We are several weeks into the “new normal”— law firms and entire organizations working remotely, schools and daycares closed, and working parents juggling the roles of lawyer, parent and teacher. For many, the challenge of adjusting to a 100 percent remote work environment has been difficult enough, but for many working parents, adding the demand of being a 24/7 parent feels insurmountable.
While many law firms have shown patience and understanding in the initial weeks, the new normal has no end date in sight, so the flexibility that has thus far been afforded to attorneys will need to continue indefinitely.
What WFH with Kids Looks Like
The struggle for working parents is not that they would rather be at work than spend time with their children; it’s the struggle to be all things to all people. It’s the challenge of figuring out how to give 100 percent to being a lawyer and a parent that feels impossible. It’s the guilt that many already feel about being a working parent that is now growing every day. It’s the feeling of failure of not being able to be both the lawyer and parent that you want to be. Children of all ages require attention and help in different ways throughout the day that result in a division of time and attention.
Those with young children must be hands-on all day. Babies cannot be left alone or feed themselves. If those little ones are toddlers, then they demand a playmate and will only focus on a task for a minimal amount of time before they move on to something else that requires instruction or participation. Taking conference calls between activities, meals and nap time becomes the norm.
Those with school-aged children have the added responsibility of teacher or at the very least watchdog to get schoolwork done. While these children are generally old enough to be independent and entertain themselves, their learning needs to continue, and someone needs to address math problems, help with a science experiment or show them how to use the technology in your home.
When a working parent has multiple children of varying ages, the struggle becomes exponentially challenging as they get pulled in multiple directions all the while trying to do what they need to do for themselves.
There are some working parents who have someone else at home to pick up the slack, like a spouse or live-in grandparent, who they can trade back and forth with throughout the day, but there are many who are single parents or have a partner who is essential and not home all day. The question becomes how one uses their time wisely and completes all the tasks at hand. Stress and anxiety take over; fear of job loss sets in; and the internal struggle ensues.
How Working Parents Make This Work
There is no right way to be a parent working from home with kids. Communication, support and creativity are essential to making this work.
Start with communication within your own household. Coordinate with your partner on your work schedules and decide who can take on certain responsibilities during certain blocks of time. Then communicate with your team. Let them know the situation at home and how you are structuring your day to be the most productive. Being upfront and honest will help manage everyone’s expectations and show you are giving your all.
Find your village and your support system. Reach out to your colleagues who are in the same situation and start the conversation about how everyone is dealing with the current reality. This will help normalize the fact that there are working parents in your firm or organization that are also frustrated that they are not able to have the uninterrupted, quiet day that they are used to. The communication will allow everyone to feel less isolated and alone in what they are having to manage. Lean on your partner, family, friends or neighbors for help--whether it’s asking for someone to FaceTime with your children to give you extra time to finish a project, pick up something at the grocery store or just be a listening ear.
Get creative with your schedule and how to get your work done. If there are deadlines that you can’t meet because of parental obligations, communicate this to your team. See if there are creative solutions that everyone can work with to optimize the times you do have to work. It may mean that someone takes over some of your work and you take over some of theirs. Make a schedule for your kids and build in activities for independent play. When your kids are napping, make the most of that time.
How Organizations Can Support Parents
This new normal can be hard for non-working parents to understand the challenges their working parent colleagues are facing, and this may be the first time an organization has to truly acknowledge it has working parents on its team. The reality is working parents want to work and do the best job possible for their firm or organization. Where before these lawyers and employees had the resources they needed to separate their professional and personal responsibilities, that luxury no longer exists – at least for now. Firms and organizations need to have honest conversations with their people and understand that each person’s situation is uniquely different. Then they need to set expectations appropriately. The solutions are everything from having open communication and transparency and figuring out whether billable hour expectations need to be adjusted to leveraging the technological tools that are already in place and allowing for flexible hours.
This situation is unprecedented, and there is no right answer on how to manage this professionally or personally. The world looks very differently today than it did a month ago. This is an opportunity for law firms and organizations to assess whether they have a structure that supports working from home, and if they don’t, explore what they need to do to fix it. This is an opportunity to understand the unique struggles that working parents have. And it is an opportunity for firms and organizations that maybe weren’t as “work-from-home” friendly to be more open minded once we go back to business as usual.