Since the beginning of the global COVID-19 pandemic, our work and personal lives have drastically changed. Boundaries between the two have become increasingly blurred, as many of us have been forced to work from home for an extended period of time. For those who are also parents, the added pressures of juggling childcare and homeschooling with leading their teams through this time, has been both fulfilling and demanding on a number of levels.
So, today we’re joined by Hays UK and Ireland Directors, Gaelle Blake and James Milligan. Both have been working from home with their children over the past few months and are here to share some of their advice on how leaders can effectively manage their team members who have childcare commitments, alongside balancing parenting themselves.
Recorded Tuesday 30th June 2020, below is a recording and transcript of the podcast:
(01:24) I’m Gaelle Blake. I’m the UK and Ireland Director for Permanent Appointments across our 23 market specialisms. So ultimately, if you’re a customer looking for a permanent role across UK and Ireland or a client who’s looking to recruit permanently, then you’ll fall under my remit. I have also been recently appointed to as our UKI Director for Construction and Property. I’ve been with Hays 20 years. Having joined shortly after I graduated and with reference to our subject today, it’s probably also worth mentioning that I have three sons who are aged 11, nine and four.
(02:00) I’ve been with Hays for over 20 years and in my current role, I have responsibility for the technology businesses across the UK, Ireland and EMEA, so that’s contracts and permanent recruitment (Since promoted to Global Head of Technology at Hays). And I also look after our professional services business, James Harvard.
(02:22) It’s been interesting that’s for sure, it’s been demanding and very rewarding. None of us envisaged the situation where we’ll be working from home five days a week for eight to ten hours a day, and I’ve got a seven-year-old, a six-year-old and a two-and-a-half-year-old.
So, my seven-year-old and my six-year-old are self-sufficient, but certainly more independent and need less handholding. But having a two-year-old at home has been interesting, he certainly doesn’t understand the situation, and requires a lot of love and attention. But it’s been fantastic because I’ve been able to see him grow and develop. At the start of lockdown, he could speak one or two words and now he’s speaking in full sentences and having full conversations. So, I suppose that’s been one of the benefits.
(03:16) Similarly to James, I think it’s had joys and challenges in equal measure to be honest. I’ve really enjoyed seeing my children more. Like James, I travel a lot normally for my role and so I would have been away a couple of days a week normally, whereas now being at home all the time, I’ve really been able to see them grow and develop every day. I think that’s more noticeable with my four-year-old who’s my youngest and should be going to school in September. And I’ve really appreciated that special time with him in particular, because obviously he will be going to school in September.
However, this has been counterbalanced with moments of real intensity because that’s the reality of working from home with children during a pandemic. Trying to navigate myself working from home for the first time, that’s not something I’d experienced before. Also trying to navigate having my children at home full-time, because normally they’re in a school setting or they go to preschool, et cetera. And I think trying to navigate emotional reactions to a pandemic because that’s something I’ve never had to deal with before.
Also, while this is going on, you’re trying to deal with the practicalities of running a household while at the same time having very limited freedom of movement. We’ve got a bit more movement now, but I think none of this has been normal. None of those things I’ve just listed have been normal. So, I’ve just tried to approach this as a completely different challenge that needed a new set of answers that maybe I’d never dealt with before, but that’s how I’ve had to deal with it.
(05:04) I think it’s just the practicalities of trying to do our job while balancing having the children around. Most of us have never actually had to combine the two together before. We’re at work at the office, they’re in a childcare setting. So, I think it’s where you’re having to blend them together, and sometimes that works and sometimes that doesn’t.
I think the challenge is on those days where you’re feeling like for whatever reason, you’re not getting the balance right or there’s just these real moments of intensity where maybe you’ve got quite an intense moment at work and at exactly the same time your children are very demanding on you. So, I think it’s those moments of intensity that make it feel sometimes quite challenging and other times it feels fine.
(05:56) It really does depend on the age of the child. My children are at very different ages, so they have very different needs. I’ve got an 11-year-old, who’s very self-sufficient and does his own homework all the way down to a four-year-old who needs a lot more interaction.
