When news leaked in The Sunday Times that schools may not reopen until after Easter, a collective roar emerged from kitchen tables across adland. At least the government couldn’t be accused of promising false hope this time.
Social media was quickly alight with despairing parents wondering how to juggle home-schooling with a job for months on end.
The Fawnbrake Collective co-founder Amelia Torode wrote on Twitter: “It’s impossible to home-school primary-aged children and do hard thinking or creative work at the same time. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.”
And PR consultant Veronique Rhys-Evans responded: “Completely impossible. So you decide to home-school, then your meetings after 3pm, then do your deep thinking in your *own* time at midnight or 5am. This is not sustainable!”
With higher expectations from schools, colder weather, fears over the new strains of the virus and the shockingly high death toll, many are finding this third lockdown more difficult than previous ones. The novelty has definitely worn off.
As one headteacher wrote: “I want parents and carers to understand that it’s not hard because they are doing it wrong. It’s hard because it's too much."
Campaign asked adland’s agencies what they are doing to help support their staff with this juggling act.
While all agencies offered flexible hours, some agencies really stood out. For example, Mother now has a full-time primary school teacher on the books to offer one-to-one tuition for staff’s children. Wunderman Thompson, meanwhile, is offering tech support to its staff for personal problems – such as helping Granny use Zoom, using Google Classroom or rebooting Netflix.
Read on for more inspiration on how to help staff with this impossible task.
1. Offer flexible hours
The debate over flexible working is over. It works. It is essential. No agency should be resisting this. All the agencies in our survey said they had allowed staff to change their hours to suit their needs. But agencies need to go further and ensure staff don’t feel judged for their new working pattern, or under pressure to respond at all times.
In order to ensure new expectations about working patterns and responsiveness were not forgotten, TBWA asked its staff to add the following to their email signatures: “During these unprecedented times, my working hours may fall outside regular office hours and may not be the same as yours. Please don't feel the need to action or respond until you are back online."
2. Encourage protected time
Many agencies have either set up specific windows of time that can be used for home-schooling and care-giving, or have actively encouraged staff to block out times in their diary that they will not be available for work.
Joint has made it clear that employees should feel comfortable taking time off to support their families. It says everything from hospital appointments to food runs for shielding relatives are part of everyone's daytime weeks now and should be guilt-free.
Krow has introduced the flexi-furlough, which offers people the chance to take regular time off, whether that's shorter periods every day, or longer periods on set days. It also offers periods of protected time, encouraging its staff to block out time in their diaries to go for a walk, exercise, meditate, spend time with their children, household or support bubble.
M&C Saatchi is looking at how it can run meetings more efficiently. As chief executive Camilla Kemp says: “We are launching new 'snappy meetings' that are only 25 or 45 minutes long. This enables people to reply to emails, have a comfort break, check in on their children and home-schooling, and arrive on time for their next meeting fully prepared and ready to focus on the task in hand.”
3. Make the issue public
Working parents of school-age children require support and empathy from all employees. It is important to create a culture of understanding among staff. TBWA and MediaCom publicly acknowledged what school-age parents were juggling in their first town hall meetings of the year, while agencies including Adam & Eve/DDB, We Are Social and Havas are sending communications on the issue to all staff so everyone is aware of the struggles some are facing.
This also applies to managing client expectations. Ogilvy has written to current clients to share its support for all its employees in meeting their needs at this time. Of course this is not just about parents, but carers, shielders and those living alone, who might be making adjustments for their own mental health.
Meanwhile Havas is ensuring its communications and policies are focused on working parents not just mothers. Stephanie Marks, Havas Media’s managing director, says: “We were clear that this was about shared parental support. A worrying statistic has shown that women’s careers have suffered more during Covid due to the burden of home and work. We do not want our women to fall behind because of this.”
Indeed, US data released this month shows that employers cut 156,000 jobs in December – all of these were held by women – while men actually gained 16,000 jobs.
