Back to School Chaos: 4 Steps to Take Now to Support Working Parents

*This article was originally featured in Colorado Biz, on August 13, 2020.

As of the writing of this article, politicians and health officials at all levels agree on one thing: COVID-19 is going to get worse before the year ends. Meanwhile, school districts are making plans to resume teaching children in the fall in a wide array of formats, including: in-person classroom, online instruction, “hybrid” of live and online, compressed and variable scheduling, etc.

Some staff may refuse to return to work in schools open for live instruction out of fear of infection. If an outbreak occurs in a classroom, a school may suddenly close and require children stay home. With COVID-19 in control, working parents face a chaotic reality when their children return to school.

Are you drafting plans right now to support working parents who must balance their children and their jobs?

Sticking your head in the sand, or taking a “Not my problem” attitude is perfectly legal and even tempting. However, being rigid or avoiding reality will likely have serious consequences including workplace chaos and the unnecessary loss of good employees.

For employers who value employees and wish to support them through this chaos, as well as increase the ability to keep the business on track, a radically flexible approach may be needed to manage these inevitable upcoming challenges. Consider these four steps:

 

Step 1: Acknowledge the situation and engage employees in innovating solutions.

Survey employees in a discussion over what challenges they face with childcare and children returning to school.

Educate employees about the challenges and solicit an “all hands on deck” attitude.

Coach employees to be solution-oriented and facilitate problem-solving sessions for them to draft their own personal plan for managing and creating back-up plans. Some employees may be stressed out about their circumstances and the uncertainty imposed on them by COVID-19; they may benefit from fresh perspectives on their circumstances.

Engage in “war games” planning to identify and address “What if” scenarios such as, “What if half of our workforce cannot report to work due to school/ childcare closures?”

 

Step 2: Evaluate current practices and focus on what matters.

Adjust expectations of how work is done—focus on outcomes instead of “face time” hours. (Caution: non-exempt employees must be paid for all hours worked.)

Revisit attendance and leave request policies—allow for legitimate “last minute” requests due to school closures and avoid punitive consequences.

Ask all employees to collaborate and be more agile in responding to the disruption associated with the pandemic.

Evaluate benefits to provide more support to working parents and employees facing other challenges due to COVID-19.

Temporarily suspend “nice to do” but non-essential workplace activities; employees who are spending time on non-essential projects or committees may be needed elsewhere.

Explore how work can be completed in new ways. Empower employees to identify and eliminate wasteful actions, and define work-arounds to focus on core functions.

Identify skills in staff from other teams that can be temporarily reassigned to gaps created by a colleague who had to stay home due to school closure.

Create on-demand pools with the help of temporary staffing firms.

If a 9 – 5 pm, Monday – Friday schedule won’t work for employees, try a schedule that includes evenings as well as Saturdays and Sundays?

Evaluate vacation planning and other planned absences—it may be necessary to disallow them for months at a time. Though not popular, such a step may be one of the temporary shared sacrifices necessary to successfully navigate the chaos of COVID-19 this fall.

 

Step 3: Offer options to employees and build community.

Offer scheduling flexibility for working parents to plan for known and adjust for unknown challenges: compressed workweeks, intermittent schedules, transition to part-time status.

Build community among employees and guide them to share resources, ideas, and creatively get work done while also supporting each other in new ways, such as:

Job sharing: employees with similar job tasks are “paired up” to allow each to take time off.

Task pooling: job tasks are assigned to a “pool” of employees who rotate through and complete work that must be done while having time to meet personal needs.

Cross-training: learning new skills and tasks may be necessary to enable employees to flex and cover for colleagues who must take time off.

Technology makes remote work a possibility for more jobs than employers think; engage employees in remote work planning and drafting new procedures to ensure accountability.

Empower managers to innovate and address evolving conditions, as well as encouraging them to build community with employees facing childcare challengers and devise “win-win” solutions.

 

Step 4: Maintain compliance and seek advice.

Various laws may impact your plans and require attention to ensure compliance.

  • FFCRA: mandated paid leave for certain employees may be required due to school district closures.
  • FLSA: avoid wage and hour violations for non-exempt hourly employees as well as exempt/ salaried employees who may take leave or work intermittent schedules.
  • Evolving laws: new federal legislation may be passed to amend FFCRA to expand benefits or possibly provide new entitlements; local laws may be passed that impose new requirements on employers.
  • Seek assistance from trusted advisors to navigate legal complexities and inform your strategic plans.