(Photo by Visualspace/iStock by Getty Images)

As working parents struggle to cope with the profound stresses of the pandemic era, one of the most important accommodations they need from their employers is flexibility. Parents are asking to do their work at odd hours, in different ways, and with sensible expectations. That’s fair enough in theory, but how to make such changes work in practice?

At McDonald’s, the biggest policy shift in terms of job flexibility was allowing employees to work directly with their managers to accommodate their schedules, said Havonnah Johnson, a McDonald’s people officer. “Two of my direct reports are caregivers. One has two children at home, both with special needs. She blocked her calendar for 20 hours of the workweek and, candidly, the question that I asked her was, ‘OK, so do we need to work together in the evenings? Do we need to carve out some times that are morning?,’” said Johnson. “But as her boss, you know, it was my job to figure out how to accommodate her.” Rachelle Carpenter, VP of total rewards, employee experience and HR operations for Dish Network, said her company does likewise. “We do have folks that are stressed out or burnt out or working too much. And so we do offer different schedule types,” she said.

The two HR leaders were speaking on a panel of experts on the issue of “Job Flexibility and Its Limits: What’s Productive and What’s Fair?,” part of From Day One’s recent conference on how employers can respond to the child-care crisis brought on by the pandemic. With millions of families juggling remote work, remote learning, and often doing it all in cramped quarters, the stresses have created a national emergency. Ironically, remote work so far seems not to impact productivity too much–on the contrary, without a separation between work and home, people tend to work longer hours. But how sustainable is that, with burnout already becoming a ubiquitous complaint?

For managers, the need to allow job flexibility while maintaining performance standards is the new balancing act. “Our systems account for a lot of the accountability. We know when people log in, we know when they log off, we know all the different checks and balances,” said Lisa Nichols, SVP and HR advisor at Citigroup, “But the reality is there has to be another layer of trust, regardless of how you can check behind an employee.”

The panelists, clockwise from top left: Moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, Rachelle Carpenter of Dish Network, Lisa Nichols of Citigroup, Havonnah Jonson of McDonald's, and Andy Pittman of Mailchimp (Image by From Day One)

To guide its managers, the email-marketing company Mailchimp launched a new initiative, called a “leader lab.” The first program focused on “leading in times of uncertainty,” rooted in integrated awareness to help leaders understand what they’re experiencing personally as well as what their teams are going through, said Andy Pittman, Mailchimp’s VP of talent strategy. For the managers, one goal is to understand their own stresses and how that may show up in their work. “We don't want our managers, as they're showing empathy, to go into ruinous empathy, where you just say that everything is wonderful, because it's not,” Pittman said. “Mixing confidence and hope with realism is a general concept that we started training on this year.”

To Nichols of Citigroup, which has 60,000 employees in the U.S., empathy in this regard mainly means acknowledging different types of households and realities, which allows HR managers to develop tools to facilitate remote management. Each part of the U.S. has faced a different set of challenges during COVID-19, Nichols noted, so a blanket set of tools was going to be unhelpful.

Flexibility extends not just to schedules but also to productivity, since working parents in a pandemic can’t reasonably be expected to perform the same they do in more normal times. “The pandemic only amplified wherever people were trending, on both ends of the [performance] spectrum,” said Johnson of McDonald’s, where managers reassessed key deliverables during the pandemic and decided what could be cast aside for the time being. “We knew that performance motivates folks and people were really concerned about how they would perform in this virtual world,” she said. “And so we added a COVID goal: whatever you're working on to support the business, but then also how COVID impacts your overall work stream.”

At Mailchimp, the company has been redeveloping behavioral blueprints for its leaders. “We actually launched an entire new behavior model across the organization for essentially the flip-side of the coin around work and accountability,” said Pittman. “So it's not only what you produce, or what you do within the organization with those goals, but how you do it. It just boils down to understanding: What are we? What does success look like in our roles? How are we supposed to show up in our roles as well–and understand that no two situations with all the humans in your team and the organization are the same? That's kind of our guiding principles around this.”

For Citigroup, which has offices worldwide, observing the way its Asian employees behaved when the pandemic hit their region helped inform the company’s response when the pandemic arrived in the U.S. “We were able to go back to Asia and go, ‘OK, what did you put in place that allowed you to get in touch with employees and negotiate deliverables?,’” said Nichols. “We had a little bit of a head start.”

The pandemic has inspired companies to be flexible about their benefits as well, not only for parents but also other caregivers and non-parents facing their own particular challenges. “When we went all remote, we doubled sick time available for all employees,” said Pittman. “We introduced new programs for parents for PTO if they have a child in virtual school.” The key, to him, was thinking creatively about how to expand benefits and adapt them to a new reality. At McDonald’s, “the big deliverable is us extending counseling benefits to families,” said Johnson. “No matter what your health-care provider is, whoever lives with you, we extended our third-party vendor benefits.” This provides everything from discounted cell phones to counseling and tutoring.

Dish TV has made an effort to find resources for different age groups, even in cases where the company is not offering a benefit directly. “We've been really focused on being the catalyst for communicating different resources that are in the community,” said Dish TV’s Carpenter, who emphasized the company’s priority on clear communication in general. “One thing that I've loved that our leadership has done is that our own our CEO, every single Friday since this started in mid-March, has done a video that is out there on our internal website for all employees to access,” providing business and COVID-19 updates, as well as reiterating “our  goals and our values, and what that looks like.”

In a positive way, the conversations about racial justice in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing paved the way for more open discussion about other difficult situations in the workplace, panelists said. “That's when we basically came out to the entire organization and said it's OK to have uncomfortable conversations. It's okay to talk about things that maybe historically in the workplace were taboo,” said Nichols. “I think it actually helped to also open up the door to talk about some of those things from a work-life balance [perspective] that maybe people were not as comfortable to bring to their managers, because we were now starting to just naturally have more uncomfortable conversations,” she said. Her fellow speaker Johnson agreed: “We’ve gotten personal in a way that's made our work interesting, challenging, but I think richer as well.”

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.