Say goodbye to the toddler stars of the pandemic office zoom

Jeff Green and Paige Smith
Bloomberg

The children who unexpectedly guest starred on so many pandemic video conference calls will play a much smaller role in the post-COVID work-from-home world.

With hybrid schedules and remote work expected to continue even after the pandemic ends, U.S. companies are moving from COVID stopgaps to setting parameters for employees seeking flexibility. Chief among them, according to labor attorneys, are rules ensuring that someone else will take care of the kids during the workday.

"There could be a little bit of a rude awakening," said David Baffa, an attorney at Seyfarth Shaw, who has crafted flexible-work agreements for companies for more than a dozen years. Employers are saying, "'yes, you can continue to work from home, but we're going to tighten up on some of those things that we were letting you get away with."

Parents were forced to juggle child care and work for a large portion of the last 18 months as schools and daycare centers shut down during COVID waves. Now that those facilities are more likely to be open - even as child care is more expensive and harder to find - companies are trying to assess how quickly they should require employees to formally split parental duties from their jobs. Formal flexible-work agreements - essentially a contract between the employer and employee over guidelines - were often put in place before the pandemic for people opting out of office life. Failure to follow the provisions can result in discipline ranging from warnings to having remote work privileges revoked, or even firing.

Managers are willing to work around some aspects of child care, such as stepping out to pick up a kid from school, Baffa said. But employees can't expect the latitude to be a nanny and an office worker.

Juggling is far from optimal for all sides, as the millions of parents who tried to take care of kids and work simultaneously during COVID can attest. A September survey of remote workers by FlexJobs, which helps people find work and navigate hybrid office setups, found that 28% of respondents said distractions in the home were the biggest challenge. And while the pandemic has been seen as a potential equalizer for working parents by bringing the realities of child care into employers' view, some return to old norms was inevitable.

Hybrid-work agreements almost always require a dedicated working space that is quiet, and with limited distractions. Baffa said he's even created documents that specify employees keep their dog walker on retainer rather than stepping out with Fido between meetings.There's reason for employers to tread lightly. A recent FlexJobs survey of 700 working mothers found that more than half described themselves as both wanting and needing jobs, but 40% of those women are actively looking for a new role because they want to work remotely at least part of the time.

"There's a very common misperception that working from home means you can also be watching your kids at the same time," said Sara Sutton, founder and chief executive officer of FlexJobs. "You have to treat your job like a job. You have to honor the level of professionalism there would be if you were in the office, versus at home."

Sutton said FlexJobs has banned using images in its materials that show women working with a child nearby for that very reason.

"When pick pictures for our articles, I tell my team, 'Never show somebody working with a baby on their lap or similar situation because that's not the way you should be working,'" Sutton said.

There may be some accommodations to parents who have managed to be productive during a year and a half of upheaval. And in a tight labor market, employees have more leverage, said Claire Deason, an attorney with Littler Mendelson who consults companies on workplace matters.

"The general theme is that remote work is not what it used to be, and it never is going to be what it used to be," she said. "We know that for a lot of workers, folks can get their jobs done and then pick up their kids at 3 p.m."

The compromise may be that employees have a set time where they must be fully engaged, at their computer and available for work - for instance, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. - and employers provide flexibility outside of those hours, said Jenifer Bologna, a member of the disability, leave and health management group at the Jackson Lewis law firm in White Plains, New York. But there still must be separate daycare, even if the employee thinks they can juggle it, she said.

"If you're working remotely, if you don't have appropriate child care, you are not giving the same full day as if you were in the office," Bologna said. "It's not realistic. That's why those agreements are built in there."