Regardless of the age of the children you’ve got, it’s about having a structure. I think that’s so important and it’s not just for them, it’s for you too. I think that children really crave routine, structures and boundaries. That’s what they’ll get in any childcare setting, being clear with them about what is everybody’s timetable today, maybe for that day or for the week, and being quite clear about when you are going to be available and free for that. But also times, when you’re going to need to have a bit of your own time to do work, is quite important.
Like James, my husband works and has an equally demanding job as I do. So, we’re in this dynamic where we’re also having to work it out as couples on how best to deal with that. I think, sitting down and assessing that together really helps. When it comes to the kids, it’s just a mixture of being physically active, schoolwork, creative time, whether it’s cooking, painting or something like that. Having dedicated quiet time, and that’s not just the kids, I think parents need that too. Time when it’s okay to be on a screen, but also time when you can do something together as a family and really bookmarking that, whether it’s really sitting down as a family to have dinner together or whether it’s watching a film or doing some sort of activity together, it’s just trying to balance all of those things that somehow gets you through the working day.
(07:37) It’s been very important, and just to go back to the point that Gaelle just made, one of the things that myself and my wife do, is we share our diaries. So, we know when we have important calls or meetings and we do our best not to book those at the same time because they generally tend to be major stress points, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. And all you can do is set expectations at the start of the meeting that you may be called upon by one of your kids during that.
Having a routine, just going back to Gaelle’s point is really important, the kids actually crave routine. We’re lucky in Ireland, that things have started to open up a bit in recent days, but my daughter just said to my wife yesterday evening, as she’s now back in camp because they can get to camps, that she’s just delighted to be back and have some sort of semblance of routine and normality.
Generally speaking, we’ve come up with – by design or by accident- a routine in my household, which is typically me getting up first in the morning and doing a bit of work, getting up the youngest, he generally wakes up first and getting him fed. He might sit there and watch a bit of television or whatever, while I can get some work done, and then the other two will come down and they’ll make their breakfast, they’re generally pretty independent. And that’s actually quite a good productive time for the day because people are busy getting prepared for the day and myself and my wife can get on and do a bit of work.
And then the mornings for us have been sort of school learning time. We tried to stick to the same routine that they would normally have. That’s a combination normally in Ireland that they have the school on the television and there's learners coming via applications from different schools. Some of it, just for the youngest might be building blocks, where we’re building something, or doing something creative but generally having all three of them the same time, trying to do something in terms of learning and developing them.
And then what we do is take a break for lunch. I generally still make my lunch while my son or the youngest will have a little nap, and again that’s another window for us to get some work done and get some focus. And then the afternoons tend to be a bit more creative and also that playtime. The longer the day goes on, if there’s any sunshine or it’s not raining too heavy, in Ireland, we’re out and about at least for an hour in the afternoon doing something that’s outside the four walls.
We’ve been very lucky because this week in Ireland (week commencing 29th June 2020), childcare creches have started to open up. So, in the mornings my youngest is in childcare and the two oldest are able to go into camps. So, we’re getting to the point now where that school routine – because we’re in the summer holidays in Ireland, they start a bit earlier than they do the UK – has been replaced by this summer holiday routine and actually this week has felt the most normal it’s done for quite some time.
Now they’re back in the afternoons because obviously there’s restrictions to numbers and ratios and social distancing and camps are not being run in the same way that they were done before, but it’s certainly helping in terms of us getting a bit more balance to what we’re doing. And then the evening is really important. We sit down every evening and we eat together, and sometimes it’s difficult because of the age to get the youngest to sit down. But even twenty minutes, half an hour sitting down, eating together, talking about how we’re feeling. Some days it’s great, everything works, everybody’s happy and things go well and there’s other days when there’s big pressure points as well. So, I think it’s important to be able to have those conversations.
