Working parents & caregivers, and the rise of the split-day workforce

In the last year, COVID has taken the role of a caregiver/parent and employee, and clumsily shoved them together as one unique, challenging role. 

While the mixed-life of working caregivers and parents has always been challenging and hectic—working from home and the pandemic has only exacerbated and further illuminated the challenges caregivers and parents face.

At Softway, we believe it’s time for renewed conversations around the treatment and inclusion of parents and caregivers in the workplace. Not because it is the nice thing to do, or the right thing to do—but because when your business takes care of your people (ALL your people), they in turn take care of you.


The reality

Pre-pandemic, or in the before time, caregivers’ and parents’ workdays would never be considered a walk in the park, or a breeze. But as we shifted into the virtual world—the concept of space and time went out the window.

Time is relative

Time is relative, that’s what a really really smart guy theorized—and if my opinion matters, I’d have to agree. The concept of time during a pandemic is a farce, and at best it feels like an endless marathon of Tuesdays. 

When it comes to caring for an elderly or ill relative, or navigating the capriciousness of childhood, the traditional 9-5 is neither feasible, nor fair. Trying to timebox your workday around naps, tantrums, distance learning, feedings, and all the other wonders of parenting is exhausting. And with in-home services and adult day centers unavailable due to social distancing, “Hey, let’s meet at 2PM to hash out that issue,” turns into, “Hey, let’s meet at 2:30-3:00ish to hash out that issue.” 

In the world of remote everything, time is relative: it’s less precise, it’s fluid, and it’s stretched. So the ways parents and caretakers negotiate and navigate their day-to-day at work needs to be understood as such.

The virtual space

Every space has become a virtual space. Households have transformed into offices, daycares, schools, adult day centers, and care facilities overnight. For those working from home, this strange conglomerate of spaces makes work difficult, and at times even feel embarrassing. 

There are distractions, commotions—hopping from one space to the next: from a meeting in the virtual office, to the virtual day center to check on a relative, and then back to the same meeting. Or, the dreaded experience of your child streaking through the “conference room” in their birthday suit—it happens.

When these spaces touch, when they overlap, it can feel overwhelming and create anxiety—and almost a sense of shame—that you’re not contributing your full self to your team, or that you are a hindrance and distraction. 

So how can we—managers, leaders, and team members alike—work together to reimagine and reconstitute the workday for parents and caregivers? How can we empower them to not just manage their busy schedules, but empower them to continue contributing their fullest selves to work?


The rise of the split-day workforce

It starts with empathy

Sympathy is good and it’s a great start. But it’s hardly effective in actually helping someone, it’s the equivalent of seeing someone struggling to open a door with their arms full of groceries, and remarking, “Wow! That’s a lot of groceries, good luck!” 

Instead of commentating on the person not having enough arms, you could grab some of their groceries, hold open the door, you might even comment, “I hate when that happens.” That is empathy. It’s a deeper connection driven by the need to be a part of the solution because you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.

And that’s how we must work with parents and caregivers. By reaching out and giving a hand, by opening doors and removing blocks and obstacles—and by communicating understanding, not pity.

Having greater levels of organizational and personal empathy is the first step to ameliorating and easing the challenges parents and caregivers face. Empathy bridges divides between people, it gives parents and caregivers assurances they don’t feel like they have to choose between one or the other: life or work.

A channel for change

Through empathy an entirely new workplace environment can be created, where work and life are brought into balance; and where parents and caregivers feel safe because they know they’re surrounded by people who care. In this space they can be open and honest about more than just bandwidth and deadlines, but transparent about their home-life situations and mental health, too. 

As a result of this psychologically safe space, parents and caregivers can feel less like a burden, less distracting—and like they don’t owe an apology to any one. It’s also beneficial to team cohesion and overall team performance—through communication and trust, a child’s meltdown doesn’t become a meeting breakdown, and caring for an elder parent doesn’t hamper project velocity.

Through empathy and psychological safety, teams can collectively create working agreements and manage expectations in a way that works for everyone. 

It’s all about M.E. (Managing Expectations)

As I said above, in the world of remote everything, time is relative and space is just someone that you used to know.

So it stands to reason that all of us—caregivers, parents, team members, and leaders—need to be flexible, and not just understanding of, but okay with the fact that things are subject to change. We need to manage our expectations of each other, and what we expect from ourselves.

When work is gearing up and deadlines are looming on the horizon we need to remember the importance of communication, and at times over communication. If a team member is a lone caregiver or parent, or if their partner is a frontline worker, we need to be malleable with their schedules. If they are able to be most productive in the mornings, if the best time to collaborate is evenings, then make it a part of your working agreements that working a split-day is totally acceptable. 

And finally, we need to be patient. When children start streaking through Zoom calls, when meltdowns and tantrums kick off, when a family member being cared for is having a bad day, when life happens—we need to be patient with each other, and we need to be patient with ourselves.

Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) ensures that people, all people, aren’t just represented at work, but empowered to contribute their fullest, most authentic selves. However, D&I conversations often fall short to include working parents and caregivers.

This omission isn’t a new problem or issue, the virtual world has only further illuminated that the traditional 9-5 workday might not be sustainable as once believed. 

As your organization broadens D&I conversations to include parents and caregivers, don’t let those conversations be limited to, “until we get back to normal.” Once we’re back in our offices, once students are back in classrooms, and once in-home care is safe again, we really cannot afford to go back to normal.