There is a broad existing assumption around right now that due to isolation, everyone has heaps of time on their hands. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous assumption and unlikely to be playing out for everyone. According to British writer Helen Lewis, in an article published in The Atlantic last month: “The corona virus smashes up the bargain that so many dual-earner couples have made in the developed world: that we can both be at work, because someone else is looking after our children. Instead, couples will have to decide which one of them takes the hit.” Lewis says that’s likely to be a woman, both because of social norms and also because women can quickly step into the “caring-gap” as they are more likely to have been primary care giver in previous times, are perhaps paid less, or are more often working part time.
Historically, working from home was never supposed to be a substitute for childcare. Traditionally, working from home was seen as a lever that can organisation could pull to offer flexibility to workers, not usually as a full-time gig but as a day or two per week, and certainly not to be attempted whilst simultaneously caring for children. The benefits of a reduced commute, and the opportunity to work without interruption have been shown to improve productivity and loyalty. The upside of working from home under pandemic restrictions, in terms of work output and focus, can’t really be accessed or even assessed if there are kids to take care of at the same time. If this is you, then you are not “working from home” – rather, you are now confined to your home, during a global pandemic, taking care of children, and trying to get some work done.
Gender stereotyping already means that for many women, the household cooking, cleaning, laundry and childcare duties are already their burden. Although it varies by country, women continue to do, on average, about two hours more of housework per day than men. Even when we adjust for a woman’s employment status, the time spent falls by only ten minutes per day. Most of us will know a family that is absolutely bucking this trend, where the man is doing as much or more than half the unpaid house chores, however, the statistics show that these families are still outliers. Although it’s early days, the home-schooling responsibility seems to be falling mainly to women, along with the extra time now taken to safely shop for food, added food preparation and clean up as family members spend more time at home, and the mental load of keeping the household operating. This scenario could be the perfect storm for some women who feel that, because they fear for their job security, they must answer every email right away and deliver even more output and faster responses whilst also meeting the caring needs and being the household cleaner and cook.
It would be a shame to judge the current “global working from home experiment” as a failure, based on the unfortunate effect that the situation has delivered for some women a burden of task pressure and caring responsibilities that is heavier than ever before. A global pandemic is such a unique situation that working from home cannot be measured in the same way as it was when things were normal.
For leaders to be aware of this right now, it requires supporting your team and asking some questions about how working from home is working out for each of their team members, and suspending judgement about whether this working arrangement is good for the future if there are kids at home. As things slowly return to a new normal, working from home might emerge as wonderful way to gain more productive, creative and innovative outcomes for more people when their kids return eventually to school or childcare.
And for care givers, whilst there are no easy solutions, there are three things that have been shown to work for households in this situation, although solutions will vary between people and cultures. Here are a handful of strategies that women I coach are trying out right now;
1. Specialise in household tasks and allocate them across the household, just as you would in a team. This takes discussion and agreement. Dividing up tasks across the household members might require dropping the standards from usual standard to near enough is good enough, especially if you involve the kids that are a little bit older. Be aware that this might go against your instincts right now, because one of the ways we react to uncertain situations is to regain control where we can, and this may have unconsciously extended to household tasks. Creating order and stability in the home environment is a way to respond to what some might feel is a world that has lost control. But it might just be burdening some women more than they realise.
2. Now is the time, more than ever, to co-parent as allies. This means sharing the care. Dividing and conquering the childcare is a way to reduce the burden. Think about whatever can be split – supervising a meal, going for a walk, bed, bath and story time. If the kids are learning from home, and both parents are present, then divide the subjects across who feels affinity for a subject. Kids need both parents right now and meeting their needs can be done by either parent, and it doesn’t have to be both parents at the same time. For women accustomed to stepping into the breach, this might require some self-discipline around not going to the rescue when you hear pandemonium in another room. That’s partly why they invented headphones.
3. Acceptance. Accept that this is a temporary situation, and if you can apply the 80:20 rule to getting through then you might be able to keep your sanity intact. Accept that trying to compensate for lost productivity by working longer hours will probably only sacrifice your physical and mental health. Both parents can take turns to access carer’s leave if it is available to you through your employment (and if you are a leader, don’t unconsciously penalise the Mums and Dads who use their carers leave). Be kind and compassionate to yourself and your family. Don’t compare yourself to others and make assumptions that they are coping better than you are. That means letting go and accepting that near enough is good enough. And finally, if you’ve fired the cleaner or the nanny or the babysitter, for goodness sake, if you can afford to, then invite them back. They likely need the work and your home was their place of work. As the virus subsides, more people will feel more comfortable, having assessed their personal risk, to put the help back in place that they need. Accept the help.
Like most parents, I am dreaming of the day when kids go back to school, and imagining the joy of having uninterrupted hours where I can happily do my work, from my own home. With a bit of perspective, the “global working from home experiment’ need not turn into the horrible burden of a COVID-19 career Mummy track, but a way forward where more flexibility can be offered to more employees across the board, with productivity and engagement benefits returning to employees and employers alike, for a better future for all.