Organisations of all sizes and types struggle with the “working parent problem”: how to retain, and foster best performance amongst the significant percentage of their employees who are raising young children. At the same time, working fathers and mothers themselves are provided little practical, realistic guidance on how to meet the simultaneous demands of office and home. For companies that do want to “win through talent”, the key to success lies not in defining the problem – but in pointing parents, particularly new and expectant ones, to the specific behaviours that will help them manage it.
Succeeding on the job while raising and truly being present for your children? It’s all about work-life balance: about giving the two parts of your life equal weight. But hang on a moment: what if the two spheres of your life aren’t perfectly equal? Better to say work/life integration instead, which has a positive ring…but implies that we should always be working, conjuring up an image of at-home employees shackled to their smart phones, of mums returning client emails during bottle feeds. Maybe working parent equation is better – until, of course, we have to solve that multi-variable problem. Perhaps we leave it more ambiguous and open-ended, and simply call it “balance”?
Over the past ten years, as always-on technological environment and increasing competitive pressures have made it ever-harder to be a working parent, the corporate discussion on how to help employees succeed and be satisfied on both professional and personal fronts has reached a fever pitch. At the same time, the numbers of working parents have risen: in the U.K. alone, there are one million more working mothers than there were twenty years ago. If only we can describe the problem correctly for all these people, then surely we will all more likely conquer it – or so the thinking and drawn-out conference-room discussions go. But in our well-intentioned efforts to be precise and semantically correct in addressing the issue, most organisational leaders – we as executives, managers and human capital directors all with real influence on employee experience – have reduced our time and focus on what really matters: helping employees, including ourselves, take action.
Like diet and fitness, working parenthood is a complex, nuanced, and long-term challenge with no silver bullet. Sadly, no single green salad or workout session will ensure good health and a slim figure, and no one corporate policy, program or phrase will solve working-parent issues, either. But stacked together and performed consistently, there are behaviours that can have meaningful impact – both immediate and long-term: things that every working mum and dad can do, regardless of role, function, or family composition, that make it easier to perform, and happily so, at home and at work.
Whether you are currently a working parent, a manager with an expectant parent on your team, or a senior leader who wants to drive results across an organisation with diverse talent: here are seven key actions to implement, teach and advise.
1. Think, and write down, your big-picture.
What type of working parent do you want to be, and what do you want to achieve professionally? Without a clear, motivating view of what you want to accomplish, it will be virtually impossible to make day-to-day decisions that help get you there; it will be like driving a car, fast, with a blacked-out windscreen. Imagine how you’ll want to be described as you near retirement: as the “team lead who mentored all of us – and was also there for his sons”, let’s say, or as “someone who succeeded through her technical expertise, yet was firm about leaving at 6 to get home to be with family.” Jot those thoughts down, and revisit them regularly. The way to feel empowered at work, and less guilty at home, is by developing certainty that you’re heading in the right overall direction.
2. Start parental leaves – and family vacations – with a plan.
Who will cover your key clients while away – and how will they transition them back upon your return? When should colleagues feel free to call with questions and updates on key projects, if at all? What’s the plan and timeline for communicating with your manager? Just as you wouldn’t start a major work undertaking without an outline for action, don’t approach time out of the office without one, either. It needn’t be elaborate, or in color-coded PowerPoint, but having and communicating it will help make you feel more competent and in-control – and better enable you to properly enjoy time away with your family.
3. Identify the bigger team.
Who are the people – in all areas of your life – able to help you meet this unprecedented, daunting challenge? Successful entrepreneurs and business leaders are creative and expansive when it comes to identifying help for their initiatives. Take a page from the same book here. A supportive manager and spouse are wonderful, but not your only go-to’s: There’s the corporate back-up crèche, the mentor from years ago who successfully raised four children and is willing to provide advice and encouragement, your university-aged cousin who’s able to babysit evenings while you’re traveling for work. The broader your thinking, the bigger your team – and the easier your job will become.
4. Confront the elephant.
Do you anticipate a difficult time picking back up again with short-attention-span clients after a six-month parental leave? Is extensive work travel making working parenthood near impossible? Do you suddenly need to change at-home caregiver arrangements, and need time over the next few weeks to handle? If you’re like most highly successful professionals in failure-not-an-option environments, you’re used to weathering large challenges alone: to enduring, not whining. But the large structural issues that threaten your ability to perform at work while raising a child aren’t typically ones that can be solved, or addressed, without discussion with, and the insights and help of others. Get used to the phrase, “this is an issue, here are ideas on how to address, can we work on solving this together?” – and get used to using it. Confronting the elephant makes the animal less powerful; it doesn’t diminish you.
5. Rehearse the future (including the difficult bits).
If you’re going to be returning from parental leave soon, take a morning to do a trial run of the handoff with your caregiver(s). If your child starts school next month: take him along to practice the home-school-work commute. If your 12-year old is going to start spending afternoons at home alone, let her try the first one with you at the coffee shop right round the corner. At work, you proto-type, test-market, and write first drafts as a way of developing and strengthening a product or process. Don’t attempt working-parent improvisational theatre; use that same workplace test-and-rehearse approach here.
6. Set a new bar.
Your old goal was to be the hardest-working member of the team, the most creative, or the most analytical. Your new goal is to be the most efficient. Time how long it takes to produce the monthly report – and try to make it less next go-round. Set a timer and allow 30 minutes to create the first draft of that memo. Participate in company recruiting events – but four a year of them, not six. Any of these actions may only produce a tiny gain on your calendar, but remember: ten minutes a day of “found” time is the same as creating an extra week per year.
7. Don’t (only) ask for flexibility: create it.
Working with others to create, and defend, your work/life balance – whether formally, through a sanctioned four-day week, or informally, by respecting your evenings and weekends – can be a powerful way to create needed flexibility. But it’s just as important to set your own rules, and become your own defender. Your manager or clients may phone you at home on Sunday morning, but you’re the one who decides whether or not to answer. Yes, you’ll likely need to call back – but can do so twenty minutes from now, when you’ve finished lunch with your family. And if you’ve made that decision ahead of time, it will be much easier in the moment.
8. Don’t ask. Do.
Adults demonstrate interest in and care for each other through questions: What did you do today? How did things go? Children, on the other hand, don’t – they simply don’t have the capacity, or desire, to bond through narration. It’s neither a referendum on your parenting ability nor a bellwether for your relationship that your child brushes off such questions: they would rather be doing something with you. As soon as you get home, try playing a simple board game with your five-year old, or invite your teenager to watch the football match highlights. Spending time together with your children – in a way that works for both parties– will make you a more satisfied and relaxed working parent.
Even when routinely practiced, of course, these seven behaviours won’t in and of themselves solve the working-parent challenge completely. And there are literally dozens of other equally powerful “small bite, big impact” steps working parents, their managers and senior leaders can take, to great effect. But by adopting these and other similar behaviors yourself, and by sharing them within your organisation, you’ll help move other people and the organisation itself forward. Because whatever we decide to call the problem, it won’t be solved through fancy or ingenious phrasing – but by doing something.
About the Author
Daisy Wademan Dowling is the Founder & CEO of Workparent, a boutique consultancy that helps organisations drive business results through their working-parent employees and customers. She previously served as Managing Director and Global Head of Talent Development for Blackstone, the leading asset management firm. She can be reached at [email protected]