Alyssa Westring on work-life and parenting during and after the pandemic

Photo of Paul Sephton
April 6, 2021
Reading time
17 minutes

Few have felt the impact of the pandemic more than working parents. Stretched between homeschooling, parenting responsibilities, and full-time work, there have been many new challenges both for managers and employees. Alyssa Westring is an Associate Professor of Management at the Driehaus College of Business at DePaul University. For over 15 years, she’s been studying work-life integration with a particular focus on working parents and women’s careers.

Today, we’re discussing the toolkit for working parents to navigate these challenges, how managers and organizations can support parents while maintaining accountability, and how to manage your time with value-driven routines while remaining flexible.

Paul Sephton: I’d love to start off by looking at some high-level questions. You’ve worked on this for more than 15 years now and have sharpened your focus onto parenting. People have always viewed parenting and working as an issue of trade-offs. Before the pandemic, managers were focused on needing a team and just managing for performance, but now teams are having to manage their workloads and parenting at the same time. So, how do we begin to navigate these types of trade-offs?

Alyssa Westring: I think the first thing to do is recognize that although trade-offs are a reality, the framework of only thinking about trade-offs can be pretty limiting. So, when you’re just thinking about what I have to give up in my personal life or in my career, or for my mental health or physical health in order to have greater success at work, then you start to become a little bit more closed-minded about opportunities for change. And what we find is that instead, if we look for opportunities to create greater harmony across the different parts of their lives, people can find what we call “four-way wins”: changes that make things better at work, for family, for the community and for themselves – in mind, body, and spirit. And that sounds crazy, that it’s possible to do things that could make everything better. But our research shows that with the right tools, people can really make positive changes across parts of life, rather than just focusing on the trade-offs.

Paul Sephton: And does this come down to something which is a management problem? Or what are the right types of tools that need to be given in order for people to successfully navigate this space?

For the manager, the most important thing really is talking. It’s taking time out of the to-do list and simple task-related work to talk about expectations, what people really need and want from you and what you need and want from them.

Alyssa Westring: Right. So, if you think about an individual’s own challenges managing work and personal life or family during this pandemic, that exists within the context of a manager, a department, but also an organization, a national culture. So, when you think about change, you could really put it at any level. So, what are the organizational policies and practices and culture? What are the managerial skills for supportiveness? And for the manager, the most important thing really is talking. It’s taking time out of the to-do list and simple task-related work to talk about expectations, what people really need and want from you and what you need and want from them. And really clarifying the relationship and what the expectations are. Because when we shifted to pandemic mode, we all just did our best to quickly figure out how to get stuff done.

And we did whatever we could to survive, whether it’s working with a toddler on our lap or working before the kids wake up or any other aspect. But now we need to take a step back and say, “Okay, we’ve gotten through the crisis moment for many of us, we’re definitely in this for at least a few more months,” at least here in the US before vaccine rollouts are everywhere. “Where can I work smarter? Where can I meet the needs of the people that I work with more directly?” And in order to figure that out, you have to ask and you have to be willing to hear what people have to say. So, really creating the space for those conversations is the top priority for managers.

Paul Sephton: And at the same time, managers are having to still drive some level of performance and hold their teams accountable while compensating and having flexibility. So, how can you as a manager hold that accountability with your teams once you’ve had those open conversations, but address that style of working?

Alyssa Westring: I think as a manager, again, a big part of this is listening and helping the people that you work with find creative ways to meet their work goals. The idea here isn’t that as a manager you just say, “Oh, I totally understand. Just go do your other stuff and work will be here in six months or a year when we pick up.” Managers don’t necessarily have the leeway to do that. So, it is about looking for creative ways to support employees in meeting work goals in ways that allow them to have the mental health and the time for their other responsibilities that they may need. And that could be shifting when people work, how people work, which assignments are assigned to whom, and what the deadlines and expectations look like.

That can lead to wins in the work domain that also support people’s lives outside of work during this obviously difficult time.

What we find in my research over and over again is that when people start to talk to their managers about expectations, they not only find out what they could do to be more successful, but they also find areas where they’re over-delivering, where maybe they’re spending too much time on things that aren’t really adding value or tasks for which they assume they’re the only ones who could do it, but which in reality could be delegated. When you clarify those understandings, you give people space to do the work that matters most and that they’re best suited to do, and to be creative about how other work gets done. And that can lead to wins in the work domain that also support people’s lives outside of work during this obviously difficult time.

