Many parents have been struggling to balance work with their childcare obligations during the lockdown.
As a female businesswoman, mother and the president of an all-female communications, marketing and advocacy firm, I’ve always taken a bit of a different approach. I bought an office building less than two kilometres from my house, but have an open work-from-home policy for my team. I don’t count hours “in a chair.” I value and trust my employees and would never want to take away their opportunity to see their children’s Christmas concert or take part in a class trip.
When COVID-19 hit, I realized it still wasn’t enough. We are one of the lucky businesses that is still busy during the pandemic. As with so many other organizations, some of our clients have been negatively impacted by the pandemic, and aspects of our work has pivoted as a result. Yet other clients have an even greater need for our services, which has forced us to work at an even faster pace.
Since March, work-life balanced has morphed into a constant juggle of ongoing deadlines, virtual meetings with clients, online learning for the kids, housework, trying to be a somewhat active partner and hopefully squeezing in a minute or two of self-care. We are balancing things in ways we never expected. On one call, I muted myself to help my child go to the bathroom. The executives on the other end of the line were none the wiser.
Yet it was clear to me something was missing because life felt anything but balanced. I realized what it was three weeks into the pandemic, when one of my most trusted employees told me that she couldn’t make the 7 p.m. Zoom pitch to a potential client because she needed to be on the phone with a child psychiatrist. Her son has issues with anxiety and it was getting worse during the pandemic.
I knew then that my business needed to change, or I would lose women who felt like they were being tugged in too many directions and weren’t prepared to let their children’s mental and physical health suffer as a result of the pandemic. I’d bet that many other organizations are facing similar challenges and, unfortunately, many women (and some men) are being forced to choose between childcare and their professions.
For this reason, I made the call to officially implement a four-day work week. Instead of trying to jam five days of work into four, I expect my team members to work a full day less each week. They can be completely checked out on that day, which means putting their phones and computers away. Yes, their salaries will reflect this change, but each was given the option to continue working five days a week and they all chose to take time over money.
Knowing the calibre of my team as I do, I am confident that our quality of work and productivity won’t suffer because of this. In fact, I suspect it will increase. It will take a level of organization to ensure that deadlines are met and proper handovers are being done. It will mean investing in, and making use of, our roster of associates to pick up some of the tasks, which will potentially cost the company more money than it saves as a result of this policy change.
However, I never viewed this as a money-saving measure, but rather a values-based decision to help my team be better mothers, partners and, hopefully, happier and more balanced people.
We’ve seen some organizations request that their teams take a pay cut without a decrease in workload, and while that might be necessary to keep some businesses afloat, it could create an issue with morale and even foster resentment toward work. Instead, the objective of our plan is to reduce stress and increase morale during an incredibly challenging time, while making sure we keep strong, confident female professionals in the workforce.
Last week, New Zealand’s prime minister touted the concept of a four-day work week to help the economy. I think this concept goes so much deeper than encouraging people to spend more on tourism and local businesses. It means that amidst one of the largest upheavals to modern society, we can also change what it means to work.
We’re at a critical juncture where we can throw out the old and bring in new, modern ideas that will help our country heal and our economy recover.
Jennifer Stewart is the founder and president of Syntax Strategic , a full-service communications, marketing and advocacy firm based in Ottawa.
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