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When ‘optional’ isn’t an option for you

Our son is edging up on a year, which is hard to believe. People often refer to the first year as “the longest, shortest time.” That saying is starting to feel true about life in general during this pandemic, and especially of this summer if you’ve got kids at home. 

For working parents, this is truly going to be the longest, shortest summer. In large part because of the uncertainty we’re facing around office re-openings, camp/school/daycare closures, and a potential second wave and/or increased spread. Whether your kids are in diapers and require constant supervision, or you’ve got a high school senior unsure whether they’ll be headed to college this fall after all, there are many challenges ahead. 

At some point though, offices will open and we’ll have a better idea of what’s going to happen with childcare and schools. These two won’t happen at the same time, they likely won’t align, and it won’t be the same for everyone. We recently polled Kunik members to see how comfortable they’d be going back to work on a scale of 1-100. The average? 22. Even lower than I had expected. Clearly, working parents aren’t comfortable, or aren’t ready, to go back to the office for a variety of reasons. So what are companies and parents going to do? 

Many companies are saying they’ll make the return to work “optional.” I understand the logic. Why not let those who are ready, return and those who can’t, have the ‘option’ to continue to work from home? It seems reasonable and it might be the best solution. In many cases, it might be the only solution. But for most working parents, there is no choice here. 

Until there are sustainable, long term solutions for caregivers, a return to the office isn’t viable. Finding these solutions isn’t going to be a one time fix. It won’t be the same solution for all working parents, it won’t even be consistent within families. One child’s school may reopen while a siblings daycare doesn’t. One parent might not have a choice about returning to work, forcing the other parent to make difficult compromises or leave work. Single parents could be left with no choice at all. An ‘optional’ return to work isn’t a true ‘option’ for many. 

Some companies are aware of this reality, and they don’t want to lose their parent employees. Finding alternative solutions will require coordination and compromises across your firm and workforce. At this point, an optional return to work likely means that caregivers, and disproportionately women, will be missing everything that happens in person at the office – from bonding and networking to collaboration and hallway-conversation-decision making. This will have long-term, lasting implications.

We already know that women assume more caregiving roles at home and that women disproportionately leave the workforce when their childcare breaks-down. If working moms are the last people to go back to work, it will magnify existing disparities, further cement the perception that working moms are less dedicated to their careers, hurt chances for promotions and new projects, impact the talent pipeline, and impeded efforts towards achieving DE+I goals, reaching gender parity, and closing the wage gap. It will also accelerate attrition, harm new talent acquisition, and lower profits. These issues existed pre-pandemic, they’ve been exacerbated by the pandemic, and they’re prone to be amplified by a return to the office. 

Sunday is Father’s Day, so let’s talk about working dads for a moment. We do not know what a return to work will look like; there’s no playbook. That might be a good thing. Because of that, there is an opportunity to change the status quo. Unlike Paternity Leave, which is woefully underused and a missed opportunity for gender equality in the workplace and at home, we don’t have decades of norms here to fall back on as an excuse. 

If you’re a working dad, please don’t return to the office simply by default. Do not assume that you should be the one to return to the office because right now you make more money than your partner (who knows what future earnings will be!). Do not return to work by default because other dads are, and it’s still uncommon for fathers to be lead parents. Do not return to work because ‘your office really needs you to’ – what about the moms at your office, the single parents, other caregivers – does your work need them less? Please, do not return for any number of reasons that are based on outdated norms, unspoken biases, and false assumptions. Maybe returning to the office before your partner, instead of your partner, or before other colleagues is the right decision in your case. I can’t know that. What I do know, is that a lot of people are ending up at that conclusion by default, and that’s dangerous.

This Father’s Day, whether you’re a dad or not, think about what actually makes sense for everyone in your family and your workplace. Companies need to support their employees, but they also need input from their employees. Talk to your team, your manager and your HR. Talk to your spouse. Talk to your friends. As coworkers, parents, and supporters we should all be involved and engaged and helping to figure out these next steps. We don’t yet know what makes the most sense for a return to work, but we do know that ‘optional’ could have a profoundly negative impact on those who can’t go back right away – and history tells us working dads will go back to the office long before working moms, single parents, and other caregivers. That doesn’t necessarily have to be the case this time. This is a challenge for everyone – working parents, working families, peers, coworkers and employers – to solve together. But this weekend, it is something for fathers to think about. Father’s Day is a celebration of all you do for your family, add this to the list of things you did to better the world for their future. 

Happy Father’s Day.

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liz@kunikco.com

liz@kunikco.com

Liz is mom to a baby boy and cofounder of Kunik.

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