Meeting the Needs of Nonparent Workers

By Kathleen Doheny June 23, 2020
Meeting the Needs of Nonparent Workers

​As support programs for new parents have increased, with expanded time off and other benefits, managers need to be careful that they don't neglect workers who aren't parents and who also need time away.

In the U.S. and Canada, workers without children often feel overburdened at work, and they say that managers seem to think they have no life outside work, said Galina Boiarintseva, Ph.D., an assistant professor of management at Niagara University in Vaughan, Ontario, Canada, who wrote a dissertation on the issue.

Ignoring these workers' needs will drive them from the company, she said. "Our policies and procedures have to be parental status-free." 

Here's how managers can meet the work/life needs of nonparent workers as well as those of parents.

Foster a Culture of Reciprocity

Managers who encourage all workers to take care of one another will foster a culture of reciprocity, whether the worker is a parent or not, said Jeb Ory, CEO of Phone2Action, an Arlington, Va., software producer for advocacy campaigns.

In his 90-person company, when a new parent needs to take leave, Ory relies on other workers to fill in, often younger workers who have just joined the company and can learn new skills. But nonparent employees get the benefit of coverage when they need it, too, he said. "The culture we have instilled is that everyone covers everyone else."

One day, a parent may need to go to a school function, Ory said, and reaches out to another worker to take over a training he was scheduled to do. The next day, the person who took over the training may need someone to cover while she waits for the cable installer. While it's likely that the parent she helped out the day before will step in, he said, "there's no score keeping here, it's just people trying to help each other out."

Managers should aim to understand the broad range of interests workers have, he said. At his company, workers are encouraged to communicate on Slack, an instant messaging platform segmented into channels. Phone2Action has a parenting channel, plus a dog and cat channel, for instance.

Instead of thinking in parent and nonparent terms, "you have to create an environment where people want to be a backup for those who are out," said Ellen Ernst Kossek, Ph.D., the Basil S. Turner professor of management and director of research for the Butler Center for Leadership Excellence at Purdue University. Managers may want to ask workers for their ideas on how to support one another.

When someone needs time off, the manager's focus should be on how to cover for that worker, whether the time off is needed to care for a newborn, help a parent through an operation or recover from a health issue, she said.

Don't Assume—Ask

When Alec Levenson, Ph.D., was researching his book What Millennials Want from Work (McGraw-Hill Education, 2016) with Jennifer Deal, they talked to a wide range of professionals about the challenges of work/life balance. One was a young man in his 20s with no partner and no children. "The minute he said that, I thought, 'Oh this isn't going to be relevant to him,'" said Levenson, a senior research scientist at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles.

Then, the man began talking about how he couldn't easily leave work to see his nephew's play and other family events. "We need to be thinking about the whole person and the whole person's needs," Levenson said. While many larger companies have adopted this thinking, not all have, and smaller companies are often lagging, he said.

Abandon Stereotypes

Managers may have an outdated definition of the "ideal worker," said Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law in San Francisco. For instance, the employee without children who works a solid 10 hours a day isn't necessarily more productive than the employee with kids who has a flexible schedule and can get a lot done in six hours. So, the questions for a manager to ask, she said, are not whether employees have children at home but, "When can you work? What is your ability to handle crises outside those hours?"

"Nobody on the planet can really work 40 hours a week uninterrupted," Levenson agreed. That's true not just for parents but for workers who need to handle the repair person, pet emergencies and elder care.

Managers should also expand their concept of what constitutes a legitimate reason for taking time off. "If someone wants to take a yoga class at 4 in the afternoon, that's the kind of flexibility we need," he said.

Avoid the trap of thinking someone's dog or cat is less important than another worker's mother or child, Kossek said. "People need different things," she said. "Healthy workplaces support people's needs."

Take the Emotional Temperature Often

Nonparent workers may not speak up about perceived inequalities, but may still be seething, said Cheryl Cran, founder and CEO of Next Mapping, a future of work consultancy in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. That was the case recently, when one of her clients, the CEO of a 25-worker company, had to pick one worker to come to the company headquarters for deliveries as the COVID-19 pandemic sent others home to work remotely. She selected the one person in the office without children—not a conscious decision, but the childless worker didn't like it.

Cran suggested the CEO ask all workers who was ready and willing to do which fill-in tasks. "Poll your workers on a weekly basis," Cran said. Do it one-on-one, she said, and you're likely to find out who feels they are being given more than their fair share.

The CEO gathered information as Cran advised and soon found out other workers were willing to take turns monitoring the incoming packages. 

Kathleen Doheny is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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