We’re at a new phase of the working-parent crisis — a widespread breakdown of communication between hardworking mothers and fathers, frontline managers, and senior leaders. Two years into the pandemic, we’re losing our grip on one of the most powerful tools to get to someplace better on the other side: our ability to talk to each other. The author offers practical strategies for opening the working-parent lines of communication. For all of us to keep ourselves, our careers, and our organizations moving forward, we need to remain connected.
The pandemic may be ebbing, but one of its most pernicious effects isn’t. Two years and a zillion little-kid Zoom-call interruptions later, and we still don’t have sufficient and effective communications between hardworking mothers and fathers, frontline managers, and senior leaders of our organizations. Without strong connections between those three parties, it’s going to be very hard for working parents still grappling with pandemic stresses to get through the next several months — and for all of us to get to a better, more workable place on the other side.
Here’s the working-parent communications picture, right now:
- Working moms and dads are demoralized and exhausted from two-plus years of extreme work-plus-caregiving logistics. And for many — like those with kids under five, who are still ineligible for vaccines — the challenges continue. Making matters worse, many or most parents hesitate to talk openly with their managers about their personal situation (burnout, daycare closures) for fear of misunderstanding, judgment, or reprisal.
- Most managers are genuinely sympathetic to coworkers with kids, but they have their own jobs and families to attend to, and worry about being on the hook to cover for every childcare crisis or to act as workplace therapists. So, instead of engaging team members in open conversation, they pull back from it, and focus on the work tasks at hand.
- Senior leaders are doing their best to deliver important messages and rallying cries about 2022 goals, the return to work, and how to rebuild team culture — but those messages simply aren’t landing. It appears that employees either aren’t listening or don’t seem to care, and senior leaders are increasingly confused and frustrated.
The overall result is like a video call gone terribly wrong: We’re all shouting, want to be heard, and have all lost control of the mute button.
Here are some strategies and techniques that each of us — leaders, managers, and individual moms and dads — can use to get the lines of communication open and working right now.
Your first order of business is to get the facts on what working mothers and fathers in your organization are really dealing with right now. Sure, over the past two years you’ve heard plenty about working-parent stress, but do you know exactly what those stressors look like for your people, today? Maybe parents in field offices are struggling to adapt to the hybrid work model, or maybe the nationwide formula shortage is creating hardship for newer parents.
Without this context, there’s a very real risk that you show up as The Leader Who Doesn’t Get It, or worse, The Leader Who Doesn’t Care. And that, in turn, is going to make it very hard to get overwhelmed working parents — who likely make up a sizable proportion of your workforce — to listen to and follow you.
Fortunately, getting the insights you need won’t be tough. You can get timely, detailed information through polls, focus groups, your HR team, or simply by walking around. Whatever the means, preserve your leadership credibility by figuring out what’s really going on.
Next, adapt your communications style by anchoring important business or organizational messages in the present, and on a human dimension, instead of around facts, figures, and plans. Instead of kicking off your next town hall by detailing your five-year growth objectives, try starting with a statement like: “Despite the incredible challenges and stresses we and our families are all facing now, I want you to know I’m confident in our organization’s future. And without diminishing all that we’re dealing with today, I want to share what that future looks like….” In other words, meet and connect with your listeners where they are before pivoting to your leadership agenda and the bottom line.
You want your team members to stay, and stay motivated — and you want to be supportive without overpromising. Three simple techniques will help.
Ask open-ended questions.
A gentle “Is there any important context you want me to have about your life outside of work?” isn’t prying, and it doesn’t imply that you’re willing to lower any workplace standard. You’re simply demonstrating that the communications door is open, which will read as supportive, and for any working mom or dad will come as a powerful relief.
Praise how your team members operate, rather than what they produce.
Realize that Covid has taken an awful toll on virtually every working parent’s sense of self. Prior to the pandemic, that smart accountant on your team may have been proud of being hardworking, on top of it, expert, thoughtful, and so on. But after two years of distance learning, quarantines, and uncertainty, she probably doesn’t feel any of those things — more like overwhelmed, uncertain, or even failing. When she’s in that headspace, your typical “Hey, good job, and thanks for the budget numbers” type praise won’t stick.
Instead, offer a comment like, “Thanks for working so hard on the budget numbers, as always, and I really value your expert eye here.” In other words, allow the other person to see and experience herself as the consummate professional she wants to be.
Highlight progress and momentum.
Imagine a fast-running treadmill with no off switch: To most working moms and dads, that’s how the pandemic has felt, and still feels. As hard as we run, we can’t make progress — and that lack of forward movement is demotivating.
To re-motivate your people, you need to show them how far they’ve come. So when talking about the R&D efforts, mention “the incredible strides we’ve made as a team.” In your next one-on-one, tell that direct report that you’re “impressed with the impact you’ve made in so short a time.” The more you can give working moms and dads a palpable sense of moving forward, the more they’ll want, and be able, to keep going.
Individual Working Moms and Dads
You’re so exhausted and frustrated you could scream — but screaming probably won’t get you the flexibility or “give” you want right now. Here’s what will.
Share more solutions and less emotion.
Telling your boss “I’m exhausted” may be transparent and honest, but it isn’t a statement they can directly act on. Moreover, that manager likely feels just as strained as you are, and upon hearing words like “burnout” or “exhausted” may react with indignance (doesn’t he know I’m sick and tired of this too?!) or have the instinct to flee what promises to be an unpleasant conversation, neither of which benefits you.
Instead of venting, ask for the vacation time you want, mentioning how it will put you in a better position to tackle the new client work, for example. Make it an easy, low-drama process for your boss to give you what you need.
Lead with your intentions.
Worried about being misread or misunderstood? Then tackle those concerns head-on. A statement like, “I’m not here to complain about my workload — but I am here to discuss the possibility of shifting my hours over the next few weeks” both clarifies your goals and focuses your manager on the right next steps.
Avoid immediate-crisis framing.
The pandemic has presented one burning fire after another, and most managers and leaders are just as nervous, hypervigilant, and tired as you are. So when talking about the flex-work setup you’re hoping for, try to stay out of emergency mode. A calm “I’m not pushing for an answer today. Think about it, and we’ll regroup” will likely work better than demanding an immediate response.
As you scanned the recommendations above, they may have seemed strange, or even over-engineered. Why should I have to make a concerted effort to have what should be simple conversations? If so, remember: We’re rolling with tremendous pressures and circumstances. Just as we’ve adapted in so many other — hopefully temporary — ways, we can adapt how we talk to each other, too. For all of us to keep ourselves, our careers, and our organizations moving forward, we need to remain connected.