And the other thing I think that is important which tends to happen more in the evening, is just trying to have a bit of one-to-one time with each of the kids, so they’re not lumped in the group of the three. Especially the two eldest because the youngest obviously demands attention because he’s not self-sufficient whereas for the other two, it’s time just to talk about how they’re feeling or doing something together and making sure that you have that one-to-one bond as well as that group time.
Thanks, sounds like you both have to be very organised doing all of this and balancing it all.
(11:30) Yes, we’re used to spinning plates. So, I think because we have jobs with a lot of breadth and we run lots of projects, I suppose in some ways that helps as we’re used to doing a lot currently and being organised.
I won’t speak on Gaelle’s behalf, but my view is we’re both quite naturally organised people and we can get things done. I just can’t imagine doing it without a degree of structure, I don’t think it will work for the parents and I don’t think it will work for the kids.
(12:07) I think first and foremost, you have to lead by example and be quite open about your own situation. The reality is, when you have children around, especially young children, there’s lots of unpredictable elements, even older children, teenagers, different types of unpredictable elements. So, I think the first thing is sort of create an open dialogue and say “Look it’s okay, we understand that this is not a normal situation. We don’t expect you to carry on working in the normal way”.
My working day is much longer than it normally is with many more breaks in it. So, it’s been quite a productive time funnily enough, because you have to be extremely focused, you’re responding to what’s going on with the pandemic and you’re trying to pivot your business according to it. But the reality is you can’t neglect your family. It’s a really important part of having everything in balance.
I think having the open dialogue, the open conversations with people around their own personal circumstances, sharing what’s worked for you, but also sharing some of the more challenging times. We were having a laugh before we came on here because we had a meeting with an organisation this morning and the CEO, myself and Gaelle were both on the same call, and for once it wasn’t one of our children in the background who was asking their daddy if I could do this or have that. But I think, just accepting that and letting people know it’s okay is absolutely fine.
And also, I think it’s a big relief if you’re going on to a call or you’ve got a big presentation and the kids are in the house and there’s nothing you can do about the way they may behave, just explain “My kids are here. They probably won’t come and interrupt, but they might do. And if they do, so be it”.
I was giving a webinar to eighty clients a few weeks ago. And my five-year-old at the time just turned six, decided to come and have a chat with me halfway through. And there was nothing I could do about it because his mum was on the phone as well. But the feedback from the people that were in was just that everybody either has experienced a situation like that themselves, or they’re working with someone that has, and it’s just accepting that we’re all in it together. That’s the way we have to be with our staff and where there are challenges, work through them, try and come up with solutions. If they are finding it difficult to do the work that they have to do, how could we approach it differently? Is there a different way we could solve the challenge that we have by thinking a little bit differently around how we approach it?
(14:36) I mean, I totally agree with what James has just been saying and I think it’s important to know that even on a bad day, this is going to end, and things will get better. I think that with this pandemic, I’ve really tried to keep my eyes on the horizon the whole way through, and knowing that it’s going to have a beginning, it’s going to have a middle, and it’s going to have an end. And I think sometimes just reminding yourself that this isn’t forever. I’ve found at times where I find this really quite intense, that has really helped me.
I really agree with what James was saying. Part of the reason James and I started writing a blog together was we started talking to each other about how we were dealing with the fact that we’ve both got three children and it turned into us writing a blog together and snowballed from there.
Being open to talk about it with your colleagues, as James said, and sort of putting yourself in a place where it’s okay to say that you’re struggling or asking for help and asking people for practical advice. I remember James suggesting at one point to me, I was talking about my sons and he said, “What about swing ball?” And honestly, I now have in my garden a homemade swing ball because of something that James said to me. So, I think it’s about being open enough with the people around you to say when there’s moments where you’re struggling.
