Parents, caregivers face new juggling act as employers evaluate work-from-home policies

The ability to keep a close eye on loved ones has been important to many people who have been juggling their family and employment responsibilities in the same space over the course of the pandemic.

Families able to look after loved ones in a way they couldn't before pandemic

There's no daily commute for Amy McQuaid-England these days.

That's because she's advising clients on social media matters from her home in Brighton, Ont., without having to cross her doorstep.

The communications professional said this "life-changing" style of flexible work allows her to manage the needs of her young family while also managing her business.

The ability to keep a close eye on loved ones has been important to many people who have been juggling their family and employment responsibilities in the same space over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But those arrangements are shifting for some, as employers pull more people back to the workplace and employees adjust to a new reality of where they do their work and how they get there.

These changes have consequences for workers and their families, and experts say employers should consider that impact as they make decisions about the future of work at their organizations.

A return to the past?

Patricia Faison Hewlin, an associate professor of organizational behaviour in the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, said employees can sense the signals that some workplaces are sending about where they want their staff to work.

"Organizations are beginning to signal: 'Well, now it's time to go back," she said in a phone interview.

Hewlin said employers might be using surveys and online forums to gauge how their staff are feeling about returning to the workplace, but the messaging that follows those efforts is often very telling.

"They will signal: 'Well, it's just so great that we can all get together,'" she said, giving an example of the kind of messaging that indicates the plan is for people to be back in the workplace.

For McQuaid-England, that impulse among some businesses to bring people back seems outdated, especially in cases where they are able to do their jobs from home.

"I think it's a 1980s mindset when it comes to working," said McQuaid-England, who started her own business to be able to have a more flexible schedule.

Advantages for parents, caregivers

Aaron Hoyland was among the millions of Canadian workers who fled the office at the start of the pandemic.

More than two years later, the IT professional is still working from his home in Edmonton — but it's his choice to remain there.

"I've found it to be overwhelmingly positive," Hoyland said, noting that the type of work he does lends itself to such an arrangement.

Hoyland said he's saved time and money not having to commute to work anymore. And he's found the flexibility of working from home to be pretty handy — and it could become even more so, as he and his wife are expecting the arrival of twins within a few weeks.

Ryan Hing of Calgary said he has already seen the benefits of being able to spend more time around his children — especially during those parts of the pandemic when they were attending school from home.

"If my kids were ever home when I was at work, I could just get up and give them a hug," said Hing, who is also an IT professional who works from home.

That kind of proximity to family members is likely helpful for people taking care of older relatives, too.

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Julia Richardson, a professor of HR management and the head of Curtin University's School of Management and Marketing in Australia, said anybody looking after loved ones in a caregiving role may highly value what flexible working arrangements can offer.

More broadly, she said she believes the circumstances of the ongoing pandemic have prompted many people to rethink the way they live their lives.

"I think the importance and centrality of relationships and that there is more to life than satisfying my boss … I think that's really come home to people," Richardson said in an interview.

The lure of flexibility

Both Ryan Hing and his wife, Maisie, have been at home during the pandemic, but that may soon change.

That's because Maisie Hing plans to re-enter the workforce after spending some years at home with their three children.

She used to work in the oil and gas industry but is eyeing a job in IT.

"IT, I'm hoping, might be a little more flexible," she said.

Ryan Hing said overall, the move to working at home has been "pretty smooth" for him and his family, but he realizes that's not the case for everybody.

"It all depends on your support structure, really. If you don't have it, it's really hard," he said.

"But if you have it in place, then you're fortunate — and I count myself fortunate."

A need to rethink 'what work looks like'

That support can also come from outside the home, as it does for Lauren Kresowaty and her husband, in the form of daycare for their two children.

Her work in client services involves talking to people on the phone and being able to do so without interruption.

"My home space is my work space," said Kresowaty, who lives in a rural part of British Columbia in the South Okanagan.

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But even though her children are leaving the house and Kresowaty is working from home, the arrangement is still beneficial for her family.

"Ultimately, I think this flexible or at-home working arrangement works way better. I think I'm able to stay healthier because there's just simply less stress," she said.

For Hoyland, it's hard to imagine not being able to work from home and, similarly, hard to understand how organizations will be able to revert to the old ways of doing business.

"COVID sort of forced companies into being able to do this, and what's happening now is employees are saying: 'I have tasted this, I know I can still do my job from my home office,'" he said.

"And it's going to be very, very difficult for companies to take that away."

Richardson of Curtin University concurs that "employers are going to have to be really, really careful in how they wind it back," and they may, as Hoyland suggests, need to make a strong case for why that's justified.

McGill's Hewlin said it's clear at this point that "if organizations want to stay competitive, they are going to have to re-evaluate what work looks like."

If they don't, she said, "they are going to lose excellent, productive employees."

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