“There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.” ~ Fred Rogers
“Bad days happen to everyone, but when one happens to you, just keep doing your best and never let a bad day make you feel bad about yourself.” — Big Bird
“I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” ~ Robert Frost
“We can’t all look good at the same time. It’s either me, the kids, or the house.” ~ a2zhomeschooling
Before the COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) pandemic, many Americans worked from home for their employers either occasionally, part-time or even full-time. They normally completed their work responsibilities via computers and telephones, and many were set up to access their institution’s corporate intranets and other systems. Those with children worked regular hours while their offspring were in school, or if they had infants and toddlers they either worked around their schedules if they had flexible hours or hired a baby sitter or mother’s helper*. In some cases, their spouses could help.
But, suddenly, with little warning, COVID-19 has forced millions of white-collar workers out of the workplace and into the home full-time. This unexpected workplace evacuation, intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, has prompted a surge in millions of Americans into the position of performing their jobs and continuing their companies’ operations from home.
And because many institutions had inadequate business continuity contingency plans, there has been an ongoing scramble for weeks among employers and employees as they transition to working from home, often with little or no preparation. This is a new experience even for those organizations that were prepared for a segment of their employee population to work from home, because few companies are physically or mentally prepared to have most if not their entire staffs working off-site. That means for many a period of adjustment has been critical as employees turn at least part of their homes into office space, become familiar with new technology and new ways of communicating with their coworkers and managers. Many are struggling to function during this phase due to a lack of proper direction, equipment and / or training.
To compound an already challenging situation, school closings have skyrocketed nationwide, sending more than 50 million American schoolchildren home to join their parents and guardians — children who for the most part are expected to continue their educations from home. In many cases that means that parents are responsible for home schooling while maintaining their own work schedules. The result? In the blink of an eye, life in America as we knew it changed.
Homeschooling? Who Expected That?!
Helping the kids with their homework is one thing; homeschooling them is quite another. Many families are not prepared for what that means. Some school districts are recommending that students use digital platforms such as Apple Teacher, Google Classroom and Seesaw. But the hitch is teacher guidance is needed to get started and it is one more piece of technology that parents working from home need to learn. Another hitch in facilitating online learning is having the equipment, connectivity and bandwidth; not every home has all of that.
Most older children who are in junior high on up are fairly self-sufficient, requiring less intense attention from their parents. Younger children who are elementary or middle school age require more engagement, and that is time and attention consuming. Add to the basics of homeschooling the fact that children, like adults, learn and work differently, and each family will have its own special challenges heaped on top of an already staggering burden.
And speaking of challenges, income level is a major one. Many managers and some employees might enjoy incomes that allow them to hire a private online tutor, and they might have live-in help that are quarantined with them and can help with the kids. These same folks typically live in areas that have more than adequate bandwidth and have plenty of computers to go around for all family members.
It is helpful that some free tutoring resources exist and more are cropping up; but in order to take advantage of them families still need to be in an area that has broadband, be connected to the Internet and possess enough desktops and / or laptops for both parents and children to work from home.
So while many employees are grappling with the logistical and technical issues while they settle into a new work-from-home routine, those with children are also grappling with home schooling versus work time. And infants and toddlers present other challenges, especially for single parents or parents whose spouses are considered “essential staff” and must continue to report for work on-site. For most middle class employees, due to quarantine, isolation and social distancing it is no longer possible to depend on neighbors, the grandparents or a babysitter to help out. Sesame Street can only do so much.
And if all that weren’t enough, there are other worries that everyone faces — single, married or married with children: what if they or their spouses, children or other family members become injured or ill with something other than COVID-19? Will a doctor be available or will the ER be overrun? What about finances if one’s spouse is laid off? What if both spouses are laid off or both become ill with the virus?
Technology and Toilet Paper
As I alluded to previously, there are still many pockets in the U.S. that do not have Internet service as well as areas where the Internet is available but many people cannot afford the cost of connectivity. This makes it nearly impossible to work from home productively, let alone home school children, or even allow access to lessons in normal times.
Even in areas where there is adequate broadband, many homes do not have the needed multiple computers this emergency requires for both working and schooling from home. And although a home might have a sufficient number of computers available, there may be those special setups and software that employees and students must access in order to function along with their coworkers, managers, classmates and teachers.
