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How to Talk to Your Boss About COVID-19 Work-Life Balance

Balancing work from home and parenting right now is an enormous task, one that requires flexibility from an employer. Here's how to communicate your needs properly.

We’re all trying to bob and weave against the many punches thrown at us as a result of the coronavirus, but parents who work from home must be more agile than most. Balancing child care and home schooling and work means that moms and dads across the country have to have honest conversations with their supervisors about schedule changes, new systems that need to be devised, and new ways of finding work-life balance. Whether your boss is understanding or needs to be swayed, tact is required throughout the entire process.

So how can parents who now work from home talk to their employer about situational changes or proposed adjustments? Stewart Friedman, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Program, and author of Parents Who Lead, stresses that parents need to frame the conversation as a business proposal that is in their best interest but makes it also seem mutually beneficial to their company. This requires understanding your role, paying attention to language, and making your boss a willing participant. “You’re setting it up as something that you expect will be beneficial to your boss as well as to you,” says Friedman. “And that you’re going to check on that and adjust if it doesn’t work.” It’s a tricky balancing act. But here’s how parents who work from home can communicate work-life balance needs with their employer.

Figure Out a Plan of Action

Before corresponding with your boss, you need to think about your role in the company, your role within your family, what you really need to succeed, and how to translate that need to your boss. The tricky part is to understand your needs versus their needs. When you’re composing an email proposing a different schedule, more flexibility, or whatever it is that you need, your job is to understand the needs of your company and make your needs beneficial to them. “You’re never going to forget what you need and what you want,” says Friedman. “The harder part in the leadership game is to be focused on what other people need from you and how they see you.”

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You want to think through how a new schedule or arrangement would be beneficial to your employer. “You very well may discover is that you really don’t know if it is going to be good for them. And that’s okay,” says Friedman. “But that requires, of course, that you think about you,  your presence and your contribution from their perspective. It’s essential.”

Frame the Proposal as a Value Proposition

Once you arrive at a solution you think would work, send your boss an email that reads like a business proposal. It needs to lay out not only the new arrangement, and all the details, but also why said arrangement would be mutual beneficial for the both of you. “You have to think in terms of why what you need is going to translate, even if indirectly, to value for your boss and work colleagues,” says Friedman.

Being explicit is crucial. But so is asking your supervisor what they think of the proposition. “You want to frame it confidently but with room for your boss’s input,” says Friedman. “You’re setting it up as something that you expect will be beneficial to your boss, as well as to you, and you’re going to check on that and adjust if it doesn’t work.”

Consider: “Here’s how I think this is going to benefit us and you, what do you think? Would you be willing to try that?” “Here’s how we’d know if it is successful. What do you think about that?”

Say you want to take off Tuesdays and Thursday from 12-2. You want to say: As long as this pandemic happens, I’m not going to be available on these two days between 12 and 2. This is how I expect it to work and I believe it has X and Y benefits to you. What do you think?

“Your goal in this pitch is to emphasize the ways in which this adjustment or whatever it is you want to try, is going to be beneficial to your boss,” says Friedman. “You really have to be selling it in that sense.”

Don’t Make It Personal

A common mistake when engaging in such dialogue with a supervisor is to make it sound dramatic. “You can’t frame it as ‘This is something I need because if I don’t have this couple of hours, my kid’s going to fail out of school and my wife is going to kill me,’” says Friedman. “A good boss will care and understand about that but can’t see it as the most important thing for them at the moment.” Stick to the basics: This is what I’m proposing, this is why I think it will be successful, these are the indicators I plan on using to see that it is, and what do you think?

Set it up as a Short-Term Experiment

You don’t want to frame your proposal as something that will be the norm from now on as you don’t even know if this new system will work. That’s not helpful to yourself or your boss. The better tact: Frame it as a short-term experiment. “You want to say in some way ‘Let’s just try this for a week or so and see how it works and if it doesn’t we can adjust so that it works for you as well as for me,’” recommends Friedman. To go back to our example, a way to frame it would be: “I want to take 12-2 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’m going to go offline and here’s why this is going to be a benefit for not just to me but to you. Let’s just try this for a week or two and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work out or there’s a problem, we can adjust. What do you think? Is this something you’d be willing to try?”

Make Your Boss a Part of the Process

Think of this email as a sales pitch. What you’re selling needs to make your supervisor’s life better. “You want them to feel good about it and you want them to support it,” says Friedman.  “Ultimately, you want them to want this schedule adjustment, or whatever it is, more than you do. When you have people around you wanting to do something that you want because it’s good for them? That’s real leadership.”

Expect a Back and Forth

After you send your email laying out the plan, it’s safe to expect some feedback from your supervisor that isn’t just: Sounds good! “This will likely be a multi-tiered conversation,” says Friedman. “You need to get clear on what their expectations are and offer additional details, confirmation, and ask questions like ‘I think X and Y are most crucial and I will make sure they all get done regardless of this new schedule and circumstance?’ Do I have it right?’”

The best leaders, per Friedman, are those who are not afraid to look at reality. “They might be terrified by what they’re seeing and anxious and fearful because it’s scary,” he says. “But they still want to know, What’s the reality?” Give them the reality. Give them a proposal that works for them and refine it until it makes sense for everyone involved. Is this working? What’s working and what’s not? “It takes ongoing maintenance. It doesn’t just happen by itself,” says Friedman. “It’s not easy. But it is possible.”

If You Hit a Wall, Dig Deeper

Okay, so your boss isn’t accepting of your proposal. Not at all. If the reality of your bosses expectations are wildly beyond what you can conceive as a possibility of delivering on, that’s a tricky circumstance to be in. In such situations, Friedman advises more inquiry and curiosity. “You want to dig deeper,” he says. “Say, okay, ‘Tell me more about why X matters. Tell me why that’s important.’ Then you get a better idea of where she’s coming from. From the process of simply inquiring further and hearing it fleshed out, your boss is going to realize, actually, X is not so important. It’s Y. It’s this other thing that you mentioned.” Then, per Friedman, you get a mutual understanding of what you need from each other.

Hopefully you’ll also get a chance to pursue your new refined plan. “Usually you can get to a common ground but it doesn’t happen automatically. It never does,” he says. “But most bosses are pleased and impressed by people who are not afraid to have this conversation.”