Advice for working parents and law firm leaders on calming fears and reducing stress during the return to the office.
While lockdown- and virus-related trauma seems to be subsiding these days, I’ve noticed that it’s being replaced by equally widespread trepidation about the future of work. I’m an attorney and a mom of two elementary school-aged boys. These second and fourth graders were home with us for 13 straight months before returning to school four days per week in mid-April. It’s been quite a year of trying to prop up everyone’s health, emotions and academics with a very limited support system. We are still definitely feeling the aftershocks of this traumatic year.
Things Aren’t Yet “Back to Normal” for Working Parents
Even as we move forward, parents continue to be differently situated from other employees, which is in part why working parents of young children may have particularly heightened fears about the return to offices.
For one, our kids under age 12 cannot yet get a vaccine, causing us to continually perform risk calculations that others may have (fortunately) already been able to abandon.
Second, childcare is a huge struggle for working parents, particularly as the childcare industry (which was highly imperfect pre-COVID) was decimated this past year and has not returned to its pre-pandemic capacity. And for those of us with elementary school-aged kids, summer camp options are not what they used to be.
Lastly, many working parents fear a return to any kind of pre-COVID “normal” because many of us lived in systems that were not supportive of the flexibility we needed to succeed and thrive. “Butt-in-chair” and facetime-driven office cultures necessarily favored those without caregiving responsibilities. Maternal biases, even for the most committed employees, have been well documented.
4 Strategies for a More Mindful, Less Stressful Return to the Office
It turns out there are important lessons learned from new parents’ transitions back to work after parental leave that apply to this “return to the office” season of life. I’ve discovered that during any major life transition, focusing on these four strategies can provide structure to the unknown and reduce anxiety.
Strategy 1: Adopt a Mindful Mindset for the Return
For Parents: If you are a parent who has been home since March 2020 and you now need to return to an office, name the feelings coming up for you about the return. Know that the likely mix of dread and joyful anticipation is both common and completely normal. Focus on the positive aspects of returning: the reinstitution of the natural boundary between work and home that comes with a commute, uninterrupted work hours, and reuniting with the individual human beings you miss. Consider journaling and adopting a written daily gratitude practice to help ground you in finding the good.
For Law Firm Leadership: Consider, with empathy, both the honest trepidation employees are facing and the heightened challenges working parent employees continue to face. Solicit the voices of your working parent communities as you make decisions. Adopt policies that allow time for transition. Ask employees to put a toe in the water and come in for just one day over the next few weeks. Giving people an opportunity to reacclimate before requiring weekly time in the office can help encourage them to face their fears.
Strategy 2: Master the Logistics of Returning
For Parents: Remember the herculean effort involved in getting out the door every morning pre-pandemic with a million kid and work items? As you prepare to go back to an office, dust off those lists of things to remember as you leave home each day. Rekindle the nightly packing rituals, both work supplies and everything your kids need for school or day care. Practice the routine before you actually need to use it.
For Law Firm Leadership: Demystify the return process as much as possible. Can you publish an FAQ sheet that answers questions like whether your employees will need to prove vaccination status and when exactly they must wear masks while they are in the office? Provide information about who to contact if they have trouble getting into the building or find something unpleasantly surprising in their offices when they return.
Strategy 3: Employ Leadership Skills During the Return to the Office
For Parents: Remind yourself of the skills parenthood has taught you that are directly applicable to your job and this return to the office. Your ability to deal with ever-changing circumstances, your prioritization skills, your courage and your ability to empathize are stronger since you became a parent. Envision what a successful return might look like for you — and then model that path forward for your working parent colleagues.
For Law Firm Leadership: Firms have an opportunity to lead in so many ways right now. From developing deliberate, thoughtful return plans to providing ongoing flexibility to paying close attention to any “in-and-out crowd” dynamics that may form through the return, there are many ways firm leaders can truly put a stake in the ground and shape the future of work for the better.
Strategy 4: Focus on Community-Building During the Return
For Parents: My biggest error during my own return to work after maternity leave was taking an “I’ve got this and I’ll figure it out myself” attitude. As we return to offices, be sure to continue to commiserate and compare notes with fellow working parents — and do so regularly. Can you plan your first day back to coincide with that of another working parent, so you can share notes and have lunch together? Recognizing that we are all experiencing similar stressors and staying close to our working parent posse can help us manage the transition more calmly.
For Law Firm Leadership: Helping working parents feel less isolated can go a long way toward helping them feel more secure about returning. If your organization has a working parent affinity group, consider working with the group to plan a daytime event in the fall to recognize parents’ herculean efforts this past year. And as you plan more generally targeted in-person community-building events, be mindful of working parent schedules and child-related commitments.
Also, consider whether there are opportunities for those who go into the office before others to be mentors to later returners.
The Return Is a Process, Not an Event
Above all, and just as with the return from parental leave, it’s important to remember that the return to the office will be a process, not an event. It’s not as though we’ll walk back into our offices on day one and suddenly everything will feel “normal.” Our identities and life experiences have shifted since March 2020. We need to be patient with ourselves and others through this coming year (yes, I said year) of change.
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