One of the other things that we’ve done as a family, which has helped us almost to evolve the way that we’ve worked together as a family is – and we started doing this actually funnily enough, right at the start of lockdown and we’re doing it ever since – we do win, learns and changes. The four-year-old kind of gets it and does it, but my other two really do. And me and my husband do it as well and we talk about what we’ve learned in that day and what we’ve won. I think it’s important that you build on what’s working and taking that moment to go, “Actually, this worked, and this was great” is important. I think, acknowledging what you’ve learned, because it doesn’t always go well, and saying “Well, I’ve learned this today and that’s important” but also to try and quickly identify what you need to change, what’s not working for you. I mean, we found this a really reflective conversation and it allows all of us as family to come together and to contribute to it about how, as a family we’re going to make this work.
And I think some of our kids have come up with some great suggestions that me and my husband never would have thought of. So, it’s about being open and reflective that can help those really intense moments.
(17:10) Honestly, I just think it’s about finding what works with each family. I mean, for me, it’s quite interesting actually, cause James and I have never discussed this bit before, but I was listening to him saying about how he gets up early and how they’ve got a structure in that way. That’s exactly how me and my husband have worked as well. I get up first and for me, there’s certain times in a day where I’ve got deadlines or things I need to do. I know I’m quite productive first thing in the morning, so I get a lot of stuff done while it’s quiet and while the children are still asleep. And I have really put in that sacrosanct, that’s the time when I’m going to work.
So, I think that it’s really in certain times saying this is the time where I need to be getting on with work, but I also think there’s times where you need to be obviously more available to your children or more visible to them, like you’re more obviously around for them. So, I think as a leader, and I know this is picking up on what James said, but I think it’s really important that you’re understanding and supportive of other people who are trying to get that balance right themselves.
I actually have to say, I love it when I see children come onto calls that I’m hosting, I genuinely do. I’ve got to know James’s kids now and not just James, lots of my colleague’s children. It sounds odd, but I’m actually really pleased, not with everything else that’s happened, but that I have actually got to know them as more overall people because I think the way they treat their children says a lot about them. So, I really love it when children come on calls that I’m on. And also, I have to say, I’ve been on calls with my four-year-old sat on my lap and that’s okay too. So, I think we’ve all become really understanding about it and I think when those moments are intense, just remember that everybody else is just willing you to do okay and hoping that you do.
I really love seeing my colleagues’ children. It makes you feel a lot closer to everyone at a time when you can feel quite distant.
(19:23) Yes, I think that’s really true. In fact, I found myself at a point in May where I realised I was losing both of my sense of humour and my sense of perspective. I guess what I would say is most people in their life have got colleagues who are also friends. They have a unique perspective actually, because they understand the company culture you work in, but they also understand you as an individual. We all have those people and I think if you do speak up and share your frustrations, because when you share that, you’re actually inviting for them to give you advice and actually listen to their advice.
And for me, in the case of what I was talking about in May, I was talking to a colleague actually, that’s based out in Spain, and she just turned around to me and said “Look, when was the last time you actually took some annual leave?” And I had realised at that point, I’d actually not taken anything more than two consecutive days annual leave in the whole year and this is the end of May. I think you have to treat annual leave differently at the moment. I made a pact to myself that I had to change from trying to do this as a sprint and actually run it as a marathon and almost change my mindset, which was whereas normally I might log on a bit or check my emails sometimes on leave, I really needed to take that break and that week off. I really needed to make myself take that break, so I could recharge. So, even though I was holidaying from home and the temptation was massive, I really made myself take a step away. So, I came back, and I really was refreshed, that actually worked, and it did happen.
I also think, I know James and I have been talking a lot about how we’ve been managing, helping each other, how we’ve been helping our kids, how we’ve been working with our partners on this. But I think it’s also really important to emphasise having time on your own. I used to get up very early because I have a long commute and so I still get up early, I’ve not changed my alarm clock. And what I do is I get up early and I go for a run or do yoga every morning, so I do some form of exercise and then I start working because if not, with the children I have and how busy our life is, I don’t actually get any other time to myself. And I think if you don’t spend time on your own, you don’t get time to clear your head. Now, for some people, it’s doing yoga or running, but for other people, it could be staying up late and watching television or a good book or whatever it is. But I do think you need to take time for yourself as well, if you can. It’s very easy not to when you’re a parent.
