In a matter of weeks, the covid-19 crisis has forced countless industries to transform the way they do business while upending the lives of employees. The ad industry is no exception.
As a precaution, we closed Duncan Channon’s offices and moved our 80-person staff to remote work from home four days before California Governor Newsom’s shelter-in-place mandate took effect March 17. Within a week, remote work became the new normal for agencies across the country. At the same time, schools and child care centers shut their doors.
With this wholesale transition to WFH came a wave of media coverage about what agencies are doing to boost morale and keep employees engaged. Don’t get us wrong, those stories are important. Yet, there’s an even more critical conversation that deserves attention: how agencies are supporting parents, who have an exponentially expanded load, as they care for children while working from home.
As the mother and primary parent of 8- and 10-year old daughters, I feel this impact personally. I’m now a C-level leader, a homeschool teacher relearning geometry and an athletic director overseeing the at-home training routines assigned by my girls’ sports teams. Unfortunately, the day is still twenty-four hours long. Colleagues caring for babies or toddlers have it even harder.
Creating ways to stay connected are important, yet the most significant way to keep morale high is to show our people we have their backs -- especially parents. This means talking honestly about the real challenges and stress parents are feeling. And, responding with empathy and flexibility.
Here are three things we’re doing to support parents:
1. Giving people time off to make their parenting a priority
Nearly thirty percent of our staff are now parents working from home, and they have an unimaginably tough job. The demands on parents to protect, teach and entertain their children are overwhelming. Couple this with 8-hours of work and the disorienting new shelter-in-place reality, and you’ve got an impossible situation.
We’ve been proactive in letting our entire staff know that parents sometimes need to step away from the business to put their kids first. To ensure it’s not lip service, we’ve launched the ‘Tag Out Time’ program. Parents have full permission to ‘tag out’ when they need some time, and ask someone on their team to ‘tag in’ on their behalf.
It’s flexible because parents need different things to stay sane. Parents of elementary school-aged children might ‘tag out’ on their calendars daily from 9 to 10 am to set their kids up with lessons. Parents of toddlers can spontaneously ‘tag out’ of a meeting 5 minutes beforehand to soothe a meltdown.
The message we’re delivering is clear: this isn’t a program to shift the timing of work so parents log-on after the kids are asleep. We want parents to take actual time away to be with their families and trust that others will cover the work. It’s an investment in our employees’ well-being because those moments to be truly present with family are getting people through this challenging time.
2. Normalizing the integration of parenting into work
On our first day of working from home, we sent out a ‘WFH pro tip’ email that encouraged people to find a ‘sacred place’ where they could concentrate away from distractions. We then realized our error: a quiet place free from interruption simply doesn’t exist for parents of young children. So, we doubled down on our empathy for the reality that family time is now interspersed with work time. Kids are welcome to be on team members’ laps during video calls, and it's okay for us to hear them jabbering and screaming in the background or foreground.
In our all-agency weekly video call, we’re now inviting staff to introduce their kids and pets. It’s about normalizing the fact that we’re all working while family members depend on us, but also about showing dimensions of our lives that we may not have felt comfortable sharing before. Plus, the cuteness is a great mood booster. It’s been heartening to see how our staff has leaned into sharing more about their families, whether emailing photos of their kids or having kids pop into video call screens.
3. Giving parents permission to disengage
To create moments of connection for our agency, we’ve launched online meditations, virtual happy hours, and ‘Think & Drink’ video gatherings where any staffer can host a discussion on a topic they’re passionate about over drinks. But, every single one of these virtual gatherings is optional. Talented people tend to be overachievers, so it can be easy to see these gatherings as ‘one more thing’ to do to prove your engagement. That’s why we’re repeatedly emphasizing that there’s zero pressure to join a virtual happy hour if you need to get your kid ready for dinner, or just need some ‘me’ time.
We considered hosting a virtual ‘DC Kids Hangout,’ but decided against another event when parents’ energy and time are already overstretched. We think it actually shows more empathy not to add to parents’ already overflowing plates.
As agency leaders, there’s a limit to what we can do to ease the burden for working parents. At a time when parents are being asked to ‘do it all,’ the most important thing we can do is to allow people to decide what is OK not to do. And, to remember that our empathy should be limitless.