4. Lead from the front
None of these new initiatives means anything if people don’t feel they are sincere. Creature has created a carer job code for timesheets, to make sure people are comfortable blocking out time in their diary. Its leaders are setting a positive example.
MediaCom’s senior staff are also acting as role models in this area, with their children joining meetings. Allowing people’s families to be visible normalises the idea that children can be present during the working day, it said. For example, chief operating officer Luke Bozeat’s child Chloe explained the importance of sustainable living to the agency in a townhall.
5. Realise support needs to be personal
The pandemic and its restrictions are affecting everyone differently, so agencies are empowering their HR teams and managers to create individualised work arrangements.
As Publicis Groupe notes, some people with younger children need several short breaks during the day to set up online lessons, upload tasks and feed and water their children. Others, with older kids, need time out at lunchtime to spend with them.
This is why Ogilvy is not banning meetings at certain times. It thinks this approach could put more pressure on those working part time already. Instead, it lets individual teams work out what is best for them. It is also sharing case studies of people who are making it work to help others.
Some agencies are offering extra leave – Wieden & Kennedy has introduced five days, fully paid dependent leave.
Others are placing emphasis on helping single parents in particular. Wunderman Thompson and MediaCom have set up a single parent’s safe room, where parents can discuss issues, share advice and support each other.
6. Hire a teacher
Mother has employed a primary school teacher on a full-time basis to give virtual one-to-one lessons to its employees' children. Parents fill in a form before the time period, and the teacher can either prepare an appropriate lesson plan or work with whatever their teacher has given them.
This has proved invaluable for staff to ensure children are receiving help with specific areas they might need, and also gives them time to do something else. Mother is happy to share details and advice to other agencies who want to do the same.
M&C Saatchi is looking at emergency childcare support, which it is testing and rolling out soon. Wieden & Kennedy is also looking into virtual childcare.
7. Have some creative fun
Some agencies are applying their creative nous to the thorny problem of home-schooling. Some of the most notable approaches include Havas’ co-ordinated schedule of events for all age groups with magic lessons, story time with interactive literacy lessons, art club, mindfulness sessions and a Disney dance-party workout.
The Liberty Guild has created a "Freetime" programme – a series of self-guided creative projects to keep children occupied after school hours. This includes making a lava lamp, a stop-frame animation, an illustrated story book or growing a £1 coin for mini entrepreneurs. It will judge the responses and offer prizes to help encourage children to participate.
M&C Saatchi created end-of-year certificates for staff’s children, saying thank you for helping their parent work from home this last year. It sent these home alongside a book or toy.
8. Give practical support
Many agencies including Joint, The7stars and MediaCom are helping staff by supplying extra laptops for children that are home-schooling.
Wunderman Thompson has gone one further, by setting up a new IT channel to support its people at home with technical challenges, work related or not.
The new team is helping any employees and their extended families or bubbles with a range of problems, such as accessing children’s homework, connecting to Google Classroom, helping someone’s granny onto Zoom or rebooting Netflix. The agency says the lines of home and work have been blurred for some time now and it doesn’t want IT to be another thing for staff to worry about.
9. Look after parents’ mental health
Agencies are helping parents with their mental health by running sessions for parents such as M&C Saatchi’s boundary-setting workshop, mindfulness workshops and panel discussions, sharing tips on how to juggle working and parenting in a lockdown.
Agencies also need to look out for any changes in an employee’s behaviour. It’s harder to see the warning signs that someone is struggling, because it is harder to read people with remote working. Make sure you pay attention. Kindness is more important than ever.
10. Reassure staff that it is ok
Trying to home-school children at the same time as working is an impossible situation. Everyone is doing their best. It sounds like a small thing, but openly explaining that you are aware of the hardship people are going through helps reassure staff that they are understood.
After Havas' Marks went into a “blind panic” when she found out the schools were shutting, she emailed her staff to say: “Do what you need to do, your kids come first.”
There was palpable relief in the messages she received in response. “Everyone always tries their best but sometimes people just need the nod to say it's OK,” she says.
Image: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images