Working the Parent Shift

Some execs have revamped their hours to become better parents-and more productive workers. Can others follow suit?

Published: Aug 22, 2019

Thirty years ago, Myrtle Jones was ahead of the curve. As a vice president at an offshore-drilling company, Jones was the first person at her company to request a laptop. But it wasn't so she could lug it from meeting to meeting to wow folks. She used it to solve a new problem: as a new mother, she needed to be able to work outside of the office.

"It allowed me the opportunity to go home at night, have dinner with my family and put the kids to bed, and then keep going with my job responsibilities after they were asleep," says Jones, currently a senior vice president of tax with Halliburton.

It's not as uncommon as it used to be for a working father who coaches a soccer team every Tuesday from 5 to 6 pm to tell his boss that he'll be unavailable then.

This block of time after kids go to bed but before parents do-dubbed by some "the parent shift"-has been a bit of a secret across workplaces for some time. Coworkers see a father or mother running for the door promptly at 5 pm. But what they don't see is those professionals often working extra hours starting at 8 or 9 pm, once their kids are peacefully slumbering.

Just look at the numbers: the average married mother with kids under the age of six who holds a full-time job logs less than 34 hours of work a week, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey. And yet, people who work 45 hours per week earn more than twice as much as those who work 34 hours a week-making the parent shift indispensable for working parents who want to advance their career. "It's time to think about time differently and to give parents-and everyone, in fact-the space to be open about their obligations," says Melissa Swift, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and leader of the firm's digital advisory for North America.

Increasingly, organizations-aided by transparency of working parents' availabilities-are becoming more accepting of such a practice, Swift says. It's not as uncommon as it used to be for a working father who coaches a soccer team every Tuesday from 5 to 6 pm to tell his boss or team that he'll be unavailable then.

Technology has also allowed for schedule shifting. Along with more flexible views on how work should get done, Jones says she and other parents can "not only participate in the workforce, but thrive and excel." At one point, for example, she learned how to code in order to automate accounting reports. The move drove an efficiency that gave her the gift of both professional bandwidth and more flexibility for her family.

"Taking the stress off people so they have permission to be parents 24/7 is a huge change in workplace culture," says Jones, who notes that when she first started in her career, taking time off to take care of a sick child was held against you.

Swift says companies that embrace different schedule paradigms-like the parent shift-could be enablers of inclusion and productivity. After all, research shows that working mothers as a group, for one, are more productive than women without children. "Giving parents the bandwidth to switch on and off between work and family obligations allows organizations to retain key talent with critical skill sets," Swift says. Moreover, parents score high on traits such as learning agility, decision-making, emotional intelligence, cognitive flexibility, people management, and other skills that are vital to the future of work.

Jones, whose kids are grown but who is now caring for her 94-year-old mother, says being able to toggle between work and family definitely made her more productive and a better leader. "It gave me the dedication and tenacity to get work done and made me better able to engage and support my team to earn their loyalty," she says.

With work becoming more global and collaborative, Swift says organizations are going to have to take a hard look at existing policies to make sure they fit today's realities for parents. One place to start is with meetings. Swift advises keeping early mornings and the dinnertime hour as meeting-free zones. She also says leveraging collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams and Google Docs can eliminate the need for some meetings altogether.

As Jones puts it, there is room in your day to be an engaged parent and a productive employee. It is up to us to find ways to embrace the balance of both.

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