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Paul Sephton: And that’s one side of the complexity addressed, but on the other side we have our families to be managing. And you’ve pioneered a lot of research that looks at how you can transpose your leadership practices from the workplace into the home. But very often, even if we have the support of our managers and our organizations, we’re in a situation where we’re still having to maintain that communication and management in our families. So, how can we go about doing that from a parenting perspective in a more sustainable manner?

Alyssa Westring: Absolutely. What we found is that people tend to understand the concept of leadership in the workplace, and they know what good leadership looks like, and they know how to communicate and be a good manager, a good worker. And then they get home and they turn into these micromanagers as parents or as partners, and they lose sight of what leadership is. And so we define leadership as just helping others and yourself move towards a better future. So, if you look at where things are now and where you would rather be, a future that’s more closely aligned with your values and your priorities and the people who you care about, as well as their values and their priorities, the skills are the same.

It’s about knowing what matters most, opening communication about shared goals and expectations, and then experimenting with new ways of doing things.

It’s about knowing what matters most, opening communication about shared goals and expectations, and then experimenting with new ways of doing things. In the workplace, the exact same principles apply. Obviously you can’t talk to your partner like you might talk to your subordinate at work, but in many ways you can. You can ask them, what are your goals? What are your values? What are you hoping to get out of this? How are things going for you? And using that as the groundwork for moving forward together.

Paul Sephton: And very often we have this huge set of “shoulds,” and you spoke about values and identifying values. I think that’s quite a tricky thing to do when we’re necessarily comparing to our colleagues. Maybe we’re looking at social media as well. And it can induce a strong feeling of guilt and a tricky situation in which we just are always thinking about the “shoulds” and where we should be focusing our time. How can we address that from all of these feelings and sources that they are coming from?

All of these “shoulds” inundate us, whether they’re from childhood or from social media or from the people around us.

Alyssa Westring: I love that you brought up the shoulds, because I think and talk about that all the time. And the first step is to recognize them as not necessarily true. Just because a thought comes into your head that says, I should do this, or I should do that doesn’t make it true. You have the power to examine that thought and say, “Is that true for me? So, I should be able to do all my work with no mistakes by 4:00 PM and close shop,” or “I should be able to have time to exercise every single day.” All of these shoulds inundate us, whether they’re from our childhood or from social media or from the people around us. And taking that step back and examining it and saying, does this should align with my values and what matters most to me? And sometimes the answer will be yes. And then that’s a should that you really want to listen to.

On the other hand, sometimes you’ll realize that, “Oh, that should is coming from what I saw my sisters and my friends on social media doing.” And then you can say, “Okay, if that’s not really my value, maybe I can take that one off the list for now.” And when you do that, you can gain some freedom and some flexibility to make choices that better match your values because you’re not spending time and energy on shoulds that don’t matter to you. And I always remind people, that doesn’t mean that you won’t hear the “shoulds,” that they’ll magically go away. Because I don’t think that’s realistic. I’ve been doing this for half my life, studying this, and I still hear all those “shoulds” about how I should be better or less lazy or more productive and blah, blah, blah. But it’s that skillset of examining it, challenging it, and saying, “Is this something I should change? Or is that a should I should maybe let go of?”

Paul Sephton: And another big issue with the “shoulds” ties into the fact that everyone has gone to a home environment and it’s led to a real challenge on our sense of presence. How can I effectively, as a knowledge worker or a new type of worker, look at that feeling of guilt and that feeling of lacking presence and know where I should be channeling my priorities? Does it come back to values?

Alyssa Westring: Well, I think identifying the parts of your life that really need your undivided attention and that quality attention, that’s the first step. So, you might think to yourself, “Does this meeting require me to be fully present or is it okay if I’m distracted and working on emails during this one? Does my child need me to really be focused on them or is it okay if we’re just in the same room?” And many times people default to this idea that multitasking is the best way to have work-life balance. And it’s just, I think we’re just conditioned to think that if I do more things at once, I’ll be able to do more things. So really finding what parts of your life need your concentration, and then creating experiments, just trying out new ways to create that moment of presence. And it may be short.

Once you start experimenting and trying new things, you can figure out what requires the most attention and focus and how to give it to those things.

