Leadership

How to Lead Staffers Who Are Caregivers

By / Jan 18, 2021 (ilona/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Remote work brings unique stresses to parents. One association staffer suggests a few ways the whole organization can help.

Now that we’re nearly a year into a global pandemic, associations have become increasingly used to remote work. But that’s not the same thing as being increasingly comfortable with it, and that’s especially true for staffers who are working at home while raising children and handling other caregiving duties. Monitoring online schooling, keeping tabs on ill friends and family, and the other complications of working at home all challenge workers to do more balancing acts than they might at the office.

As I wrote last week, there’s some evidence that offices are becoming better at creating a culture where workers are more candid about the stresses they’re facing. But that culture doesn’t happen automatically. It’s cultivated by workers who spotlight their particular needs—and, just as important, the leaders who hear them out.

Jessica Strelitz, chief strategic partnerships officer at the Online News Association, was alert to that challenge well before COVID-19. When she joined the ONA staff seven years ago, she was the sole staffer who was also a parent, and she made a point of raising the matter. “I thought it was important to talk about that and what it meant for me as a professional,” she says.

Now that she’s no longer the sole staffer with children—and now that everyone is working remotely—she notes that the need for understanding is more pronounced. She offers three suggestions about ways that leaders can make their organizations more inclusive of working parents from a distance.

It’s important to let people know that it’s OK to feel this way.

Establish a parent-friendly culture, which can start long before a kid arrives. Gestures of support and encouragement to new parents are great. But Strelitz suggests that conversations around parenting should be built into the onboarding process. “Whether it’s leave to handle family issues, maternity leave, paternity leave—those are the sorts of things that are part of the first conversations you’re having with a new employee,” she says. “It should be framed up as a reflection of how you handle a whole person. So even if they’re not thinking of having a family, you want them to look at you as a holistic home for them, at this stage in their life and the next stage.”

Respect a range of personality types. Strelitz, who worked in journalism before entering the association world, recognizes that a lot offices prioritize deadlines and productivity to the exclusion of nearly everything else. That mindset made many leaders skeptical about remote work until their hands were forced. And now that they recognize that work can still be done remotely, they can hopefully be more appreciative of the complicated lives of their employees, who are on the job and serving as caregivers too.

One of the biggest challenges with leaders is “not recognizing the challenges that are there,” Strelitz says. And as for employees, “a lot of people, especially A-types, are not always OK with feeling a little out of control, or that things aren’t OK. So it’s important to let people know that it’s OK to feel this way, and that people will work through the issues with you, versus penalize you for it.”

Bring the kids. Take Your Child to Work Day can happen just as readily online as it does in the office. Last year, when Strelitz’s 7-year-old son was taking an after-school magic class virtually, a colleague suggested putting together a talent show that would include both the children and their parents. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or time-consuming, she says, and it may be better if it’s not: “Not everybody wants to watch 15 minutes of kids’ stuff. That’s even annoying for me as a parent.”

But even a brief break offers a bit of a release and stokes the conversations about caregiving that are important for the staff’s well-being. “It was part of our internal messaging at work, talking about what we’re doing how we’re feeling about things,” she says. “I encouraged everybody to share what’s happening, share what you know. We have to be honest about what’s happening here.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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