What the U.S. Military Can Teach Companies About Supporting Employees’ Families
As originally published in the Harvard Business Review
There’s an unexpected source of insight, solutions, and resolve for all working parents grappling with the dual failure-is-not-an-option challenges of managing career and kids — and for every organization struggling to find meaningful, practical ways to support its working-parent employees.
That source is the U.S. military.
Whatever your background, or your perspective on U.S. politics and actions abroad, it’s hard to argue that over the past 15-plus years of constant military activity, and the associated deployments, redeployments, and other extraordinary demands made on military professionals and their families, the U.S.’s armed forces now have more experience facing working-parent problems than many or most organizations. As one of the senior leaders in the government’s office of Military Community & Family Policy told me, “The number one reason for military professionals not being battle-ready is worry about the people at home.”
In the face of that ongoing challenge, the military and the individuals within it have sought out practical, creative solutions that work. Some of these fixes are large, systemic, and difficult to replicate. For example, the military’s high-quality, funded day care would be difficult to offer at an entrepreneurial startup, or even at most large cost-conscious companies.
But many other recent approaches are within reach of all organizations, regardless of focus or resources, and are workable for both supportive frontline managers and individual mothers and fathers.
Here are a few of these practices, based on my interviews with experienced military service professionals in various branches and roles. Regardless of industry, function, or family structure, professionals in high-stakes, high-demand fields may be able to implement them in their homes, careers, and corporations.
Prioritize predictability. Military hours are long, demands are high, time away from home is frequent and extended, and priorities and needs are constantly shifting — all conditions that, as in the corporate world, make things tough for working parents. As a counterweight to these demands, military leaders are expected to, as one U.S. Army commander told me, “control the controllables,” to make all scheduled, regular commitments as predictable as possible. If an officers’ meeting or training exercise is scheduled to end at 6 PM, it ends at 6 PM — not at 6:22. Employees can plan their schedules and child care, making it to day-care pickup, the soccer game, or family dinner on time and as promised. Predictability, not just flexibility, helps working parents meet the needs of their dual roles. Insist on ending the weekly sales meeting on time, and you’re more likely to keep your high-performing working-parent employees.
Keep work routines consistent — even when they aren’t. People in careers that demand extended travel and prolonged periods of intense work naturally want to shut off in between projects. “It used to be that you’d get home from a deployment, get in the car, and go home and do nothing for three weeks,” says Scott Snook, former U.S. Army colonel and former director of West Point’s Center for Leadership and Organizations Research, “but it turns out, that’s basically the worst thing you can do.” Sudden, drastic switches in routine don’t just knock professionals off their game at work; they wreak havoc on relationships at home, particularly with young children. Now the military encourages returning soldiers to adopt moderate, workable schedules, ones that lessen the dramatic shift between “on” and “off” periods, for both soldier and family. In the private sector, if you’re a consultant returning from a long business trip, or an accountant with downtime after tax-filing season has passed, don’t “overcorrect” for your time away from home — find a moderate routine that works for your business and kids alike.
Advertise and destigmatize the resources your organization offers. “The military, like many corporations, offers many different family-support programs, but the key is encouraging employees to actually use them,” says the official from the Family Policy office, “and it’s very hard to achieve that if your culture leaves people who could benefit from these resources feeling isolated or belittled.” Thus military leaders are encouraged to talk openly with their staff about programs and resources for families; advertisements and visual reminders of the services are placed where soldiers can see them; and staff members knowledgeable about programs are encouraged to spend time circulating around military installations and discussing them. The counseling and resources available through your employee assistance program are unlikely to do your people any good if they’re known only to a select few on the HR floor.
Connect working parents to each other. The more that working parents in your organization can easily access other working parents — and the relevant, culturally attuned advice, encouragement, and solutions they can offer — the more successful they will be on the job, and the more they’ll want to stay in it. In the military, support comes largely through a peer-to-peer model: When a military family needs help, they ask another military family. The same is likely true within your organization. An informal working-parents network, or a working-parent page on your corporate intranet, could be the most powerful tool for retention and support of your working-parent population — and it can be achieved at little to no cost.
Be present while away. Military families are trained in how to minimize the impact of long hours and deployment, making it feel as though mom or dad is still present while away. On a long business trip, or spending late hours at the office to get that big project done? Make sure your children have easy access to reminders of you throughout your home. Put the toys you enjoy together out in full view in the living room; place photos of your recent family trip where the child can easily see them; make sure the music you love to sing along to together stays on the stereo. Be with them, even when you’re not.
Don’t talk — do. Any parent who’s come home from a long day at work and asked their child, “So, how was your day?” knows that children of any age don’t communicate like adults, and they don’t bond through talking. Whether you’re away for business or home at the end of a workday, the most effective way to communicate with your child is not through questions but activity — athletics, reading, music, or play. Forget the questions, and pick up a baseball glove or book as soon as you get home. While military-related nonprofits like United Through Reading help service members do just this, any professional in a demanding role can use the same techniques.
“Smart people learn from experience, and very smart people learn from other people’s experiences,” as the saying goes. By looking at what works in different sectors, regions, and industries, working-parent professionals and the companies that employ them can find practical, unexpected solutions.