I used to be able to go sit in an office and have undivided work time for eight hours. Now, it may be down to 20 minutes. Even so, I can figure out how to create those pockets of deeper focus and attention and use them strategically, use them in a way that they’re being dedicated to the most important things. People oftentimes find that when they do that, the tasks or the responsibility that they thought was going to take three hours might only take one. Or that 20 minutes of quality time with a partner or a kid is better than three hours of distracted time. Once you start experimenting and trying new things, you can figure out what requires the most attention and focus and how to give it to those things.

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Paul Sephton: And another habit I think we often default to in this environment when it comes to scheduling our time is that we create habits as a framework to get us through situations in our daily routines. But at the same time, there’s also this huge need for flexibility right now. So, how do we go about navigating these contrasting factors?

Alyssa Westring: That’s such a good point, that there’s this tension between the habits and being flexible. I think the idea is to become flexible about trying new habits. Most of us, many of us really long for routine. And we feel really good when we know exactly how things are going to go and what’s expected of us to do when. But if you find that something’s not working for you, try something different, but give yourself a set amount of time that you’re going to try it for. So, let’s say your routine is always to check work emails in bed the first thing when you wake up. If that’s not serving you, experiment with a different way. Say, “Okay, for the next two weeks, I’m going to try it this way. And if I like it, that can be the new habit. And if I don’t like it, I’ll go back to the old way.” You haven’t lost anything by trying a different routine, but rather have given yourself that freedom to say, “okay, what if I played with this habit, this routine and tried it a different way?”

For example, I always thought that the only way I would ever have a consistent exercise routine is if I woke up and worked out first, before anything else. And I just really had that belief that that was the only way it was going to happen. And I have experimented with every time of day to get some exercise in and tried it all different ways. But what I found is that actually, for me, what works is having a little bit more flexibility to have a cup of coffee, do some work and then when I feel like it, go take a break to exercise. I never, in a million years, thought that would work for me. I thought I would make up excuse after excuse after excuse and never get it done. And it turns out that when I do that, I actually like to get up and go do it because it’s a break from work. So, you never know until you try. And if it turned out after two weeks I hadn’t exercised once, then I might say, you know what? I need to go back to the old way of doing things.

Paul Sephton: And navigating the pandemic, figuring these things out, we’ve also seen that there’s been a hugely unequal share of responsibility falling onto women working from home. And they’re often more taxed by homeworking and family roles and trying to navigate this space. As a working mom and a researcher yourself on this topic, what have you observed around gender roles through the pandemic?

All of that hidden work needs to get negotiated too. And until you bring it up to the surface and start talking about it, you can’t make reasonable changes.

Alyssa Westring: Yeah. I think it’s not surprisingly as easy to default to our gendered assumptions about how things get done. And as I said, when we transitioned to pandemic life, we had to adapt really quickly. And that means that we didn’t necessarily stop to have conversations about who does what responsibilities and who takes care of the kids, who preps the dinner, who does the laundry. And the default oftentimes is that women are doing more. And even when the chores may get divided up, there’s this hidden emotional and psychological labor of keeping track of all the things that need to get done and the doctor’s appointments and the Zoom schedules for the kids. All of that hidden work needs to get negotiated too. And until you bring it up to the surface and start talking about it, you can’t make reasonable changes.

I’ll give you an example in my own life. My husband and I, at the start of the pandemic, decided that he would walk the dogs in the morning and after lunch, and I would do the evening walk. Because I was spending so much of my work time helping the kids with their Zoom scheduling and taking the half hour twice a day, I needed to do my work. So, he would take on that responsibility. And he recently pointed out that now the kids manage their own Zoom calendars and I have a lot more work time during the regular workday, he suggested, “why don’t you do the after-lunch walk?” And I was like, “You know what? You’re right.”

In this case, the old habit wasn’t really serving us anymore. And he was working really long days because he was postponing his work time with dog walks. And it seems like a silly thing, but it’s really representative of this idea of reopening conversations about who does what in a way that isn’t about blaming. It’s not about him telling me, “Oh, you’re not doing your part, you’re bad.” But rather, “Now that the reality that was before isn’t the reality that we’re in right now, could we switch it up?”

Paul Sephton: And a lot of times these conversations are happening behind closed doors, particularly between families like we’ve discussed, and therefore is something which is very much seen as being within the private domain. How can organizations and your C-suite at companies start to think about these issues, which perhaps have previously been considered as solely private domain matters? And how can they make sure that they are setting in place the right cultures and systems for a level playing field and one in which knowledge workers or any worker can show up and do their best?

