In this episode of The Workplace podcast, CalChamber Executive Vice President and General Counsel Erika Frank and employment law expert Jennifer Shaw discuss ways employers can help employees manage work-life balance.
Mother’s Day is this weekend and in honor of that day, Frank brings up the hard work that working moms and parents have put in during the COVID-19 pandemic, having to balance not only their work duties, but also having to help their children navigate remote learning.
Statistics show that women in particular bear the brunt of these additional responsibilities. As a single mom, Shaw shares that the last year has been the hardest 12 months she’s had, as she has been busy with work and busy making sure her daughter has what she needs for school.
Laws were passed during the pandemic to give working families some flexibility and though not much good has come out of the pandemic, Shaw says that one positive thing that has occurred is that the law now recognizes that the workplace has to be flexible. What we have all seen, she says, is that people can work at home in an effective way and meet family obligations as well.
Technology: A Blessing and a Curse
There was a time where women and working parents had to fit a predetermined schedule where they had to take on the responsibilities of waking their kids up, getting them to school, going to work, picking up the kids from school, cooking dinner, and then doing housework and helping kids with their homework, Frank says.
In a way, it’s fortunate that this pandemic happened when we have the technology, such as laptops and smartphones, to allow working parents to try and juggle the demands of work, school, life and all the different things we’ve been doing in the past year and a half, she points out.
But in some ways, this technology has made life even more difficult.
“With technology, you can never turn it off. You used to be able to walk away from the office, but now the office walks away with you,” Frank says.
Shaw agrees. When she was starting her career as an attorney, Shaw would have to go on long business trips to New York. On the plane, she was able to read a book, have some snacks and unwind. But, now with our technology, even if she is on a plane, she will get an email or text asking her to respond right away.
“There’s no way to be free,” she tells Frank.
Early in her career, Shaw didn’t even have a voicemail—she had to approach the company secretary for hand-written phone messages, and at the end of the day she just went home. Now, she says, she can’t even get in her car without feeling like she needs to call someone to return their message.
“Technology, in my mind, is a blessing and a curse,” she says.
This is why it’s important to talk about work-life balance in the workplace, Frank says. Some companies adopt a policy where people cannot send messages or reply to messages between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m.—a form of a “no technology zone time.”
How else, Frank asks Shaw, can employers manage balance in the workplace?
Shaw replies that she has clients who ask their employees not to text or send emails after work hours unless it’s urgent. It’s not a wage and hour issue; it’s an issue of culture.
And this culture and tone start at the top.
At her practice, Shaw makes it a point to send messages only during work hours. She may draft an email at 3 a.m., but she sets it up in Outlook so that the email automatically goes out at 9 a.m.
It’s important to think outside the box and technology can help, Shaw says.
Employers can also designate Fridays to be a day for catching up on the week’s duties, so that employees can go into their weekend without feeling overwhelmed, Shaw suggests.
Employers should also encourage workers not to look at work emails at home, and if someone goes on vacation, not disturbing that person.
Employers need to set a tone at the top that people are not expected to be everywhere for everyone every time, Shaw stresses.
As employees are returning to the workplace, many are seeing that there needs to be more work-life balance. Now is a good time for employers to take the moment to listen and craft a new workplace, because things are going to be different. They already are different, Frank says.