Commentary: It will be a waste if parents don’t keep flexible work arrangements
The year-long work-from-home experiment has shifted family dynamics irreversibly and getting back to a routine will not be easy.
SINGAPORE: “Papa, where are you going?” came the small voice of my five-year old daughter as I put on my shoes for work.
The accompanied puppy-look made my response even harder, but I told her I had to go to work.
“Why do you need to go work? Why can’t you continue to stay at home?” she asked.
I had this difficult conversation with my little one a few weeks ago as I returned to the workplace just for a day after working from home for more than a year.
This scene must sound familiar to parents, especially in recent days, if you have had to end your work-from-home schedules to return to the office.
From Apr 5, up to 75 per cent of employees can be at the office, with no split teams needed. The Government is also encouraging public servants to come into the office three times a week.
Some employers, like mine, have allowed staff to start coming back once or twice a week – keeping a commitment to hybrid work arrangements.
Whether you were returning for a day or more, after an almost complete absence from the office, the adjustment seems challenging.
And this is especially the case for parents with children – we have been around them and they around us for a year.
REMEMBER THE MAD RUSH PRE-COVID?
Before COVID-19, parents had to juggle spending full days in the office with parental responsibilities. It was hard to carve out meaningful time with kids after reaching home after a busy day at work, to say little of all the time we missed when young toddlers and babies needed more sleep.
All day, we rely on the support of domestic workers, grandparents and day-care centres to do basic tasks: Reading, feeding, learning, homework, and more.
Weekends were rare, precious moments with the brood – all while recovering from the tough work week and preparing for the coming one.
Then, out of the blue, came the circuit breaker. Suddenly, parents were thrust into all this face time with our children.
Admittedly, the initial adjustment wasn’t easy. Maintaining the same semblance of productivity at work, while giving our kids the attention they now expected from us was a skill not many of us had.
I know I struggled too. In the initial weeks, I had to shoo the kids away while trying to focus on work. I had to keep reminding them to be quiet because I was on a Zoom meeting and many a time regrettably responded with irritation when they asked me to read them a book, fix a toy or give them permission to watch a cartoon on YouTube.
But as routines and boundaries began to be established, I would say, we found a sweet spot.
I slowly began to see the dividends of working from home when it came to spending time with my children. For a start, I could do the small things that I could never do sitting in an office all day.
I could go and pick them up or send them to school.
I was there to tuck them into bed, read a story, prepare meals as soon as my shift was done, rather than wait for someone else to do it while I was heading home, navigating peak-hour traffic.
In a recent news report, parents interviewed said they felt the same way. Marcus Wong, 40, told The Straits Times that going back into the office more days of the week means giving up on the flexibility he has come to cherish.
“Whenever I’m working from home, I can cook for the family and we can eat earlier. It would be too late by the time I get back from the office,’’ said Mr Wong who takes public transport.
KEEPING THE GAINS WE MADE
Yes, this was quite an unprecedented experiment. So many families adapted and it is time to adapt again, as we transition from home to office. But how do we keep the gains we’ve made?
I realised that parenting before COVID-19 was about utility – instructing care-givers to do this and that, arranging schedules for pick-ups and drop-offs.
But these past months, it’s been about watching my children smile and hug me when they see me (instead of the helper) as they get out of school. Or snuggle up close as we read a bedtime story. I can take my time knowing that I don’t have to rush through Goodnight Moon because, well, my workspace was in my study.
It is an aspect of parenting we don’t want to lose just because work-from-home may end. We know deep down inside this opportunity won’t last forever.
Once they head to primary school, especially upper primary, we will not have this luxury again as our kids spend a near full day in school, at extra-curricular activities and hanging out with their friends.
We want to maximise the time we have with them so that in the future we don’t lament over the missed opportunity of building these bonds with them when we could.
Of course, this also means that as more of us go back to the office more often, our children have to get used to parents not being there for them all day. And this can create some anxiety.
Anna Sutherland, then of the Institute of Family Studies in the US, wrote “instability creates stress and can threaten children's sense of security”.
“The pandemic led to abrupt and extended changes to families’ routines”, Jill Ehrenreich-May and Dominique A Phillips of the University of Miami wrote in a recent article, “worsening mental health” among the young.
Two weeks ago, my wife and I attended a workshop on mindful parenting by Mental ACT, a community-based mental health non-profit, where we learnt that having regular check-ins with our children during the pandemic is a necessary exercise, and one that we may need to initiate through open-ended and leading questions, to help them make sense of the changes.
Surveys across the globe have shown that employees have come to enjoy the flexibility, the freedom and the time saved from commuting which working from home offers them. Productivity has not been compromised and families in particular are so much better off.
My hope is that employers will provide their staff a flexible and hybrid work arrangement so that they can continue to spend time with their children, while still attending in-person meetings in the office as required.
I also expect that we follow the spirit of the law and not the letter – if coming in three times a week is less than ideal for a young parent, then perhaps he or she could be given dispensation to come in less, so long as the work is done.
For so long, being a parent and an employee meant that one was impinging on the other. If COVID-19 taught us anything, it was that we are able to do both in a much less frenzied fashion.
It would be such a waste if we cannot keep these wonderful gains – especially the delight on your child’s face when they get to see mummy or daddy when they get off the school bus.
Malminderjit Singh is editor at CNA Digital News, Commentary section.