kids from their desks if they do have to step away for a moment. Routine and structure has been vital for Mitchell* and his family to keep things under control for both their kids and their work routines.
Steven*, a struggling father of two, found it difficult to balance his full-time job with taking care of his young children (ages 1 and 4). When we spoke with him, his older child was about to start a remote school program, and while he was admittedly not sure of what to expect or how well it would go, he was looking forward to having additional structure during the day. Steven* works from home full-time, but his wife is usually unable to work remotely due to her job responsibilities, meaning he takes on the role of sole caregiver during the week.
To support employees during the pandemic, Steven’s* company offered a “flex band” from 6:30am to 9:30pm in which employees could complete their 8.5 hours of work. Steven* often worked very early in the morning before his kids woke up and later in the evening, but found that on meeting heavy days, he was unable to take full advantage of the flex band. Steven’s* company had also recently implemented a new end-of-day reporting process while employees are working from home. This new process requires employees to document the day’s work and communicate progress with managers. Not only does this take extra precious time away from both productive work and caregiving duties, but Steven* felt it sent a clear message of distrust. To help with caregiving responsibilities, Steven’s* wife’s company offered a $100 per day stipend for childcare, but due to risks of COVID-19 and high demand, they were unable to find safe and reliable childcare options, a common struggle we saw across participants.
Susan*, a forward-looking VP interested in automation innovation at a company that isn’t, recently shifted to remote work due to the pandemic. Due to her job responsibilities, she found that her workload had increased quite a bit and it was easy to be logged in and constantly working while at home. Susan* provides care to her father with cancer, taking him to appointments, translating for him, and assisting with everyday needs, which requires some flexibility. Without in-person interaction, Susan* shared she felt more disconnected from her team than usual. Video and chat doesn’t serve the same purpose for her, and tech and bandwidth issues had proved challenging for scheduling meetings.
Susan* strongly believes that family and personal needs have to come before work. While she has some control over her schedule and workload, she is often dealing with urgent deadlines that prohibit flexibility. Recently, she’s been working 18 hour days and had to be available at odd hours to coordinate an overseas team.
At the start of the pandemic, Susan* had hoped to automate a lot of the lower level, busy work tasks to save time and reduce stress. But, her company, which she described as old and resistant to change, is used to a certain way of thinking and working and is comfortable keeping it that way. No one wanted to consider the investment required to create the level of automation she suggested. While she felt that her company’s mission and values embraced caregiving to some extent, the benefits they offered didn’t fully align. Employees across her company are stressed and overworked. Everyone knows layoffs are coming, so the culture is becoming toxic as people try to show their worth. Susan* told us she’s exhausted, and at this point, even feels indifferent to layoffs. She’d take the severance pay for a break.
Employers know they have to take steps to support their team. While some are succeeding in building new support systems, others with financial challenges and resistance from the “old guard” are struggling.
Ishan*, an HR professional for a global IT company, is helping manage a worldwide team remotely during the pandemic. He shared that many of their employees have children or even their whole families at home adding to the stress of an already tough time. Because of the global nature of their team, there are a variety of different living arrangements and lifestyles they have to accommodate. Ishan* himself has a high-school aged daughter at home learning remotely. While the strain on parents providing learning support to teenagers is different than support for young kids, he felt he needed to offer more emotional support as she struggled to stay focused.
Ishan* shared that they’ve restructured a lot of how they work and built strong people programs, including:
- Creating an Employee Bucket List. This online space allows their team members to share what they need and suggestions for benefits that could relieve stress such as laundry services, meal delivery, therapy, virtual workouts, etc.
- Enabling managers to serve as “coaches”: Managers at Ishan’s* company receive continuing education and trainings to ensure they have the resources and understanding to help their employees with not only their work, but also tough personal circumstances.
- Building a structured “open door” policy. Their company prioritized supporting their team in a very agile way. They had regular town halls with an open forum, an open door policy for sharing ideas, and a Google form to make suggestions for new benefits and support.
- For employees that have school age children at home, they hired a new role to liaise with local schools advocating for a reduced workload for their children, and ultimately, for the parents. He said, “Distanced learning is a balancing act. It’s making other things that pop up hard to accomplish.”
Ishan’s* company took a hands-off approach to tracking work. While they have regular morning calls to check in, they focus mostly on understanding what the team needs to get their work done, rather than using it for monitoring purposes. He shared that their policy focuses on just the results, not monitoring their team’s every hour or every move. They offered completely flexible schedules other than their morning check-in calls. They were even investigating assigning “coverage shifts” so if something comes up for one employee, they would have a buddy who can jump in to help.
Bridget*, a trailblazer and problem-solver at a small 15-person company, has been spearheading policies and initiatives to support their employees. She’s been sending every one of their employees a Friday night pizza once a month to help feed their families. To her team, this means dinner is completely taken care of; it just shows up at their door. She told us jokingly, “Our team is food driven.” With only 15 employees, she’s able to add these personal touches, but with a bigger company, this could take the form of a stipend or gift card. Bridget* also implemented a $1,000 home office stipend to everyone to make adjustments and set up their workspace. She told us everyone has been excitedly sharing pictures of what they purchased and offering tips. They’ve also started anonymous surveys to check in on work life balance, leadership, values, and sense of safety.
Bridget* told us it’s hard to be a good parent and a good employee right now. It’s next to impossible. She’s trying to create an environment where her team can thrive as best they can. They’re creating space for employees to take the time they need for parenting, reducing any pressure to appear online and productive. They disappear when they need to and come back when they’re able. She told us that the stigmas of remote work are falling away and they’re paving a new path forward.
Liz*, a frustrated HR Director in one of the many companies hit hard by the pandemic, is just trying to get by. Her company had just signed a 10 year lease for a new office in February, putting them in a tough spot to provide support to their team. As an EdTech company, they had to completely redesign their business model to accommodate distance learning and found themselves scrambling when schools shut down. She told us that success for them is just keeping the lights on right now.
Liz* felt like no matter how much she did to try to help her employees, she didn’t have the support from leadership to do anything that would cost them money. They offered a small $75 stipend for at-home set-up, but even so, the company policed how it was spent. Right now, she’s trying to gather info on what people are struggling with and putting together a wellness survey to help provide support.
Prior to the pandemic, caregiving responsibilities just weren’t on their radar, but now they’re trying to be flexible and understanding. Liz*, who has a first grader at home herself, is pushing supervisors to be forgiving and understanding, especially those who don’t have kids and lack empathy. She told us, “We’re instructing people to work from home and to do this and do that, but not offering them support to help make it happen.”
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About the authors:
|Emily Burton, Senior UX Researcher
Learn more about Emily.
|Nicholena Patel, Senior UX Researcher
Learn more about Nicholena.
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