How Employers Need to Address the Balance Between Work, Life, and Caregiving in the Coming Months

Woman working from laptop next to young son doing homework. Illustration.

Posted by Nicholena Patel on Oct 22, 2020

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 all doing the best we can. 

It’s a phrase that embodies the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. We face challenges unique to our time, from the emotional burden of social isolation to the practical difficulties of homes becoming offices and classrooms. Businesses have scrambled to piece together remote work for employees but many employees are still struggling with the new tensions created by an all-remote lifestyle. Caregivers especially have suffered through these changes.

What must employers do to support caregiving employees?

Liz and child

We conducted research to understand what remote work looks like today and what might be done to improve the precarious work and life balance for caregivers working from home. We conducted interviews with 12 employee caregivers and 6 employers from a range of industries about their remote work experiences. In our study, we interpreted the role of caregivers broadly, including not only parents and those caring for the sick and elderly, but also those actively engaged in self-care and community care work. Learn more about these participants’ stories in-depth.

Some employer resources and job structures are more successful than others, and the challenges of remote work are highly dependent on each individual’s circumstances and home responsibilities. People are finding a number of ways to survive in this new environment. But regardless of industry or job function, there are some baseline steps and solutions companies must take to provide a minimum level of support for their teams to survive in this climate.

To support your employees, take the following six steps:

Acknowledge the burden and respond with empathy.
Establish a climate of trust.
Foster open communication and responsiveness from managers. 
Expand flexibility and autonomy.
Align benefits to alleviate stressors.
Prioritize team-oriented work structures.

Acknowledge the burden and respond with empathy.

Employers need to take an empathetic stance in their messaging from leadership by acknowledging the tough circumstances facing employees today. Be open and understanding about the difficulty of managing caregiving alongside work and communicate how you plan to avoid burnout.

Encourage employees to share what they need from their managers and the company itself when they’re feeling overwhelmed. Your team should feel like their voices are being heard and considered by leadership, and that their input might spur new ways of working.

Establish a climate of trust.

Trust is the key to a successful and productive relationship between employers and employees. What does trust look like? A few common threads appeared:

  • Ditch monitoring employees’ online presence and remove any undue stress of having to “appear” active and online throughout the day. Creating opportunities for flexible asynchronous work is critical to manage the responsibilities and complexities of working from home. And, this takes the stress off employees, allowing them to work in ways (and at times) that are most productive to them.
  • Trust that your employees are invested in their work and will strive to do their best. Instead of monitoring hours and productivity, let the work speak for itself. We found that employers who trusted their employees to be productive without supervision actually empowered employees to rise to the challenge.
  • Encourage your team to set boundaries. If someone needs to attend a personal appointment midday or take time in the evening to step away from their email, let them do so without fear of judgment. Employees encouraged to do this felt a sense of respect and trust that led to higher satisfaction.

To set clear internal communication norms and instill trust in your team, access AnswerLab’s Availability and Responsiveness Playbook and customize it as you see fit.

Foster open communication and responsiveness from managers.

One-size-fits-all is not an effective strategy. Businesses that task managers with problem-solving together with direct reports have much more success supporting employees with complex circumstances. However, this requires managers to have empathy, authority, and resources to build custom solutions.

Many of our participants expressed that managers were most empathetic when they had experienced similar situations as their direct reports, especially when both had caregiving or distance learning responsibilities at home. Structuring teams so employees can reflect on shared experiences together can lead to compassion across coworkers and in the manager/direct-report relationship.

Managers need to encourage open communication to fully understand employees’ needs. Employees who felt comfortable asking managers for help were much more likely to stay at their jobs and produce higher quality work. Try allotting time for regular check-ins about well-being to make open communication more accessible. When employees felt employers had their backs, they were more loyal and willing to go above and beyond. Many participants shared stories about management reacting with empathy and flexibility, which directly impacted their level of effort and motivation.

Without in-depth knowledge of the company’s policies and stance on flexibility, managers are ill-equipped to handle employees’ diverse frontline issues. Empower managers with the appropriate knowledge and support they need to provide comprehensive help to their direct reports.

Expand flexibility and autonomy.

Develop policies for time management that leave room for a variety of approaches so employees can create solutions that work best for their needs. Flexibility is key. If you’d like to dig into this topic further, we recommend this Families and Work Institute report.

We found that meetings were a central pain point for remote employees, often because they made it difficult to keep up with other work or required coordination with others in the household (e.g., making sure partners can watch kids, ensuring their bandwidth can manage simultaneous meetings). Having flexibility to skip meetings or only attend crucial meetings decreased stress and enabled employees to manage caregiving responsibilities alongside work.

Build in flexible hours or enable your team to decide when to complete asynchronous work to help employees with inflexible caregiving schedules. If parents have to help their children with remote learning during certain blocks of time, alleviate the pressure for them to be online and working during those blocks.

Align benefits to alleviate stressors.

Without office perks like snacks, advanced tech, or daycare in work buildings, remote work takes away a lot of the ease of the office experience. Emulating these benefits remotely is even more valuable now to reduce stress in employees’ lives. Having the right technology, including a strong internet connection, effective meeting tools, and company-wide communication practices, is critical to employee success. Offer stipends for improving home offices to help employees create a productive environment at home.

We also discovered that monetary or task support for ordering take out meals or grocery shopping online reduced the stress on employees. By saving time on these tasks, employees were able to put that time and energy back into their bank of resources. Consider offering stipends or subsidies for childcare or virtual tutors to help employees with distance learning responsibilities. Direct support for families with children lightens the load in significant ways for parents.

Prioritize team-oriented work structures.

Team oriented work structures can help teams maintain high productivity when individuals have unexpected needs that arise outside of work. Create a “buddy system” of knowledge-sharing, so employees can turn to a colleague for support at a moment’s notice. Someone might have to step away for an urgent appointment or help their child with an unexpected school task. If you have a built-in way for employees to jump in and help one another, it lifts the burden and stress placed on one single individual. Employees we spoke to valued collaboration and being able to truly unplug from work, which was not possible for those who were sole keepers of certain knowledge.

We hope these findings and recommendations will help guide employers of all kinds to design solutions that support their workforce through remote work challenges. But these are just the first steps. They are the bare minimum employers need to have implemented to manage through the coming months. Creating the future of work will require even more meaningful changes to how we think about the relationship between employees and their employers and the role personal lives play in the workplace.

Soon, we’ll be sharing additional findings and recommendations on how to lift each other out of survival mode and find new ways to truly thrive in remote settings. Sign up to be the first to hear when new findings are released.

Hear the stories of these employees and employers surviving through remote work now, and learn more about one way AnswerLab is supporting our employees with CareTime.

Learn more about the origins of The Human-Centered Work Project and sign up to be the first to receive the latest findings and resources.

Written by

Nicholena Patel

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