It’s also possible that a team of employees working from their separate quarters will experience varying issues getting up to speed, while some will also be trying to get their kids up to speed with school requirements. These struggles add nearly unbearable anxiety to already overwhelmingly stressful circumstances that also absurdly include the inability to stock our homes with adequate supplies of such necessities as toilet paper! Other products that are in short supply include thermometers, OTC pharmaceuticals, hand sanitizers, diapers, disinfecting cleaning wipes and other essential items.
There are bare shelves in brick and mortar stores and “currently unavailable” items on-line. And then there’s that problem of not being able to see one’s doctor for issues other than the most dire cases of COVID-19. There is separation from family members and friends. For some, there is the feeling of being under house arrest. And for everyone, there is fear — either flat-out or lingering — of coming down with a potentially deadly virus. All of this can lead to melt-downs, fear and psychological problems that can be passed on to other family members, especially the children.
For now at least it looks like we’ll have enough Internet to go around to those who already have access, although we need to get broadband to more areas if this nation is going to be successful working and schooling from home even in normal times.
Compassion and Creativity
So with all that is going on, now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of their coworkers. It’s time to show compassion and cut each other some slack. Everyone has a different situation. Some have taken to working from home like a duck to water. Such individuals might have less complicated situations, are experts at working on-line, comfortable working remotely and adapt easily to change. That all facilitates a smoother path for such employees to cope with the fear that this pandemic wreaks, and helps them to focus on work. Others wrestle with the aforementioned obstacles.
Trying to cope with a plethora of unexpected tasks on top of the everyday problems that present themselves can drive normally composed and competent employees to the brink. Sometimes they don’t realize that they are reaching the breaking point until it’s too late. But coworkers can often spot the signs and that is where understanding and a little creativity can get the whole team back on track to healthy productivity. Finding solutions to relieve stress while getting acclimated might include having fewer meetings and more informal chats, or rearranging schedules.
So when there is a crying child, a barking dog or malfunctioning technology, remember to practice professionalism during this difficult time and try a little humor to break the tension. Let those team members who are dealing with life’s very human issues off the hook and pull them into a virtual group hug.
Message to Employers and Educators
Employers and their managers and supervisors should not expect business as usual because what we are dealing with is no longer life as usual. As coworkers and team members strive to help each other, employers need to jump on board to ensure that their departments and teams do not fall apart. Compassion and savvy intervention are in order.
To ensure that an institution survives it is necessary to practice the Three E’s — etiquette, empathy and ethics — with regard to their employees. The underpinnings of etiquette are respect and consideration. Empathy is putting yourself in your employees’ shoes, to understand what they are going through under these extraordinary circumstances. And an employer’s ethics guide fair and transparent treatment of employees, especially in such trying situations. Give your employees — those with and without children — the support and space they need to settle themselves and their families into routines and organize their work schedules. Consider flex time, job-sharing and even some time off to give staff members some relief. Burned out employees will not help your business. But allowing them the freedom to work out the most efficient and productive processes for themselves, while standing by with your support when they need it, will deliver better results.
Likewise, school and district educators and administrators must provide clear and straightforward instructions and guidance to both parents and students to help them get up and running, and develop a routine that works for everyone. Some families might require more assistance than others, and the schools must be there for them.
Businesses and school districts should also be refining their contingency work-from-home and schooling-from-home policies and practices to support those employees, parents and children who become incapacitated due to COVID-19 or some other illness or accident. Life’s complications won’t be put on hold to accommodate this pandemic; they can be counted on to compound and add to the burdens of individuals and families. And while it seems so far away, this health threat will eventually end and there must be clear plans for transitions back to normalcy.
Were it the case that businesses and schools remain closed and employees and children shelter at home for just a few weeks, everyone would simply cope as best they could knowing that everything would return to normal very soon. But intelligent and savvy employers and educators can read and do math; therefore, they know that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to get a lot worse before it gets better, and that planning for a situation that could continue for months is the wisest course to take.
Providing nurturing structures, upfront clarity and space to adjust while trusting employees and parents to rise to the occasion will facilitate smoother sailing over these very dark and choppy waters.
Until next time,
- Mother’s Helper is becoming an outdated term. Mothers remain the primary care-givers, but today many fathers are stepping up to share the care for their young children. Some are even the primary care-givers. Therefore, I believe Parent’s Helper is a more appropriate term for our modern times, because we want to encourage fathers to keep stepping up.