When Worlds Collide: Back to Work Meets Back to School in a Virtual World.

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A continuation of the New Abnormal Series…

Those of us in the human resource management and organizational leadership world can handle a lot because we have seen a lot. And then our eyes were opened even wider: shelter in place, virtual work, essential workers, managing risk for the organization while focusing on the more important factor of employee health. All while trying to balance life at home for ourselves and the same challenges many of those we support were facing. And then school started…

Balancing the demands of work and needs of school-aged children has always been a challenging equation. The addition of a virtual learning environment makes that equation exponentially harder.

Over the course of the past few months, we have encountered many different perspectives on solving for success. We thought we’d share a few.

The Worker/Parent

The impact of virtual learning is immense from a logistical standpoint for working parents. This shouldn’t come as a surprise when we consider how challenging it has been to craft new ways of doing things for our workplaces. Individuals who are working remotely encounter tremendous scheduling challenges trying to support their students at home. Some have shared that even with upgrading their internet, they often bog down. Others lament the lack of physical space in their homes to accommodate their children doing schoolwork and their own needs to be productive. More challenging than that are parents whose jobs do not afford them the opportunity to work virtually themselves.

An acquaintance recently shared that faced with virtual learning for her seven-year-old and no option for virtual work herself, she had no choice but to quit her job. She was planning on withdrawing from a 401(k) plan until she could figure out another solution.

A candidate with whom we recently worked had a similar situation. Her daughter was in a hybrid learning environment with in-person/onsite for only a couple of hours every other day. The organization agreed to make the role 100% remote. And still, this working parent had to move closer to the school in order to pick up and drop off in such short timeframes and still get any work completed.

Several in our network have formed “learning pods” where groups of parents pooled resources to obtain a space and a “teacher” who is more like a proctor to facilitate learning and provide supervision. Some question the legality of such arrangements as ‘micro schools’ could be subject to licensing requirements.

Another changed her schedule to provide school support for two children in different schools. She gets them to bed and then begins her workday around 7 p.m., sleeping from 2 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., then starting the school day at again at 7 a.m.

Another person who does not have access to remote work and needs to work, made the difficult decision to leave her children unattended during the workday and on their own for their studies.

These decisions, even when they “work”, are far from optimal and have a significant impact on the children, the worker and, of course, the organization. Exhausted and distracted parents rarely produce their best work.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal cited a study that one in four women are considering leaving the workforce until schools reopen in a traditional sense. The ramifications of such an exodus are both societal and organizational. These individuals who make the difficult choice to leave face potential difficulty reentering in a weak economy, a compound negative impact on future earnings, and missed opportunities. Organizations who are struggling may see top talent leave for family needs.

The Teachers

Curious on the perspective of teachers themselves, we contacted several in our network. Their feedback on where they are seeing parents struggle the most fell into two categories: systems and tracking.

All opined that the biggest hurdle for parents is not understanding the technology the school is using to the extent that they could help their student be successful. In several cases, parents of multiple children were in different schools and each school was operating on a different technology platform. The teachers sympathized with the parents. (Many had never seen the technology themselves until they began using it while trying to learn to teach virtually.) The teachers shared that they spend a significant amount of time working with parents on the technology, using time they desperately needed to teach. All commented that they wished there were more technical resources for parents outside of contacting the teacher, particularly for parents who have no knowledge of computers. Some stated that if a business could make their tech department available to help working parents struggling with the school tech, that would help.

The second area the teachers saw parents struggling involved schedules – keeping track of and coordinating the student’s schedule with their own work schedules.

As for what hurdles the students themselves are crossing, the number one issue rings very familiar to those of us learning a new way of working – staying on task and focused. Being at home provides many potential distractions. Sometimes, the environment simply isn’t conducive to learning with others living in the home watching television, pets being pets, or multiple people sharing the only workspace in the house.

There are some silver linings, though. One teacher shared that some of her students who exhibit disruptive behavior in the classroom are more focused online. They don’t distract others and aren’t as distracted by others themselves. Teachers think that when classroom teaching returns these students might be more successful staying in a virtual environment at least part of the time – as long as there was social interaction incorporated as well.

What the teachers are challenged with themselves in the new way wasn’t surprising – they miss the direct interaction with the kids and being able to ascertain whether a child was “getting it” or not by body language, interaction, walking by and seeing the progress on a task. All cited that they became classroom teachers in large part because of such interactions. All want it back, in a safe manner, of course.

One teacher shared that in her view, school should have been canceled all together this year. That the challenges and outcomes didn’t warrant the effort. No other teacher we spoke with shared that view.

All shared that a dedicated workspace and a firm schedule would be the best way to help virtual students.

The Organizations

We have the honor of working with organizations that believe in the power of good HR. That also means these companies make concerted effort to create workplaces where individuals can thrive. All we have spoken with acknowledge that those struggling the most in the new dynamic are working parents with school age children.

When parents and teachers were asked what is the number one way that businesses and organizations can support their working parents, the answer was the same – give as much flexibility as possible.

This aligns with what many of our HR colleagues have shared is the first response in helping their teams balance the needs of work and home, especially at the beginning – flexibility. In the beginning, that flexibility was often granted at the supervisor level and without much organizational consistency.

As remote work and virtual learning have progressed, the need for more formal policies has arisen to ensure fair practices and equity across teams and departments. Many who were very flexible initially have also put greater restrictions in place for the “greater good” in terms of the viability of the organization itself. Balancing the needs of the individual with the needs of the organization is always delicate and among the most complicated of HR’s responsibilities.

Other programs companies have deployed to help their team members with school responsibilities are offering tutoring as an employee benefit, allowing children to accompany parents in the workplace (where safe and feasible), expanding EAP benefits with some adding enhanced mental health offerings, leaves of absence, or enhancing daycare opportunities.

As in so many situations that involve people, simply opening a dialogue is a great start in helping. Most parents feel guilt that they aren’t supporting their children as students and that they aren’t doing their best work. Creating a space where concerns can be brought forward in a safe and open manner allows for collaborative problem solving.

Beyond the concept of “doing the right thing” there are very real benefits for helping working parents through this new abnormal. Retention of talent is a key goal of most if not every organization, even in (or especially in) a challenging economy. Employees are watching our (HR’s) actions. How we treat those who are struggling often representing a key decision point in whether a talented team member stays or goes, even if the struggle isn’t their own.

One thing that COVID and the COVID response has taught us over and over is the need for creativity, nimbleness, flexibility and resilience. Crisis crystalizes response. As Darwin opined, it is not the strongest who survive but rather, the most adaptable.

If you have any insights on how your organization has met the challenges that virtual learning has presented, we’d love to hear them.

Be well,

Danika Davis