Julie Inouye was on an important call with a coworker when her young daughter started repeatedly screaming "mommy" at the top of her lungs. "She needed me to help her in the bathroom," says Inouye, VP of communications at VSCO. "I had to get off the phone and call my coworker back. She might have fallen in the toilet."
And so begins the new normal: working from home, with kids.
As businesses demand staffers work from home to fight the spread of coronavirus, schools are shutting their doors and moving to e-learning systems. Many school districts also require mandatory homeschooling of students. The result: Parents are doing their day jobs while keeping an eye on their children and also putting aside hours to educate them.
While parents are looking to their employers for help on how to navigate a complicated situation and to provide constant updates, PR pros, many of whom are parents themselves, are facing the same challenge.
"For my job, I am following the news every day to make sure we aren't missing anything," says Inouye. "It's jarring, even for me. There's a lot of questions."
For agency employees, it helps when leadership gets it. Weber Shandwick president and CEO Gail Heimann says her firm is trying to be "as flexible as possible." All of the Interpublic Group firm's staffers started working from home last Thursday.
"Right now, people are put in a situation none of us have ever been in before," she says. "Things are going to shift and change, and we hope we get to the other side of it soon."
It also helps when firms have guidelines in place to point employees in the right direction.
Charlie Coney, Golin's executive creative director for the West Coast, started working from home this week. He says the firm has processes, systems and tools "to help us do our jobs and live our lives." The IPG shop also has health resources and therapists for employees who get anxiety.
"If you need to step away, it is absolutely no problem at all," Coney says of busy parents. "We believe a healthy, happy workforce leads to far better work. If employees are stressed and panicked, they can't give our clients the service that they should."
One silver lining for PR pros: Communications is an industry with a lot of working parents, notes Emily Buchanan, who started in a new job right as the coronavirus was labeled a pandemic, moving from Carmichael Lynch Relate to Lippe Taylor to lead its new Minneapolis office. Buchanan, who has children aged five and seven, says it's been an "interesting juggle," but both firms have been understanding. And as clients delay plans because of the virus, she has time to get adjusted.
Buchanan isn't set to begin homeschooling until March 30 and she's scrambling to find childcare quickly. Care.com is so overloaded that she hasn't been able to input her credit card information, so a neighbor's nanny is helping out in the meantime.
"Everyone is just pitching in and offering to help each other out," she explains. "Teams that don't have kids have picked up a lot of the heavy lifting."
Hotwire PR is being flexible with parents by not making staffers do fixed hours. The firm's head of consumer, Laura Macdonald, started working from home last week with her seven- and four-year-olds. Each day, she writes a schedule for her kids and takes turns with her husband homeschooling. To give herself time to do her day job and help her children, the San Francisco-based Macdonald is working on East Coast hours.
"This way, I can get work done before the kids wake up," she says. "Everyone is aware from 5 p.m. EST I am not here. That way I can give that time to the kids."
Laura Macdonald's daily schedule for her children
What about when both parents are PR pros? Coney and his wife, an SVP and partner at FleishmanHillard, have kids aged eight and 10.
"When she has massive pitches on and I don't, we just flex to accommodate each other and it is the same with homeschooling," he says. "When she has three-hour conference calls, I try to avoid having conference calls so I can answer any emergency questions about where the decimal point goes."
Other executives are getting creative about how they help fellow parents keep kids distracted so they can get work done.
Caroline Dettman, founding partner of Have Her Back Consulting, started working from home this week. She has three teens at home who don't start homeschool until March 30.
"My 13-year-old twins are doing an art lesson via FaceTime every day for 30 minutes with my business partner Erin Gallagher's three-year-old son," she says. "Through all the craziness and anxiety, those are the things we can be doing that are so positive. We are all creative by nature, so we can get creative in terms of how we help each other."
Above: Caroline Dettman's children also have creative chops
At VSCO, the internal comms team is brainstorming how to entertain employees' children while they are homebound, Inouye says.
"On Thursday, we are doing a virtual storytime," she says. "The idea is acknowledging that other parents have kids there with them. Hopefully it all works out well, and we can do something on a weekly basis."
There's another small, but very entertaining, silver lining to working at home while trying to keep children occupied: conference call cameos by employees' kids -- or pets.
"Remember the BBC broadcaster working from home with his daughter in the background?" says Dettman. "That moment struck such a chord because that's all of us. We have all been there where we have hidden in a room and done whatever we had to do so we had the semblance of 'nothing is going on' and we are just focused on work."
Jano Cabrera, General Mills' global comms head, is trying to keep up that guise this week while working from home with his one-year-old son.
"At this point, I feel confident I could serve as a censor for a live television show," he says. "I have become a veritable master at muting 'dadadadadadadadadadadadas' during meetings."
And the commonness of child cameos on conference calls means there's no longer any embarrassment about it.
"it's been no big deal," says Inouye. "Everyone is embracing it, which has been so lovely to see."
Dettman, meanwhile, says she is getting a kick out of video conferencing with clients and suddenly seeing a cat's tail go by, adding, "It's so human, it makes me smile."
"We have never been in this situation where everyone is at home at the same time," she says. "I am trying to be welcoming of that. It puts people at ease. They don't have to go hide in the closet to do a call."
But will the coronavirus pandemic change the communications industry's view of work-from-home? Will old school executives have a change of heart about telecommuting?
"There's always been this big debate for big companies in terms of letting their talent telework and is that something you can make as a policy or is it done one-by-one, if that's even offered at all, particularly in our industry," says Dettman. "Because we are going to be in this situation for a while, I am hoping something long-term that could happen out of this is people see you can get a lot done working from home."
Macdonald agrees that companies will realize people are productive if they are offered flexible hours and can choose to work from home.
"People in comms can do their jobs from wherever they are," she says. "You can still be collaborative. There will be a big shift in terms of more companies going for this."
Laura Macdonald and her kids during some scheduled-in time.