Just before I sat down to write this column, I wrapped up a quick phone call with a colleague. There were delighted shrieks in the background; apparently his toddler had just seized a crowbar. Such is the new background music of work-from-home life.

Even if parts of the economy soon reopen, school closures and working from home may remain a reality for many for months, and epidemiologists are warning that rolling, intermittent shutdowns may be required to cope with new outbreaks. That means working parents operating in just-get-through-today conditions will have to shift into a more sustainable mode — as will their bosses, who may, of course, be working parents themselves.

To get through the next weeks, months or (gulp) years with even a modicum of grace, we have to start with open communication. This is obvious, yet necessary conversations often don’t happen. Working parents get subtle (and overt) signals that they should excise their families from their professional lives, which stops such talks before they start. And managers are often afraid to pry into employees’ personal lives, or are discouraged by HR from asking sensitive questions.

Pretending work and family are totally separable was always a fantasy, but it’s especially laughable now. And recognising that could be a good thing in the long run. “One of the upsides of the tsunami of social change being driven by the pandemic restrictions is an obliterating of the walls of resistance to trying new flexible work arrangements,” says Stew Friedman, a professor at the Wharton School and co-author of Parents Who Lead. 

In the same boat

Jennifer Petriglieri, a professor at INSEAD and author of Couples That Work, agrees. “Almost all of us are in the same boat” now, she says, making it less likely that requests for flexible work will be met with questions about an employee’s commitment.

If better ways of working can be hammered out now, they’ll help all working parents down the line. But first we have to get there. What’s promising in the long run can feel like total chaos at first.

Managers should start by getting a sense of what their employee is facing. “Don’t assume you know what they’re going through, or that it’s the same as what you’re going through,” advises Petriglieri. Different kids need different things. Working fathers deserve as much flexibility as you’re offering to working mothers. Ask employees how their situation has changed and what their new constraints are. This is especially important if you’re managing a geographically distributed team; employees in virus hot spots may have unique challenges.

Don’t assume

And keep in mind that not all working parents may want to dial back, even now. “It’s assumed that working parents, working mothers in particular, have reduced ambition, when that certainly is not always the case,” says Friedman. “In fact, they might feel even more motivated now to pursue advancement and impact.”

After you have a clearer picture of your employee’s situation, establish clear priorities. Prioritizing is good management at any time, but it’s especially valuable now. With so many industries affected by the pandemic, it’s likely your business has changed. All employees — not only working parents — need to know what’s shifted. It’s a lot easier to manage our time when we know what matters most. (Pro tip: It makes no sense to have a list of 10 things that “matter most.” Keep it to three or four.)

Next, discuss what your employee expects their hours will be, while acknowledging that they may not be able to fully predict those hours. It’s likely that 8-6 isn’t going to work right now, especially for single parents or for two-career couples who are essentially trading shifts. Discuss if there are regular times each of you expects to be available or unavailable.

Judge employees on outcomes, not the hours they put in. This isn’t only to cut working parents a break; it’s a useful way to judge all employees more fairly, and hold people accountable for what they’ve promised to get done. You’ve already established the essential priorities; talk now about what’s needed to meet those priorities, by when and to what standard of quality. Then give people as much freedom as possible in how they get there. This is just “good leadership 101,” says Friedman, “and it matters even more when you’re remote.”

This takes trust — something that can be rare in workplace relationships. Managers sometimes find it hard to trust employees they can’t see; employees may not believe that bosses who pay lip service to flexibility really mean it. So approach new work arrangements as an experiment. “Experiments help to build trust,” says Friedman. Try a new arrangement for a week and then check in and see how it’s going; agree in advance on how you’ll measure success. If it doesn’t work, try something else.

Finally, ask your employees how best you can support them, not once, but over the course of the next weeks and months as this strange situation evolves. “That means the world to people and it costs almost nothing,” says Petriglieri.

Whatever you do now to be a better boss will likely have a disproportionate impact, not only on the working parents on your team, but on the other talented people watching you lead. “What managers do now will be remembered,” says Petriglieri. “What you do in crisis, people remember much more than what you did during business as usual.”

Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg columnist. 

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