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We’re all hearing the big exciting news for the fall: getting back to the office. Employers and landlords are putting measures in place to keep everyone safe and productive. From placing distancing stickers on the floor to reducing meeting-room capacity and shutting down coffee stations, all are working to prevent COVID-19 transmission. We’ll all be nestled down in our offices and workstations in no time.

Except for one thing: school-aged children.

Yes, I have heard it before. Children are a choice, and the responsibility lies with the parent, not with the employer. This is true, but never have we seen a greater impact on normal work activity and domestic lives than with schools being closed. Right now, millions of school-aged children are in limbo, as are their parents. For working parents, little can be planned for the fall until school plans are revealed.

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Here in Alberta, the provincial government is set to release guidelines on August 1 for school reopenings. Schools in the meantime have been told to prepare for three scenarios: more remote learning, an all-in return to school or a combination of both. Schools and working parents will have a month or less to put plans into action, depending when the school staff are scheduled to return after summer break.

From the 2016 national census figures (2015 data), 37 per cent of families with school-aged children (6-18 years) had both adults working. This compares with 41 per cent of working households with no children. That is a significant chunk of the work force that will have trouble embracing the company return-to-the-office plan unless the return-to-school plan is considered.

Most parents want to see the education of their child(ren) returned full-time to those qualified to do it. At the same time, it is highly unlikely that school will resume this fall, all happy-clappy with kids filling desks five days a week for six hours a day. There will likely be some form of remote learning, requiring the child(ren) to be at home.

As we are continually reminded, these are unconventional times and they call for unconventional thinking. Acknowledgment and support for employees with school-age children is critical for an effective return to work plan. If your company has not already done so, here are a few suggestions to incorporate.

Flexible work arrangements need to be communicated and supported from the very top of the organization. Leaders need to encourage plans for their employees that work for the individual, and trust that it will likely work for the company. Makeshift ironing-board desks and video conferencing backgrounds have gotten old fast, but have demonstrated how flexible employees can be while still getting the job done. Employers need to trust that this flexibility will remain, even if the new work is not a traditional 9-to-5 format in the office every day.

There should be no judgment on who needs more support than someone else. Someone with a five-year-old and a seven-year-old is no different than someone with a 15-year-old who may have poor focusing skills or even special needs. If an employee needs to be at home with a child, it need not be questioned or evaluated.

Develop programs within your organization to help with child care and extra school instruction. Employees may not know that someone they work with lives close by. All Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy requirements and personal information needs to be respected, but there can be a form of “opt-in” communication that allows employees to work with each other to arrange mutual child care or other family support. Platforms such as Teams or Yammer would be most useful this way, and are especially helpful for roles that operate in shifts.

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Keep up with remote working technologies. We are not done with COVID-19 and still face the threat of a second wave, so make sure employees can continue to be productive from home while working flexibly. Also, consider negotiating pricing discounts with technology suppliers so employees can choose to better equip their part-time home offices now that borrowed equipment is going back to the office.

And know that trust goes both ways. Inevitably, there will be some employees who abuse the trust extended by their employers, as they probably did before the pandemic. For the 10 per cent that might do this, deal with those issues directly as they arise. Just don’t build onerous policies for the other 90 per cent who are focused on staying productive, and who are embracing the flexibility of the new workplace with good intentions and a continuing focus on building their careers.

Eileen Dooley is a principal and executive coach in the leadership practice of Odgers Berndtson, global executive search and leadership advisory firm.

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