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Boss’s Tip of the Week #26: Parents: How to Help Employees Balance Work and Family

The Boss's Survival GuideHere is the latest installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

It isn’t fun to get to that important meeting and find the morning’s oatmeal on your tie, or to discover that the handouts for your important presentation made an excellent canvas for your toddler’s masterpiece. But being a working parent is more than gags right out of the Baby Blues comic strip. The real anguish is loosening the arms of a screaming child and walking out the door of a preschool, sitting alone in a hotel room while your first grader appears in her first school play or being interrupted in a meeting because there’s an emergency. Those are the situations that make life tough for parents — and their managers.
 
Most parents have jobs outside the home. Parents of young children face daunting emotional and financial duties. We can either pretend that it isn’t our problem  or we can accept the fact and find ways to make the situation work for both sides:
 
Be flexible. When job duties permit, give parents the latitude to come in late, leave early, take time out of the middle of the day, or work at home. Stop worrying about when an employee gets work done and focus instead on the quality of the work. When you do that, you can stop worrying about people abusing the system.
 
Of course, many jobs require people to be at work during certain hours, but there may still be room for creativity. At a large hotel, for example, several resignations had put pressure on the housekeeping staff and replacements were hard to find. Rather than just extend the workday, the manager asked the housekeepers for ideas. To his surprise, they proposed taking turns caring for each other’s children; just eliminating the challenge of finding reliable childcare enabled them to get more done.
 
Yes, we know: In tough times, when layoffs have cut staffing to the bone and everyone is doing three jobs, indulging in flexibility to help parents is not easy. It certainly may be more difficult than it once was. But as the example about the housekeeping staff at the hotel shows, creativity can go a long way toward easing stress without sacrificing productivity. If you can’t do everything you’d like, at least employees know that you are aware of the challenges. And try to make it possible for parents to participate in particularly important family events.
 
Be reasonable. A few gestures can go a long way toward making life easier for parents. Whenever possible, for example, avoid scheduling meetings for first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon; it’s more difficult for parents with children in childcare facilities to be flexible at those times of day. If you schedule all-day meetings, build in breaks that allow parents to check in with their child care providers. Ask your employees if there are other easy things you can do to reduce their stress.
 
Respect time at home. Many parents take work home to make up for time out of the office. Don’t add to that burden by calling parents at home with questions that can be answered just as well the next day. Also, try to permit parents to get home at a reasonable hour. Be careful that you don’t reward only those employees who join the gang for an after-work drink or a weekend trip to the beach. If you do, you’re sending the signal that sacrificing personal time is a requirement for getting ahead.
 
Don’t make kids invisible. Just acknowledging employees’ kids goes a long way toward helping parents feel supported. If you sponsor social events for employees, include their children occasionally and plan activities for the kids. (If children’s activities are about as familiar to you as a state dinner for the ambassador from Botswana, ask the parents in your office.) When kids show up at the office (and they will!), smile and talk to them. No one’s asking you to audition for a job on Sesame Street, but watch morale plummet if you pretend you don’t even see the kids.
 
Don’t overdo it. Do what you can to help parents, but be careful not to do it at the expense of employees who don’t have kids. 
 
Real Life Example
 
Wonderware, an Irvine, California-based developer of software for manufacturing firms, is a very parent-friendly place. Most employees set their own schedules. That means that some arrive as early as 6 a.m. so they can have more time with their children after school. No one frowns if parents leave the office for school conferences or doctor appointments.
 
When parents get in a child care bind, they’re welcome to bring kids into the office. The Kid’s Rooms (each of the company’s four buildings has a room) are stocked with standard office supplies (paper, staplers, pens, pencils, crayons, rulers, tape), a TV, a VCR, and several older computers. The kids are also welcome to the free food: vending machine items, fresh fruit, string cheese, hard-boiled eggs, celery sticks, carrots, and a drink refrigerator that includes milk, fruit juice, and sodas. A telephone in the room makes it easy to reach Mom or Dad.
 
At Wonderware, kids are considered part of the company “family.” At the annual picnic, they play on an inflatable mountain, a large slide, and a human Foosball field. They participate in the hula hoop endurance challenge, water balloon tossing, and sack races, and also enjoy the hired juggler/mime. Other annual family activities include an Easter egg hunt, a summer kickoff barbecue, and a Christmas crafts evening at which kids visit with Santa, frost cookies, and decorate mugs, glasses, and ornaments.
 
All of that makes the company an appealing place for parents to work. It’s great for recruitment and retention, and it goes a long way toward building commitment.

Boss’s Tip of the Week #26: Parents: How to Help Employees Balance Work and Family
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