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To Maximize Productivity and Keep the Peace, Divide Professional and Household Work Clearly and Often

With half of the U.S. now urged to stay – and work – from home, many households are navigating a blur between professional and household work. Aaron S. Wallen, Ph.D., Human Capital Management Senior Lecturer, shares strategies for striking the right balance – and avoiding gender stereotypes in the process.

Written by Aaron S. Wallen

In almost half of U.S. households, both partners work for outside employers. On a normal day, both partners can split professional and home responsibilities to some extent, benefiting from offsite, dedicated work spaces and relatively stable paid work hours. But with most nonessential businesses ordered to close their buildings to slow the spread of COVID-19, the lines between the workplace and the home space have blurred considerably. Many workers might find themselves just as likely to answer work emails and make final changes to a presentation at 9 pm as they are to be folding laundry or reading a bedtime story to a child.

What are some potential pitfalls for two-career households and how can we navigate them in our current circumstance? As a researcher who has explored gender stereotypes, workplace team building, and conflict management, I worry about the potential for stereotypes to drive expectations of responsibilities for women and men. But if we plan ahead, keep an open mind, and apply some of the same concepts we use at work –  collaboration, constant feedback, setting clear expectations, and practicing flexibility – we can not only maximize our productivity for our employers and families, but also maintain a sense of sanity in these uncertain times.

What follows are nine recommendations for how workers in dual-career households can be thoughtful, systematic, and fair when navigating work and home responsibilities in the time of COVID-19—and always.

  1. Share and set expectations early. The reality of life during the COVID-19 pandemic presents new challenges that are stressful to all of us. Do not assume that all people within your household will understand or react to it in the same way. Share how you feel about this new reality. The parties involved may not initially agree on expectations, and that is OK. It’s better to understand how each person approaches the situation than to assume you know.
  2. Discuss views on which person is responsible for which tasks. This will help uncover the potential impact of gender stereotypes. Is there an assumption that a woman will do the bulk of child care tasks simply because prescriptive stereotypes cast women as nurturing? Will people who’ve failed to meet expectations based on stereotypes face interpersonal penalties in the home? How will that affect overall productivity and happiness at home? It’s important to prevent these potential scenarios by resisting the urge to fall back on stereotypes and actively discussing expectations. Understand that the division of labor differs as a function of individual preferences and abilities, not someone’s gender identity. This is a lot like how responsibilities are distributed in the workplace.
  3. Understand that balance is not always an even 50-50. Gender stereotypes are surely not the only factor that impacts the division of household labor. Though many employers have transitioned to remote work, other jobs require at least one partner to work outside of the house, especially healthcare professionals, first responders, grocery store workers, and others deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. If your partner is an essential worker, what are the implications for a fair allocation of responsibilities in your home?
  4. Be aware of the expectations you have for your employees. For those of you in managerial or leadership roles, consider whether your interactions with workers are driven by how you expect women and men to behave generally. Are you less forgiving of men direct reports who request an extension of a deadline because they were helping their children with second grade homework than you are of women? Do you offer less challenging work to women direct reports because you assume they are too busy with household work? If any of this sounds familiar, you are not evil, but you could be being guided wrongly by gender stereotypes. Try to focus on individual differences in preferences and abilities rather than assumptions based on gender. 
  5. Anticipate that conflicts will happen and build a process to address them. Conflicts are inevitable, but they are not unpredictable. Acknowledge them when they occur and have a plan for discussing any differences in a thoughtful and constructive way. Be sure to focus on the problem at hand, not the people involved. This is not about “right” or “wrong.” This is about working together to solve a problem you share.
  6. Be specific in terms of time management. Which hours are “sacred” and must remain available for work rather than household chores or helping the children complete schoolwork? Be flexible and try to give equitable time across the working individuals in your home.
  7. Repeat step #2reevaluate the division of tasks often. Things change with or without a pandemic at play, so don’t expect to get the allocation of responsibilities right the first time. First, there probably is no objective “right;” there is only what is right for the people involved. Second, your attempts to find the fairest division of tasks may not satisfy one or both parties during the first, second or even third iteration. Keep working at it and be open to revisiting the expectations of responsibilities every few days.
  8. Do more than what you have agreed is expected of you. The initial agreement regarding the division of responsibilities is not meant as a legal contract that strictly limits roles and responsibilities between you and your partner. Where you have the bandwidth to help the other person out, offer your assistance. You may have heard of “extra-role behaviors” in the context of a workplace. For example, even though it’s not your job, you may have restocked the paper in the copy machine for the good of your colleagues on your office floor. Practice that habit at home, too.
  9. Check in with one another. I know this is already a big ask, but I urge everyone in a dual-career home to take the time to ask their partner how they are feeling. Is your partner overwhelmed? If so, what is the source? What were the best and worst parts of the day? What are the joint expectations for making the next hour or two a success? How about the rest of the week? Again, applying some concepts from your outside workplace at home will go a long way, so communicate, communicate, communicate.

Let’s face it: we’re all coping with unprecedented stress due the COVID-19 pandemic. Research has shown that when faced with the added cognitive load that crises can generate, people tend to rely more heavily on stereotypes. Previous reports suggest that people hold gender prescriptive stereotypes that women should be caring and nurturing, whereas men should be strong and assertive. When these gender stereotypes are activated, it drives how people evaluate others’ actions. The dark side of holding gender stereotypical expectations is that when women and men do not conform to them, they face backlash and interpersonal penalties, such as dislike and disrespect. As we all strive to keep up with the usual demands of our employers, it’ll be equally as important to protect our sense of connection with our loved ones. What advice or best practices do you have for dual-career households in the time of COVID-19? Share your thoughts by tagging the Human Capital Management M.S. program on Twitter at @CU_SPS_HCM or by commenting on LinkedIn.