SINGAPORE: I’m having a phone conversation with a senior colleague about a fairly sensitive matter, when we’re abruptly interrupted by my three-year old son, who proudly exclaims that he’s dropped the TV remote into the toilet.
The seriousness of the call is immediately washed away (thankfully the remote was spared) and is replaced with laughter.
Normally, I’d be horrified if my home and work lives intruded on each other like this. But with the majority of Singapore now working from home, we’ve entered a weird parallel universe where this – or talking to my CEO about Paw Patrol – is completely normal.
These unique circumstances are raising all kinds of interesting questions around the blurring of home and work, and how we work.
It is also presenting an opportunity for working parents, particularly men, to be more involved at home.
CHANGING MINDSETS AT WORK AND HOME
Previously perceived as an avenue for return-to-work mothers, COVID-19 has catapulted flexible work from the “nice-to-have” category into “business critical” for all.
This has fostered a change in corporate mindsets, with companies like Mastercard and Nielson publicly stating they see this as structural, rather than transitory.
It seems the environment is also prompting a shift at home, with kids’ duties being more equally shared, particularly if both parents are working.
This is certainly the case in my household where we have three kids under the age of five. The only way we can manage is if my wife and I take 1.5 hour shifts, alternating between kids and our work.
This change is not just about being physically present to mind the kids, but also sharing the mental load in planning what the kids are actually going to do. For my 'kid shifts", I’ve started working out activity plans the night before.
For example, my five-year old loves “word treasure hunt” which involves me hiding word cards and, once found, sticking them on the wall in order to practise reading them,
I know I’m not alone in being an involved dad. When in virtual classes, there’s an equal mix of mums and dads accompanying their kids on the chat.
I’m also seeing many of my mates, who have kids of a similar age, proudly sharing pictures of arts and crafts they’ve arranged for their kids.
WORK AND DEADLINES BEING REDEFINED
Not by any stretch is this a rosy picture. At the end of every day, my wife and I often shake our heads and wonder how long can we survive like this.
In this circuit breaker environment, I’m not really doing either my job or looking after the kids especially well. This hit me the other day during an executive committee call, when I found myself holding both my sons’ consoles as they tried to play Nintendo Wii tennis!
To make up for this, my wife and I often work late into the night after the kids are in bed.
But I’ve come to accept that these extraordinary times won’t last forever. Yet I want to continue to spend more time with my kids, and the past few months have taught me how to do so in more normal times.
For instance, juggling work and child responsibilities between two working parents requires a lot of planning and communication. A friend of mine has set up a whiteboard where he and his wife write up their scheduled meetings for the week.
It also requires flexibility in case either of us has a work emergency. Again, that comes down to communication and negotiation; “If you do this for me now, I will make it up to you later,” is how my wife and I barter.
We’ve by no means nailed this arrangement, and it’s led to heated discussions over who has the more pressing work matter, but we’re slowly working out a system.
READ: Commentary: Putting in 50 hours while WFH, it’s a struggle to draw the line between work and home
I’ve also become more comfortable with the dissolving of boundaries between work and home, having seen that it doesn’t impinge on professionalism.
Why should I feel coy speaking about my life – including Paw Patrol episodes – with other parents at work, even my boss? After all, it’s a shared experience and allows me to engage with my colleagues and get to know them as people beyond their professional roles.
Working from home also requires planning, communication and trust with colleagues as well as having understanding bosses.
In my case, I let my colleagues know when my “black-out periods” are – that is, when I won’t respond to emails or phone calls immediately. I’m upfront that I need time off to go on kid duty.
This means we’re learning to be more reasonable with deadlines. My colleagues and I have begun to shift our expectations, and build mutual trust that the work may get delivered later tonight, rather than in the next hour. But it will get done.
I now have no qualms about telling colleagues this – and I hope this mutual understanding continues beyond COVID-19.
UNDERCURRENTS OF CHANGE BUT WILL THEY LAST?
COVID-19 may not be the magic wand enabling both men and women to feel they can contribute at work and home equally, but there are undercurrents of change.
Rather than this being a structural societal shift of men being more involved in home life, I think change will happen at an individual level, and at different speeds and degrees.
One thing that has become clear to me is that not everyone is chomping at the bit to work flexibly.
Some friends and colleagues I know are happy to work from home and see more of their children; others are really struggling and can’t wait to get back to the office environment. This is true of both men and women.
But I think it’s important not to view working or parenting as a zero-sum game where you have to choose one or the other. What the current situation should tell us is that there can be choice.
Smart companies will be enabling this choice by creating an environment that allows both men and women to set up arrangements that work best for them. That way, employees can provide their best for their companies and for their families.
Likewise, many working parents will be assessing how they can incorporate work-from-home into their post COVID-19 life.
At a time when so much choice has been taken away, it is never more important to understand the choices that we can and should make about the way we live and work.
Daniel Fitzpatrick is Head of Communications at HSBC, Singapore.