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Coronavirus

School Decisions Test Employers

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Jul 16, 2020
As local schools are making decisions about how to move forward with student instruction this fall, local businesses also have decisions to make regarding their working parents.

Businesses have shared with the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce that they are concerned about maintaining adequate staffing given the challenges that are facing parents, said Natalie English, president and CEO of the chamber in an email Thursday.

“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to contain it have had serious consequences on our economy, business world, and education system. Core elements of our lives were reshaped almost overnight, as were the ways we think about the very nature of work and education," English said.

New Hanover County Schools has decided to operate on an alternating three-week schedule for K-12 students, with two weeks of virtual instruction and one week of in-class learning. Parents also have a choice to have their children on a full virtual school option. 

The toll that takes on working parents, regardless of their decision, will be the topic of human resources discussions for many businesses across the Cape Fear Region.

Leaders at Corning Inc.'s Optical Fiber facility in Wilmington have been monitoring the school schedule topic closely, said Gabrielle Bailey, Corning's corporate spokesperson and manager of media relations, in an email Thursday.

"Corning’s top priority is the safety and health of its employees and their families. As always, and especially during the current COVID-19 situation, we are fully committed to ensuring that the application of our attendance policies at all locations align with Corning Values," officials stated. "Supervisors and HR managers are working closely with their teams to discuss the employee’s specific questions or concerns and determine what arrangements can be made to accommodate their specific needs."

Lisa Leath, president of Wilmington-based Leath HR Group, said in an email that human resources leaders are in a unique position to help businesses balance employee experience and productivity.

"This juggling act is particularly real, as we account for personal and family responsibilities like facilitating remote learning for school-aged kids, for 28 weeks in the upcoming school year. As we get further details about individual school schedules across our region, employers should be taking surveys to understand how big of an impact this will really have at their company," Leath said.

Companies with working parents should be asking questions and gauging the impact on individuals, considering remote work policies and determining how long to manage those policies, she said.

Leath offered ways companies can retain employees who ask to work remotely while also facilitating at-home learning with their kids, including reviewing job descriptions or goals a firm might have for individuals in that situation. That way, she said, everyone’s on the same page as far as what’s expected for good performance as well as offering a limited amount of unpaid leaves of absences/sabbaticals that wouldn’t kill margins.

She also advises establishing core hours for parents to be available for business calls and consider allowing colleagues to take shifts; calling employees that voice concerns and talking to them about their specific needs; and allowing people to work part-time.

"Ask yourself, 'What expectations are reasonable for employees who are now working from home as it relates to performing their job?' and 'Are our managers equipped to handle performance management and employee engagement, in general, with a partially/fully remote workforce?'  Now’s a great time to be looking at technology that ensures culture continuity with parents working remotely," Leath said.

Businesses that require employees to be at work should also ensure sanitation efforts remain thorough and frequently communicate with staff, she said.

And because each parent's decision is different and pertains to their individual family situation, another HR firm leader is encouraging businesses and companies to be more open-minded with employees.

"Understand that what might be right for one family won't be right for another family," said Amy Robertson, CEO of Soul Advantage, a firm she operates out of Ocean Isle Beach and Raleigh, with clients all over the globe.

"What I am seeing and what I am advising is to extend a little bit more grace to workers. So if you are a business that can, continue to be as flexible as possible. Because people are fitting in work around home life these days, instead of the opposite, which I think is kind of new in our society," Robertson said. "So I'm suggesting that folks really focus on treating the person as an individual and their situation very individually, and be prepared to offer all different types of options for working parents."
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