Let's face it, very few of us have a real sense of what our kids' schooling is going to look like this year. Plans keep changing with school districts as unsure as us, and it's a mess. But for working parents, the next big task is talking to your employer about your kids' school plans, and it shouldn't have to be painful in the middle of an epidemic.
Most of us have heard of some sort of nightmare scenario where bosses and employed parents are concerned. This is not a new phenomenon. Even before the pandemic, it was pretty common to hear about inflexible management and horror show experiences. Now, as the country is in the grip of vast illness, it doesn't seem like it's truly improving. There are great employers out there that are making all the right moves, and chances are good that talking to them will be no big deal. In fact, they probably already know and already have a plan in place for their valued employees. For the others? It's going to be a bit of a dance.
For what it's worth, Michael Alexis, CEO of TeamBuilding, a business-to-business human resources company, tells Romper, "The best practices are to communicate clearly and early. If you anticipate back-to-school disruptions in September, then let your manager know as soon as you can." He understands that sometimes these conversations can be difficult to have, or that you might be worried that your employer will make plans that don't include you. But you just have to be forthright and honest. "The best way to get ahead of this is to be proactive about the conversations, because surprising your company isn't good for anyone's planning." Yes, school may still be up in the air, but we all know that the possibility for change is there, and it might affect your schedule.
As it is, our workday has gone a bit topsy-turvy in recent months. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that before the pandemic, a mere 14% of workers were working from home. Since the pandemic hit, one gallup poll found that now over 60% of workers are working from home. With cases of COVID on the rise and the pandemic nowhere near over, many employees are grappling with how to deal with work and homeschooling this coming fall. There will be difficult conversations between parents and employers about availability, expectations, and productivity.
Donna McCloskey, PhD, a professor in Widener University’s School of Business Administration, has spent two decades studying telecommuting and what does and does not work when working remotely. She tells Romper, "Before talking to your boss, I would strongly suggest spending some time reflecting on what you need." Understanding what you're going to require will help you devise creative solutions. "Depending on the ages and stages of your children, is it possible to work a split shift? For some, a 6 to 10 a.m. and 2 to 6 p.m. schedule would allow for home schooling and an eight-hour work day." If split shifts aren't possible, you may ask your boss to consider letting you work shorter hours on the weekdays so you can make up the time on a weekend when you have someone available for childcare. Just really think about what will work best for you and your family, and then take it to your boss with some ideas.
You also need to know your rights. Find the laws of your state's labor board, as well as your state and city's pandemic guidelines, and learn what your employer can and cannot ask of you. For some states, in-person office meetings are still forbidden. If you're a member of a union, speak to your union representative. They are generally a wealth of knowledge when it comes to employer negotiations, and they should be your first step. After that, find out what your company's policy is. If they already have strict rules regarding flexible scheduling and remote work, you might be in the weeds before you even begin your quest. Hopefully, the pandemic has changed things a bit, but we all know that's not going to be the case all of the time.
Deborah Kolb, author of Negotiating at Work: Turn Small Wins Into Big Gains, told CNBC that knowledge of policies and corporate attitudes is essential when negotiating employment arrangements. She said that you need to "have your ear to the ground," before you discuss what you need. If your child is going to be home, or if there's a hybrid situation, and your needs have changed, do you know how your employer will react? Kolb said that knowing what they've done historically, and how they've acted recently, will hopefully allow you the ability to develop counter arguments.
You also need to know your worth, and have ideas for solutions. If continuing to work remotely is more feasible for you during this time, understand what you're bringing to the table, and brainstorm creative solutions for any potential issues they might bring up. If you know you're not the only one in this situation, get together (virtually) with the other parents in the same situation and see if you can devise a strategy together. Collective action, even when not unionized, can be a powerful statement. Explain your children's hours, what that means for you, and how you plan on getting the work you need to get done, done.
There are real benefits to working remotely that you might point out. For example, there is no commute time, so there might be opportunity for those hours to be used working. Also, when workers are forced to think outside of the box, they're thinking creatively, which is a big deal. Don't just look at it from your perspective when talking to your boss — consider theirs as well. Get into their needs and figure out a way that you can make this beneficial for everyone.
If you're an essential worker, this conversation is not going to be easy. Being married to a first responder with single parent friends, and coworkers who are forced to reckon with pretty narrow choices if childcare cannot be acquired, has really opened my eyes. While the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act is protecting employment to a point, it's not protecting the full pay of the employees.
If this is the case, you're going to need to be up front but polite, and inquire about potential scheduling changes, and both parties will need to try to be flexible. (Not that this is by any means a guarantee.) Perhaps there is a way to move your shifts or alter your schedule to better accommodate your needs.
If nothing can be done, you'll have to make some hard choices, but don't go into the effort with the idea that it's a lost cause. It's not.