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Newsletter: ‘The adrenaline and coffee have worn off’: Back-to-school tips for working parents

LAUSD student attends an online class
A Los Angeles Unified School District student attends an online class in August.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Good morning. I’m Rachel Schnalzer, the L.A. Times Business section’s audience engagement editor, back with our weekly newsletter. A few weeks into the new school year, kids in Los Angeles and beyond are in the process of adjusting to virtual classes — a situation that leaves many working parents struggling to balance their professional lives with their children’s education needs.

“The adrenaline and coffee have worn off,” says Daisy Wademan Dowling, the founder and chief executive of Workparent, a consulting, training and research firm focused on working parents and their employers. Questions are running through working parents’ minds: “How do I make certain that [my kids] stay academically on track? How do I keep up my own performance?” Wademan Dowling says.

I spoke with Wademan Dowling, whose book about working parenthood hits shelves next year, about strategies parents can pursue to make this time as bearable as possible. (She has ideas for employers and managers too, later in this newsletter.)

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Her advice has been condensed and edited for clarity.

◆ Establish boundaries at work

If you don’t have some sort of mechanism to toggle back and forth between work self and caregiving self, you’re only ever giving 50% of yourself to each — and nobody wants that. Everybody wants 100% of you. And it makes you feel burnt out because you can’t ever find an off switch.

If possible, set time boundaries — such as starting and definitively ending work at certain times — as well as mental boundaries. This will allow you to focus more fully on what you’re doing, whether that’s dancing the hokey pokey with your 3-year-old or speaking with clients in a Zoom meeting. There are other small, basic ways of setting boundaries, such as putting on shoes or a suit jacket to signal to yourself that you’re in work mode.

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You can set boundaries quietly and adhere to them or you can negotiate them with an employer, and most of us have to do both. You don’t necessarily have to make a big deal about spending 20 minutes away from your desk preparing lunch for your family and getting kids situated for their next distance learning session. You can adhere to it quietly and create a sense of separation and focus for yourself without having that conversation with your boss.

An effective way to set larger boundaries with your boss is to come forward with solutions. Say, “Just so you’re completely aware, I have 5-year-old twins at home, which means that the evening hours are difficult for me. As a result, I’m going to be giving my full attention to my family at that time,” or whatever your situation is. Explain how you’re going to work around your family responsibilities, such as by logging in early. If you come with a plan, you don’t tend to get a lot of resistance.

◆ Create house rules

A lot of parents feel as if they are in constant monitoring mode with their kids on Zoom. It can help to create a set of house rules, such as: When the child is on a Zoom call, their job is to pay attention to the teacher and give them full respect. Another house rule could be that the kids need to take a first pass at their homework on their own before coming to you for help.

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Creating a silent study hall in the afternoons can also help. Everybody in the family sits around the dining table, with Mom and Dad returning work emails and the kids doing homework for an hour from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Families should have a schedule walk-through every morning. Sit down with everyone and say, “OK, here’s what the schedule looks like for today. Mom has a really important meeting at this time. So when you hang up from your morning classes, we’re going to need you to be quiet for 20 minutes.” In other words, get everybody on board with what the day looks like. If you have older kids, you can have them take notes, or you can write the schedule on a white board for younger kids. For really little kids who can’t read yet, it can be helpful to have a sequence of photos illustrating the day’s schedule.

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◆ Get help (as much as you can)

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We have to be careful about what our medical providers tell us and what we’re personally comfortable with. But if you can, work with other parents in your apartment building or in your neighborhood and take turns being the homework-helping parent in the afternoons.

In addition, virtual babysitters can be really helpful, especially if you’re a single parent. Have a trusted friend or family member read to your child or help them with their homework for 45 minutes over FaceTime or Zoom while you get your work done.

I also know that many people have changed their living situations as a result of the pandemic. Some are bunking up with relatives for extra child-care support. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and they are physically bringing the village together.

How employers and managers can be supportive

Most managers want to support their direct reports but aren’t sure where to start, Wademan Dowling says. “It’s tricky for a lot of organizations and even very savvy managers to know exactly what to do.”

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Her advice: Communicate directly about the challenges facing working parents.

Saying, “Hey, we recognize and appreciate what you’re going through,” can give employees a boost, Wademan Dowling explains. “And remember that on the back end of this pandemic ... every single working parent and aspiring parent, when they go to check out a prospective employer is going to say, ‘What was it like here during the pandemic? How did you get treated?’”

Every manager should feel comfortable initiating communication with their parent employees. “You can ask open-ended questions,” Wademan Dowling says. “‘How are things going for you throughout this pandemic? What do you wish I knew about what you are dealing with right now?’” These questions open the door to a troubleshooting conversation or potential reconfiguration of work hours, she says.

Another tip for managers: Consider starting meetings five minutes after the hour or half-hour (say, at 9:05 or 9:35). This helps parents get their kids set up for distance learning sessions that begin on the hour or half-hour, Wademan Dowling says.

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Human resources technology company Peakon has tried to emphasize flexibility as parents adjust to the challenges of the pandemic, says Matt Orozco, an organizational change consultant at the company. “A lot of our focus has been on making it OK to say, ‘We know you’re not going to be as productive as you were before,’” he says. “We want to encourage them to openly talk about that.”

He explains that working parents at Peakon have been encouraged to work whenever they feel they can get their work done best — and to communicate about their available hours using their online calendars. “That way, people can book them [when] they have the time,” Orozco explains. Peakon employees can also use a Slack feature that indicates when they are busy caregiving, he says.

◆ California is sending a $900 supplemental unemployment benefit to jobless residents — but many won’t get it right away, and nearly 200,000 won’t get it at all. The lump-sum payment covers three weeks of benefits retroactive to the week that ended Aug. 1, at the rate of $300 per week, and is paid for by the federal government.

◆ While the Paycheck Protection Act was billed as a tool for keeping workers employed, experts, academics and union leaders say loopholes and flaws in the federal program allow businesses to accept millions of dollars in forgivable loans without retaining or recalling most of their workers.

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◆ Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed a bill loosening the year-old law limiting the use of independent contractors, exempting work done in industries ranging from real estate to music, and by workers ranging from youth sports coaches to pool cleaners to freelance writers.

◆ Lawmakers also voted to make the state’s paid leave program more accessible to new parents and employees caring for sick family members. Melody Gutierrez explains the job protections that will likely become available to these workers.

◆ California’s courts resumed eviction hearings this month, Liam Dillon reports, but a flurry of new protections could ensure that financially struggling tenants will not lose their homes at least through the end of the year.

◆ If you have debt collectors breathing down your neck, columnist David Lazarus has some good news: A new California law took effect that prevents debt collectors from draining your bank account.

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◆ Wondering how COVID-19 will affect your college financial aid package (or your child’s)? Mary Forgione outlines what you need to know.

◆ California has fined Aetna for wrongly denying claims for emergency room visits, writes columnist Michael Hiltzik. He explains California’s rules for insurance coverage of ER visits — and how Aetna has failed to follow state law for reimbursing claims.

One more thing

Do you need access to a printer, computer or Wi-Fi? L.A. County’s public library system is launching a program to provide these services at a variety of locations. Jessica Roy explains how the program works.

Have a question about work, business or finances during the COVID-19 pandemic, or tips for coping that you’d like to share? Send us an email at californiainc@latimes.com, and we may include it in a future newsletter.


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