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4 Strengths of Family-Friendly Work Cultures

Sep. 14, 2020 Harvard Business Review

As Covid-19 grew into a pandemic, Michael Schaffer, a father of three in a dual-working household, worried a lot: about his parents in Delaware; about his highly creative, curious, and social kids, who’d had to switch to remote learning; and even about his dog, who was now sharing the home with everyone 24/7. But what Mike did not worry about was his role at Edelman, where he was Senior Vice President, Digital + Corporate. While friends, family, and colleagues all around him had to suddenly adjust to remote work, he’d already been doing it for close to 18 months. That’s how long it had been since he and his family had moved from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles for his wife’s career. Edelman was committed to supporting the shifting needs of its employees and their families, even if they had to relocate, and to that end the company had put in place a set of technologies, protocols, tools designed to help enable remote work — which had made it possible for Mike to move to Los Angeles with his family but still stay on the DC team that he loved. He felt lucky.

The It’s Working Project, where I make sense of the challenging and ever-evolving intersection between work and caregiving, has interviewed employees and HR departments about how their workplace dynamics are shifting during Covid. It’s important that workplaces get this right, because although one-third of the US workforce is considered essential and has been on the job through the Covid-19 pandemic, most of the rest of American workers have shifted to remote work, some of them probably permanently. It’s been a bumpy experience for many employers and workers, especially parents, but in recent conversations with Mike and others I’ve noticed a compelling pattern: The workplaces that are thriving today are those that had already invested in family-centric policies and are building on what they’d learned.

As late as February, when companies committed themselves to family-friendly benefits by offering flexible work days, back-up-care reimbursement, and remote working options, and by prohibiting end-of-day meetings, they typically did so in the name of recruitment, retention, and brand culture. But no longer. Some of these programs grew out of the economic realities of a formerly low unemployment rate, they’ve left organizations well positioned for the quickly shifting workplace dynamics of Covid-19. To understand how — and why — I’ve begun collecting the stories of workers.

Let’s consider a few here.

Emma Patti Harris, Education Week 
Employees at Education Week, a U.S. news organization covering K-12 education, have worked flex-schedules for a long time. Among those employees is Emma Patti Harris, a deputy managing editor who often works from home while caring for a toddler son. When I talked to Emma about her arrangement, she praised the culture of flexibility and support at Education Week, and she told me that the company had provided her and other employees with the right tools and technology to make their individualized schedules work. The arrangement, Emma said, allowed her to find a work-life fit that encouraged her to focus on all she valued and embraced, and she felt grateful that the company listened so carefully to what its employees needed to make their caregiving and work lives intersect.

When Covid-19 hit, the entire team at Education Week made a smooth transition to remote work. Live, on-line documents allowed colleagues to share calendars and identify deadlines, and Slack helped to manage active communications. But that didn’t mean Education Week’s work was done. Leadership went back to the listening skills that they had used to set up remote-work opportunities so long ago and asked what employees needed to make it through this crisis. This took the form of a robust survey, whose results indicated that employees needed better work stations at home. So employees were provided a stipend for equipment and supplies.

The company also worked to ensure that employees remained connected once they were working from home. It lifted old restraints and restrictions, and the result was that employees were able to do work during the pandemic that far exceeded expectations.

Kate Judge, Spoken Layer 
Kate Judge, a mother of two who is the director of brand partnerships at Spoken Layer, told me that before the pandemic, a big part of her personal identity and her enjoyment at work  came from her relationships with her co-workers, and from just spending time in the city and commuting to and from work. Life got complicated for Kate in the early months of 2020, however, when she fell ill with pneumonia, had to help her mother undergo a hip replacement, and had to manage at home while her husband commuted twice monthly to New Haven, where he had just started in a senior-executive MBA program at Yale. Soon, because of the pandemic, she also had to pull her kids from day-care. Normally, her mother would have helped her at home with the kids, but she was at high-risk for Covid and so couldn’t.

One of Spoken Layer’s great strengths, Kate told me, was its workplace community. And so she was not surprised when, early in the pandemic, after the company’s CEO, Andy Lipset, had sent workers home and permanently closed its New York headquarters, he had the company offer employees a generous allowance for home offices that included desks, room decorations, and even snacks — really anything to make the experience of working from home more positive. When that happened, Kate said, “I had a feeling of security. There was clear communication and understanding that no one really knew what would happen next, but Andy was not going to create any uncomfortable situations, and I felt grateful.”

During this trying period, Spoken Layer worked in myriad ways to maintain camaraderie and connection. The company provided lunch-and-learn programming, for example, and even by organized Starch Madness, in which employees bracketed out the best way to serve a potato. Such offerings were always optional and respectful of time; often the point was simply to give employees ways to laugh things out. Such efforts—rooted in the company’s long history of attending to the needs of employees as they move through parenthood, caregiving, and other demanding moments at the intersection of life and work—led to a very smooth and effective transition.

They know how to listen to what employees need. In my experience, the companies that create supportive cultures for working parents and caregivers do so by first listening to what their employees need. Those that bypass this step risk missing important nuances of employees’ lives. For example, many parents find it difficult and stressful to attend late afternoon meetings. Putting a moratorium on these meetings is a win-win. It doesn’t cost the company anything and caregivers feel supported. What I’ve observed recently is that companies that were good at listening in this way before Covid, have been able to continue listening through the pandemic, which positions them to respond rapidly to their employees shifting needs, as happened for Emma at Education Week, and Kate at Spoken Layer.

They know how to create community. The “water-cooler culture” that emerges naturally in an office—in the form of hallway conversations, quick catch-ups over tea, shared birthday celebrations, and more—contributes greatly to the feeling of community in the workplace. But the pandemic has made many of these things a distant memory. The companies that are adapting most successfully are those that recognize and acknowledge the role that such modes of connection play in a caregiving culture, and that therefore work to provide employees with new ways of connecting remotely, as with the lunch-and-learn program at Spoken Layer and the socializing via Zoom that Edelman encourages its employees to do.

They respect the many roles that employees fill. Organizations that had already committed to cultivating a community of respect for working family members were the ones best prepared for real-time Covid shifts. That’s become clear in the interviews I’ve done for the It’s Working Project, which have revealed successful approaches not only to childcare but also to caring for sick spouses and the elderly, where needs can often arise suddenly and unexpectedly. Companies that have experience helping employees cope with the many jobs they’re called upon to do, at work and at home, have tended to be those that have best supported their employees during the dramatic changes that have taken place during the past six months. The team at Education Week showed Emma that they respected her working parenthood when they welcomed her son on their Zoom calls. This respect for the life of a working parent during a pandemic– at home with kids requiring energy and focus with no obvious end in sight– was a powerful gift.

They know how to trust their employees and colleagues. The It’s Working Project has long supported the private sector in building and maintaining a sincere, transparent caregiving culture by championing parental leave policies with a gradual, multi-month return, in lieu of the typical expectation of returning to work at the end of 12 weeks. The same is true of parental caregiving, where often the role of managing an adult parent after a fall or a stroke is suddenly thrust upon an employee. In working on these policies, we’ve learned that the key building block to making this type of leave work is trust. Uncertainty abounds during this pandemic, but one thing has emerged clearly during my interviews: Employees who feel that their managers trust them to get things done — in whatever way they can, given the demands they’re coping with at home — are those who report the highest levels of job satisfaction.

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