Remote teams: If family commitments lead to stress or frustrations, here’s how to sow harmony


Remote work has upset the traditional boundaries between our work and private lives, and once-personal topics like childcare or eldercare can become a challenge.

Image: Drazen Zigic, Getty Images/iStockphoto

In the bygone era when everyone commuted to some sort of office, you might have had minimal knowledge of your coworkers’ families. Perhaps there was a photo or two on their desk, or you might “meet” their families when they plugged their laptops into the projector in the meeting room, and snapshots of smiling faces appeared on their desktops while they scrambled to find the appropriate PowerPoint files.

In our new remote work setups, you may be on a first name basis with your colleagues’ children as they routinely “crash” video meetings, or perhaps you’ve had to reschedule meetings around Paw-paw’s dinnertime as a colleague struggles to balance caring for elder parents while working from home.

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

During the early days of remote work, these challenges may have seemed quaint, or perhaps a way to get better acquainted with colleagues’ families. However, in my observations at work and on social media, among younger workers in particular, there’s a growing sense of frustration and resentment that they’re forced to “pick up the slack” for colleagues who have family obligations. This is certainly not intentional on anyone’s part, but if a four-person team has a pressing deadline, and one team member needs to sign off midday to host homeschool lessons, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the team has become 25% less productive. In some cases, managers and company leaders are wondering whether they’re paying a portion of their staff the same wages for less work, a particularly pressing concern if they have to downsize their staff in response to a flagging economy.

On the other side of the coin, those who suddenly find themselves juggling unfamiliar roles ranging from schoolteacher, to camp counselor, to elder caregiver may find themselves working twice as hard. They’re likely lurching from role to role, running themselves ragged while feeling that they’re barely keeping themselves afloat while letting down family, colleagues, and friends.

It’s easy to see why your team might end up seething with resentment. Those without children or caregiver responsibilities might feel they’re suddenly working overtime to “cover” for colleagues, without an end in sight. Others might feel like they’re working around the clock, without an end in sight, only to hear a snide remark from a seemingly carefree colleague.

Break the ice, or it will be broken

The best first step to dealing with these challenges is acknowledging them. As a leader, it’s our job to bring forth difficult issues, lest they boil to the surface and create irreparable damage. While you may feel that activities and challenges outside the narrowly defined area of work are outside your purview, for better or worse that notion went out the window when work moved to our living rooms, kitchen tables, and—if we’re lucky—home offices.

SEE: Big data’s role in COVID-19 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Start by having individual discussions and focus on listening rather than speaking. If you’re the one faced with caregiver responsibilities, rather than unloading your myriad challenges on a colleague without those concerns, you might say something like, “It really feels like it’s been difficult to get all my work done with so much going on. I’m worried I might be shifting an unfair burden onto the team.” Let the other person share their views, and rather than dispute their comments, ask for their perceptions, challenges, and ways you might help address their concerns.

Similarly, if you’re the manager with parents or caregivers on your team, you might start with, “I can’t imagine how hard it must be to balance work and taking care of your children. How is that going?” Once again, even if you feel their concerns are unwarranted or exaggerated, focus on listening and acknowledging rather than disputing.

Set boundaries for your team

If you discover that there are real concerns, and in particular a growing rift between team members with family responsibilities and those without, it’s time for you as a leader to set boundaries for your team. After speaking with your team members, formulate “rules of the road” that acknowledge the concerns of those with and without caregiver responsibilities. Provide options to address any concerns, ideally starting with an individual conversation and potentially including any HR interventions at your disposal, which could range from mental health benefits to part-time working schedules.

Acknowledge this as a challenge with your team, and lay out the rules you’ve developed for comment. Ideally, you’ll get team engagement that allows each member to feel like they’ve helped craft the policy and thus have a personal stake in making it successful. This conversation will also help foster frank, yet productive, discussion on how your team has dealt with these challenges, and if all goes well, create understanding and common ground, and a well-defined means for addressing any challenges going forward.

While no one has perfected mastering the challenges that come from the sudden collision of work and personal life, heaped with uncertainties ranging from unclear school schedules to unfair work burdens, addressing these head-on with your team is the best way to prevent simmering resentment that risks boiling over.

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