(21:55) That’s a very good question. So, because I look after some of the European countries, there’s already people back in the offices in many of those countries ahead of us. And I’ve talked about the situation in Ireland, and obviously it’s unique to everybody circumstances, it’s unique to everybody. In Ireland, there’s a very clear road-map in terms of childcare opening up and I suppose it’s dependent on what the clarity is around and what the guidelines are by country. We know that we have a situation where our youngest can return to creche under certain criteria and that will be phased over a period of time until we get back into full time care. Now, not everybody’s necessarily going to be fortunate enough to be in that situation. Some people might be dependent on grandparents who might be vulnerable, et cetera. So, I think it’s really important that any employer who has people working for them, has empathy towards that situation.
I think, and this is a really key consideration for me is, you have to treat both parents, both the mother and father with equity in that situation. I think there’s a temptation, I hear it when people are in conversation, not necessarily within business, but culturally around it being the mother’s role, the father can go back into the office, but then how, as a mother are you’re going to be able to manage that. But it’s not the mother’s problem, it’s a family issue, everybody’s in it together. And I think for me, it’s critical that employers acknowledge that it’s not a gender issue, it’s a family issue and they approach it accordingly if there’s flexibility that is required. That’s the first thing.
And the second thing is hybrid has been established as a way to work. We’ve all shown over the last three months that we can be trusted, we can be productive in this virtual environment that we’re operating in. And we’re not gonna have a situation given the guidelines anyway, where everybody’s going to be back in the office on day one. So, we need to work out and every employer needs to work out how they’re going to navigate this hybrid blended world moving forward and what flexibility that offers. Because in fact there’s lots of evidence to suggest if somebody is not commuting for two or three hours a day, or in myself and Gaelle’s situation getting on the plane or getting up at four o’clock in the morning to fly to somewhere in Europe and coming back two days later at 10 o’clock at night, we could actually be equally if not more productive using that time over video. Now, there are times for face-to-face meetings. I’d love to get back to the point where I do face-to-face meetings, but I think the days of me getting on the plane every single week and flying somewhere are gone for a number of reasons. One is it’s not necessarily efficient, the other is there’s environmental factors and there’s cost factors all around it.
So, I think employers just have to look at this through a different lens to what we’re used to, given what we’ve learned in the course of the last number of months. Again, it’s about doing that with compassion, it’s about understanding people’s circumstances. People want to be successful and they’ll make it work. If you have trust with them, you can work through it. In 99% of situations, you can come up with a workable solution. I think that’s the approach employers have to take.
(25:14) Everybody feels differently around COVID-19 itself. And then obviously around the circumstances that relates to looking after the children. And I think you have to treat every individual on a case-by-case basis. I don’t think we should be in a situation at the moment where there are childcare challenges in most countries, the world work has not opened up fully in most countries, there’s challenges around commuting in and out of work in major cities, especially if you’re relying on public transport. I think it has to be led by the employee on what they’re comfortable with and what they can commit to rather than being a mandated approach on returning to work regardless of their situation or how they feel personally about COVID-19.
I mean, you may be living in some European countries where it’s quite common to be living with your grandparents. You might not necessarily want to be going back into the office if you think there’s potentially a risk of transmitting COVID-19 at some point. So, I think, empathy is probably a very good guiding principle, especially at the moment, and then we’ll have to see how things evolve. Who knows what the next month, three months, six months is going to bring, we never anticipated this situation. It could go away as quickly as it’s landed and everything’s back to business as usual or we may have to learn to live with this for a long time.
(26:47) I do, absolutely. I think what this has taught us is that actually people can be really productive at home, even if they’re looking after children. And I think that this more blended life, not just looking at it as work and family, but blending those two together can really unlock, potential, productivity and creativity. I felt very creative working at home with my children. I also have found that being surrounded by your kids reminds you of your motivation to work hard. I’m a pretty motivated person anyway and for a lot of us being in such close proximity with our children reminds us all to keep focused on why we’re doing this. I really do think there’s going to be a positive change because of, I think as James said, we never anticipated this happening, but actually I think it taught us all that we can genuinely be productive and in some ways be more creative. So, I hope so, I hope there’ll be a positive change.