If women are leaving the workforce in greater numbers, even at entry levels, as we progress down the road, we’re going to see those gender gaps that are happening now replicate themselves in senior leadership.

Alyssa Westring: Yeah. I think we’re seeing dramatic, for instance, gender differences in who’s leaving the workforce, who’s shifting to part-time work. And that is going to have repercussions down the line for the leadership pipeline. Because if women are leaving the workforce in greater numbers, even at entry levels, as we progress three years down the road, five years down the road, we’re going to see those gender gaps that are happening now replicate themselves in senior leadership. And if an organization really cares about diversity and inclusion, they’re going to have to come up with a plan to remediate that difference. And that might look like special leadership development programs for people who may have taken a step back out of the workforce or into part-time work during the pandemic. Or new and creative ways to evaluate performance and to recognize contributions beyond just who spent the most hours at work during the pandemic.

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We’re going to have to use some creativity at the managerial level to make sure that the dynamics of the pandemic don’t persist past this moment in time. Of course, it’s better if we don’t even have gender inequities or racial inequities and people leaving the workforce in the first place. But we don’t want to see a generation of women or a generation of mothers lag behind their male counterparts even more so than we were already dealing with societally, which at least in the US already represents some pretty big gender disparities in leadership.

Paul Sephton: And if we shifted to the workplace value side of it, we see that often people will go to a company because of the work-life balance they’re able to get, and that company culture association. And many times that has been tied to, in this war on talent that we’ve seen, certain benefits that you’d get, most of which were realized on a compass. That’s now shifted, and I’m wondering if you think that there will be a major restructuring in terms of how organizations attract talent and retain talent in a way which is more sustainable than the short-term adaptations we’ve really been forced into since the pandemic begun.

Alyssa Westring: So, if you think about some of the benefits that these leading companies were offering that were framed as work-life balance: we’ll get you an onsite gym, we’ll get you a masseuse, you can do your laundry here, you can bring your dog to work, the childcare is here. Maybe people will become a little bit more skeptical and begin to question, “is that really what I want my balance to look like? Or is that just a very clever way of getting me to work even longer?” So, the idea of the organization being the center of your life, maybe people will start to rethink that a little bit and that organizations will start to rethink that and focus more on flexibility policies and policies for time outside of work. And I think we saw that trend starting already, the realization that people don’t necessarily want to live their entire life in the workplace and that they wanted time outside of work.

Paul Sephton: We’ve spoken about some of the complex and hard-hitting impacts of the pandemic that are perhaps in the short-term showing some downsides. What do you think some of the longer-term positives that we might be able to see coming from this would be? We’ve seen a lot more vulnerability and empathy amongst organizations, which is a positive for sure. But what would you say the longer-term positive outcomes are going to be from this?

Hopefully, we will shift the focus to really getting the value out of the time that we spend together.

Alyssa Westring: So, I think if you look at organizational leadership, there has been, in many cases, a reluctance to embrace remote work or telework or virtual work because of the fear that it’s going to destroy productivity and that if you can’t see people day-in and day-out, employees won’t get anything done. But the pandemic really forced us to try it out and to see how it went. So, I think for many managers, for many organizations, they will realize that remote work isn’t just people taking naps all day at home, that it is a viable way of working. And that will open the door for people to work from wherever they want to in the world, whatever hours they need to work. So, hopefully there will be a shift away from this culture of face-time and hours-in-chair that companies, managers, and leaders have become much more used to.

I think on an individual level, we’re really going to hopefully value the connection and the time we have with people even more so moving into the future. We just took it for granted that we could all get together whenever we wanted or to meet in person or to spend time at home with our families. And I think there will hopefully be a shifting of values towards this idea of quality time with others, both in and out of the workplace and making the most of it as opposed to just scheduling every meeting just because we think meetings are the only way that we get work done. Hopefully, we will shift the focus to really getting the value out of the time that we spend together.

Paul Sephton: That was Alyssa Westring on the Soundbar, discussing work-life and parenting during the pandemic. Alyssa is also the co-author of Parents Who Lead: The Leadership Approach You Need to Parent with Purpose, Fuel Your Career, and Create a Richer Life. See more on that in the show notes. If you enjoyed listening to this, please subscribe to the soundbite to stay up to date on our latest episodes. Until then, cheers for now.

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