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How to Support Working Parents During an Uncertain Back-to-School Transition

published10 months ago
6 min read

It seems like not long ago, we were optimistic that the end of the pandemic was in sight. But with the rapid surge of the delta variant, it’s clear that this is no longer the case. For working parents, it’s a frustrating turn of events driving what feels like never-ending uncertainty. Many anticipated that schools would resume normal operations this fall, which would have reduced some of their caretaking burden and allowed them to reenter the job market or take on more hours.

But just a few weeks into the school year, the hope for a normal back-to-school season is quickly fading. Already, at least 90,000 children in 19 states have had to quarantine after contracting COVID-19 or coming into contact with someone who tested positive. In a few cases, schools have had to close entirely — and some of the largest districts in the U.S. have not even begun their school year yet.

Pandemic response policies such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which included leave needed to care for children due school and childcare closures, provided some support. However, the act excluded many workers, and it was only mandatory through December 31 of last year. Although private employers were able to voluntarily extend FFCRA paid leave, the optional extension expires on September 30.

While several long-term proposals to support working parents have been put forward in Congress, it will take time for these to be passed into law. And at the state level, there are varying levels of assistance available when it comes to paid leave and childcare resources. For example, roughly two-thirds of the U.S. labor force live in states that have not passed or implemented their own paid leave programs.

In the absence of legislative solutions, employees are turning to their employers for support more than ever before. Most experts agree that there are three key areas companies should focus on if they want to help working parents succeed during this unpredictable time: flexibility, benefits (including paid leave and childcare), and workplace culture.

Flexible work arrangements will remain critical

Earlier in the summer — back when a return to normalcy seemed imminent — most employers said they anticipated a full reopening of their offices no later than this fall. However, these plans have largely been delayed or adjusted due to the delta variant. In fact, a Gartner survey conducted in late August found that 66% of organizations are delaying office re-openings due to COVID-19 variants.

This means that many employees, including those who have children, will continue to enjoy the benefits of being able to work remotely at least part of the time. And there’s no question that remote work has been critical for the retention of working parents during the pandemic. It’s been so successful, in fact, that 62% of working parents say they’ll quit their current job if they can’t continue to work remotely.

However, it’s important to recognize that offering remote or hybrid work arrangements is not the same as offering flexible scheduling. Requiring a strict 9-5 workday or mandating even one or two full days in the office each week can make it extremely difficult for parents to balance the demands of work and home life, especially if they find themselves faced with sudden school or childcare closures.

Instead, employers should offer (or continue to offer) flexible work arrangements if at all possible. This could take on several different forms: you could allow for alternative schedules, permit different start and end times for the workday, or require only half days in the office. Another ideas is to mandate that employees only be online or available during certain “core” hours, a tactic that’s already been adopted at companies like Slack and Dropbox.

Family-friendly benefits will be key for employee retention

While the push for federal paid family leave and childcare policies continues to stall, employers have the opportunity to pave the way by offering better benefits and programs for their workforce. Right now, it’s estimated that only 19% of workers have access to paid leave, and just 15% receive employer-sponsored child care benefits.

With respect to paid leave, there’s no question that this will be a critical benefit for working parents amidst all of the uncertainty surrounding the school year. Already, 3 million women have dropped out of the U.S. labor force, largely due to childcare loss and school closures. And many have said they won’t go back to work until major milestones are reached. For example, an Indeed survey from this summer found that a significant share of unemployed people are waiting for schools to open before they’d consider starting a new job.

A better paid leave program might make some parents reconsider this lack of urgency, but this is nothing new — paid leave has long been associated with employee retention, especially among mothers. For example, U.S. states that implemented paid leave policies saw a 20% reduction in the number of women leaving their jobs in the first year after giving birth — and up to a 50% reduction after five years. When Google extended its extended its paid leave from 12 weeks to 18 weeks a few years ago, attrition among young mothers dropped by 50%.

Beyond offering paid leave, employers can also support parents by making childcare more affordable and convenient, for example by subsidizing care costs or opening an on-site childcare center. For many people, however, what’s perhaps most important right now is that backup childcare options are available when something unexpected comes up (e.g., a last-minute school closure). In a survey by Willis Towers Watson, just 30% of employers said they offer backup childcare, although a similar percentage are considering providing this benefit.

A culture that supports working parents is needed to drive lasting change

Even if your organization already offers a best-in-class paid leave program, childcare benefits, and flexible work arrangements, nothing may come of these efforts if the dominant workplace culture doesn’t value parents and promote work-life balance. Think about the last time an employee at your company needed last-minute childcare — were they treated as an inconvenience and made to feel ashamed, or was their situation approached with empathy and understanding?

The reality is that hostility toward employees who have children remains a pervasive issue in today’s workplace. Recent research from Qualtrics finds that 45% of working parents have been discriminated against at work because of their family responsibilities. Among those in managerial and VP positions, that number was even higher — 54% said they'd experienced discrimination due to familial needs.

There are several ways leaders can promote a more family-friendly work culture. First, it’s important to encourage transparency around caregiving needs at all levels of the organization. Leaders should set the example by being more open about their own challenges as parents, and the difficulties they’ve faced during the pandemic. The experience of working while raising children is a universal one, and executives can do a lot to help normalize this for their people.

Managers should also receive training on how to create a culture that values parenting. For example, it’s important that staff who need to reduce their hours aren’t removed from important team projects or asked to handle only trivial tasks. Similarly, there should be a transition plan in place for those who need to take an extended leave of absence. And both managers and senior leaders can benefit from reevaluating their perspective on performance, to ensure that people are rewarded for the quality of their work and not just the number of hours they put in.

When it comes to creating a family-friendly workplace culture, your employees may be your best resource. If your organization doesn’t already have an Employee Resource Group (ERG) for parents and caregivers, now is a great time to launch one. Not only can ERGs provide a strong support system for parents and help move the needle on a broader cultural shift, but they can also act as a critical resource for leaders who want to do what’s best for their people.

Working parents need everyone's support to get through the next phase of the pandemic

We know very little about how long the delta variant may last, and because of this uncertainty, the 2021 back-to-school transition could be immensely difficult for working parents. If you haven’t already implemented policies and programs to support parents, it’s not too late — and given the challenges we’re already seeing just a few weeks into the new school year, the retention of some of your employees could be at stake.

But even if you have taken steps to better support your staff, it’s a good idea to reflect on whether your workplace culture truly values those who have children. Parents play a key role in our society, and it’s no easy task to balance having a career with raising children — so let’s all commit to working toward a culture that supports and appreciates them.