(28:07) A very big question. So, I’ll go back to just the previous answer there, I think empathy to employee’s circumstances and their wellbeing would have been important prior to the pandemic, but I think even more so now. You hear feedback from lots of people that work for different organisations. Mostly those that have taken an empathetic approach towards it, trying to put themselves in the same shoes that their employees are in, but there’s some that haven’t and that very clearly has come through as well, where there hasn’t been an understanding of those circumstances and the impact that’s had on those individuals. So, for me, empathy might not have been number one previously, but I think it’s been incredibly important and has really brought it into focus for me.
The second quality I’d be looking at would be communication because things have moved so quickly and continue to move quickly, and you see what happens when we get communication wrong and the impact it has. And you also see the benefits when you get it right and people feel as though that they are being kept in the loop to what’s going on and what steps the organisation is taking. Again, that’s a critical skill of any leader and it’s very important, but I think this has very much brought it into the spotlight, the ability to make people feel in uncertain times that their leaders have a plan and they’re able to articulate that to them.
(29:49) I thought about my answer, and it was interesting just listening to James talk because I was really nodding away thinking I agreed with so much of what he said, and funnily enough, I’d come up with very similar things to what he’d said. Yes, I think those qualities have come far more into focus. I think they were important, but I think they’ve definitely come into much sharper focus since the beginning of the pandemic.
I call it being actively supportive. There’s a guy called Simon Sinek and he has a phrase and it’s saying, “Leadership is taking care of those in your care”. And what I mean by being actively supportive is proactively asking people, how are you feeling? It’s about being actively available to people, to help them with things that are important to you. Even if, as the leader, it’s not that important to you, it’s important to employees being available, confronting you if they’re concerned, not just waiting for you to go to them. That’s what I mean by actively supportive. But also, being honest with you, if there’s things that you need to know or that you need to confront. And I think actively supportive to me means both literally and metaphorically standing next to you in the good times and bad, but you always know that they’ve got your back and they’ve got your best interests at heart. And I think being supportive, which isn’t just sugar-coating everything, it’s being honest. But I think that to me is so important.
I agree, my second point was so similar to James’s. For me, it’s having a very clear vision and communicating it and that is pretty much what James also said. Things have been changing so quickly, so having your eyes to the horizon and being really clear about what it is, where you’re going and being calm but clear, I think is really important. So, I agree with James’s point about communication.
And then interestingly for my third, I’ve come up with something quite similar to James again, in terms of that real softer element. And what I just thought of, I just called it being ‘human’. I think that during the course of this, there has to be moments where you show your sense of humour, but also show your emotional intelligence and that’s what being human is about.
I think there’s moments where you just have to laugh, and there’s moments that James and I have been in with our kids that you’ve just got to laugh because you’ve got to get on with it. Being human is also about showing your emotional intelligence and I think that’s what James is talking about, he’s talking about the empathy side, knowing and understanding that people are going through this in different ways and have got different challenges. We’re talking about kids today, but actually there’s colleagues of ours that are struggling, who don’t have children for different reasons. So, I think it’s really important that a good leader will show that emotional intelligence of understanding that it’s not been easy. There’s times where it’s been great, but it’s that balance between the two.
Gaelle joined Hays in 1999 and in her time with the business she has led dedicated teams providing expert recruitment services for a wide range of sectors and professions, with a particular focus on construction and property. In 2018 she was appointed the Director for Permanent Recruitment, working across Hays UK and Ireland to improve business performance, drive best practice and shape Hays’ value proposition to both clients and candidates.
James is Director of Hays IT, Digital Technology and Project Solutions in the UK, Ireland and EMEA. Having joined in 2000, he is responsible for the strategy of Hays’ Project Solutions, IT and Digital Technology businesses, which includes IT contracting, permanent technology recruitment, resource augmentation and statement of work solutions across both the private and public sectors.
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