By Dana Wilkie

The COVID-19 pandemic hit working parents with plenty of challenges when it came to caring for schoolchildren who were suddenly learning from home: They had to homeschool, find alternate child care and entertain bored kids when the schoolwork was done.

Now that some children have returned to in-person classes, whether part time or all day, working parents have to pivot once again — juggling job duties with family responsibilities while wrestling with the worry that colleagues and managers will view them as less than dedicated to their jobs.

Sending kids back to school — whether during a normal school year or after children have been cloistered at home for months learning remotely — “brings an array of challenges,” said Alyssa Johnson, vice president of global account management for Waltham, Mass. based Care@Work, which provides employers with benefits programs to help workers care for children, seniors, pets and their homes. “New caregivers, new schedules and new after-school programs all require a period of adjustment that working parents are balancing with their [job] responsibilities.”

Bringing children back to school tends to interfere with work, she said. There’s the morning parent orientation at a child’s school, which overlaps with the weekly meeting at work, whether that meeting is in person or over Zoom. If kids are back at school on a staggered schedule — attending in-person classes only half the day, for instance — managers may not understand why a parent can’t be at the worksite all day, especially now that many businesses have started bringing employees back.

Many schools end classes between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., which means working parents might need child care for several hours or must head home themselves, said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. School holidays and spring breaks don’t always coincide with an employee’s vacation allotment. Inclement weather and teacher development days can mean that kids don’t have school at all.

“Work has changed in this country,” Galinsky said. “People work longer hours, they are called on sometimes 24/7, 51 percent do work email during nonwork hours because of technology, and jobs have become more demanding. Yet school schedules have stayed the same. This is a real mismatch that is very stressful for families.

“In addition, kids get sick. Then the house of cards that parents construct to take care of their children begins to collapse. These gaps have been filled with after-school care and drop-in care, but they cost money.”

How Managers Can Help

Managers can help by reminding their workers of any year-round benefits the company might offer, such as employer-provided backup child care for emergency situations, Johnson said. Such programs, she noted, are proven to decrease absenteeism and to boost productivity among working parents.

Care@Work reports that employees who have access to backup child care work six more days per year than those who don’t have it. Services can help working parents find the child care best suited to their needs or navigate the complexity and confusion of finding the right care for an aging relative, Johnson said.

“More and more companies are realizing that maintaining an engaged, productive workforce means appreciating that breadwinning and caregiving are inextricably connected,” she said. “Providing care support for their teams results in greater overall performance and bottom-line results.”

Be Evenhanded About Flexibility

Managers may want to afford working parents flexibility during the school year. But how does a manager handle non-parents who may complain about doing more work because of these accommodations or who feel slighted that they’re not afforded similar breaks just because they don’t have children?

“Benefits equality is critical to building a culture supportive of work/life balance, and it’s essential to remember that ‘family’ does not simply mean children,” Johnson said.  “If you’re granting flexibility to parents dealing with a back-to-school schedule, do the same for employees who need to take a parent, spouse or themselves to the doctor.

“Additionally, with flexibility should come accountability. Encourage employees to be as proactive as possible in creating plans to meet deadlines and commitments…so that the work doesn’t fall to someone else. If benefits are extended equally among your employees, non-parents are less likely to feel burdened on those occasions when they have to pick up the slack, because they know the parents on their team will do the same for them when they need it.”

Galinsky noted that her institute’s research indicates that complaints against “parent privilege” are rare. “On average, this is more of a perceived problem than a real problem,” she said. “If workplaces are designed with the notion that everyone at one time or another needs flexibility — it may be for an elderly parent or car or house that needs immediate repair — then people are very accepting of flexibility because all can have access to it.”

Working Parent Worry and Guilt

A working parent’s productivity may be stifled by more than just the scheduling challenges that come with sending their kids back to school. Parents can also be plagued by worries about how their children will do in school, Galinsky said, and that can distract them from job duties.

Managers can help by simply showing interest in how a worker’s child is doing.

“The simple act of the manager asking about how the employees’ children are doing in the transition back to school can mean a lot,” Galinsky said. “It can mean that the wall between work and family is more porous than is traditional. It can mean that the manager cares about me and my family. It can mean that I don’t have to sacrifice my kids for work. Small things like this — or even workshops to talk about this transition — can make a big difference.”

Andee Harris is CEO at Challenger, which offers training, technology and consulting in sales, marketing and customer service. She notes that “personalization is especially important for working parents.”

“When I’m upfront and tell my employees when I have to leave early to spend time with my kids, I know it helps people on my team feel more comfortable doing the same,” Harris said. “For working parents that do work from home part time or full time, make sure to include them in video calls so they feel connected to team members, even when they’re not in the office daily.”