02/09/2015 04:14 pm ET Updated Apr 11, 2015

Say it Ain't Snow: A Working Parent's Dilemma

Another week, another foot of snow. There are few life events that are met with greater enthusiasm by your 8th grader than when the TV stream of school cancellations adds your hometown to the list. In our home these days, watching the local station for these announcements has become an almost daily ritual.

Today marks the third consecutive week of snow days for New England's kids. While fun for them, the past few weeks have been incredibly challenging for many working parents, especially when added to holidays, vacations and school in service days.

Here's a rundown of a two-month period in our house:

  • Weeks of December 23 and December 30: Christmas break.
  • Weeks of January 5 and 12: two full weeks back in the classroom.
  • Week of January 19: Began with the Martin Luther King holiday followed by four half-days at our son's school for parent-teacher conferences.
  • Week of January 26: Two days off for "stormzilla" followed by a half-day for teacher development.
  • Week of February 2: Two days off following the arrival of another two feet of snow in Boston.
  • Week of February 9: Begins with another snow day on Monday.
  • Week of February 16: School vacation week for most of New England. The kids need a break from all the intensive education they haven't been getting.

When you put all this together, the kids will have been in school fewer than half of the school days over this nine-week period.

While snow days are a welcome event for kids, they wreak havoc for working parents as they try to meet the competing demands of work and family. Obviously, we remain powerless to alter acts of nature, but there are things employers can do to diminish the challenges inherent in such events.

For knowledge workers, embrace technology and take a stance that supports work-from-home options. Often, when employers initially consider telecommuting, the focus is only on how this benefits employees. But significant evidence from research demonstrates that telecommuting, at least on a part-time basis, increases productivity and, ironically, work hours. In those instances when organizations have moved to the virtual office (i.e. with all or some employees telecommuting on a full-time basis), many have documented bottom-line benefits such as a significant increase in applicant pools for job openings and a significant decrease in real estate costs.

The benefit of such a flexible culture is that when acts of nature or man-made events occur, employers are prepared to have employees work from home. This benefits employees who are accessible to attend to both the office and their family needs. But the organization also experiences significant advantages by maintaining business continuity at a time when other, more traditional approaches to working result in significant shutdowns and lost business opportunities. In addition to snow days, the impact of more major events - Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, the events of 9/11, or the tragic bridge collapses that occurred in Minnesota in 2007 and California following the 1989 earthquake -- all could be mitigated by a flexible workplace culture.

It is correct to say that not all jobs can be done remotely. As Marshall Brickman once famously wrote, "90 percent of life is just showing up" and there are millions of jobs where showing up is job one. Retail employees, care providers, hotel chambermaids, and production workers simply can't phone it in. I stopped by the local pizza chain yesterday (for research purposes only) and asked the manager, "Will you be open tomorrow now that the Governor has asked all businesses to close?" His reply was, "Unless the Governor issues a travel ban, we are always open." So those hourly employees are expected to brave the elements to keep the franchise open. My guess is most businesses of this type operate under similar guidelines. Are there supports that employers can utilize to assist their employees?

Yes, but it's not quite as straightforward as it is for knowledge workers.

Flexibility still helps. Allowing work hours to be as flexible as possible provides employees with time needed to arrange for their children's needs. Many employers today also offer back-up dependent care for employees in a pinch. Such programs have often been shown to more than pay for themselves. Finally, employers should consider providing all employees with a number of paid days off for sick time or family. Thankfully, there has been more discussion about this on a national level in recent months than we have heard in a long time, including at President Obama's recent State of the Union address.

Continuing to work with employees to find creative ways to cope with these challenges is in everyone's best interest. Using technology, flexibility, and other appropriate supports can go a long way to maintaining business continuity and meeting the needs of American families.

Wait ... this just in. School cancelled tomorrow. Yay!

Dr. Brad Harington is the Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family and a research professor in the Carroll School of Management.