It's been 9 months of working from home. Here’s what parents have learned

Joan Goodchild
This year’s work-from-home and teach-from-home blend is having a negative impact on parental careers, particularly the careers of mothers, according to some research.

While families have made positive adjustments to accommodate work from home arrangements, balancing jobs and child care continues to be a challenge.

When schools and office spaces suddenly closed one day during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, most households were forced to make quick changes. For working parents, it meant not only shifting to long-term work-from-home arrangements, but also figuring out how to get work done while assisting children who were learning remotely.

The mix of school, work and childcare in one household was a difficult adjustment, to say the least. For many during those first few harried months of COVID-19, getting through the end of the year with remote schooling was simply a matter of anxiety-filled survival. 

“Trying to find a balance is incredibly difficult, if not impossible,” said Kelly Molter, a Shrewsbury mother of two children in third and sixth grade. “We're trying to be fully functioning employees while being there to support our children - each of which require our full attention. It's just not sustainable.”

The Molters made some changes to get through remote working and schooling in the spring, but hoped the pandemic would be over by the start of the new school year. By mid-summer, faced with the reality that the pandemic was far from over, they made the choice to have both children learn remotely, and buckled in for the long haul.

“Back in the spring we quickly threw workspaces together. But during the summer we made sure that everyone would have a dedicated workspace. We ordered desks, office and school supplies, additional charging cords, blue light blocking glasses. At the moment it seemed a little like overkill, but it turned out to be a really wise decision,” she said. 

With dedicated workspaces in place, it is a little easier. But Molter admits that she still struggles with finding balance. She wants to give her all for her employer, but then feels guilty when her kids need her attention navigating their online learning. 

Molter is far from alone in feeling this way, according to Daisy Dowling, a career coach and author of “Workparent: The Complete Guide to Succeeding on the Job, Staying True to Yourself, and Raising Happy Kids.”

“For years, all of us have been encouraged to think of ‘work-life integration’ as the goal, and gold standard. But now, that ‘integration’ has become a complete blurring of personal, professional and parenting lines,” she said. “If you’re working at home, you’re living at work - and you may also be full-time teaching, too. As a result, most of the working parents we teach and coach report tremendous stress and looming burnout - there is no ‘off.’”  

The trade-off between career and child care

This year’s work-from-home and teach-from-home blend is having a negative impact on parental careers, particularly the careers of mothers, according to some research. 

While working mothers have always struggled with some bias in the workplace, the pandemic has exacerbated that. In the attempt to accomplish a near impossible task of being available to both a job and a child all day, it is causing friction with employers. 

The recently released 2020 Women in the Workplace Report by and McKinsey & Company examines the state of women in corporate America and surveyed more than 300 companies and more than 40,000 employees in professional jobs. Study authors found that mothers are more than twice as likely as fathers to worry that their performance is being judged negatively because of their caregiving responsibilities. 

Other surveys find working parents do not feel their employer understands or offers the necessary flexibility during this time. According to a survey conducted in August, 27 percent of working parents responded with “disagree” when asked if they feel their employer is supporting them during back to school time.

Dowling said without regular in-person contact in an office, communications between workers and their employers have declined, if they’re occurring at all.  

“A significant percentage of the parents we counsel report not having had any direct, frank, constructive or forward looking conversations with their managers and/or colleagues about their efforts to manage work and caregiving simultaneously, and this is eight months into the pandemic. It’s essential to have those conversations in an upfront, yet solutions-focused way,” she said.

Dowling also counsels employers that small actions can make a big difference in the eyes of their workers. Companies that want to keep employees happy should make an effort to be mindful of what working parents are going through at the moment.

“One organization I spoke to recently has a new policy that meetings can only start 5 minutes past the hour, to accommodate parents who are dialing young kids into distance learning programs at the same time. Managers should be conscious of setting and respecting boundaries. Try to avoid sending messages outside of business hours, or if you do, label them as ‘For Monday,’ or ‘FYI only’ so parents don’t have to be quite as hyper vigilant about work.”

Setting boundaries for sanity

There’s no question that lessons have been learned in the nine months since parents were first launched into the work-from-home/teach-from-home conundrum. But there is likely still a long way to go on the road to a solution to the virus, and many families continue to struggle with balance. 

If you haven’t already, set boundaries, advised Dowling.

“That might mean setting specific work hours, turning devices off at certain points in the evening, or setting a hard stop to the school day or school work after 3 pm.  It is essential to be able to have that distinction, and sense of completion. To say: ‘I’m done with work, you’re done with school.’”

Laura Burgess, a Hudson mom of a fourth grader and ninth grader, works as assistant dean of the School of Management at Clark University in Worcester. With one child fully remote and another hybrid, she feels it is a luxury now to be able to go into her office on campus once a week, something that wasn’t allowed in the spring.

“Going into the office really makes a difference,” she said. “It gives me a day to feel like my old self, really focus on work, and also connect with students and colleagues in person - following many safety protocols - which is nice.”

For Burgess, another key to her sanity is a schedule that allows her to mix work with family time.

“I blocked off key times on my calendar on days I'm home and in charge of overseeing schooling. For example, my oldest has a lunch break at 11 a.m., so I don't schedule anything from 11-11:30 so I can join him for a walk and just chat about his day so far during his break.”

Molter and her husband, Brian, also find planning and scheduling makes life much easier. But she will be the first to tell you, it is still extremely hard on most days.

“Our daughter's weekly lesson plans are emailed in advance so we print off worksheets and get organized on Sundays. My husband and I try to touch base each morning and review our meetings for the day to make a plan. But most days inevitably go off the rails and we're still scrambling from one thing to the next.”