Inside: Seven ways employers can support working parents as they manage through the pandemic into the school year ahead.
Like parents across the country right now, I’m stressed out.
If you were to look at my recent internet browsing history you would find a whole lot of searches on “back to school, yea or nay?” (And one search about a possible *NSYNC Reunion.) My curiosity about whether JC and Justin are still friends aside, my main concern at the moment is about what this fall is going to look like because I know these decisions are going to impact all of our lives in a huge way.
Will my son start kindergarten remotely, and what will that mean for his education and mental health? What if I’m not enough for him?
Will my daughter’s preschool stay open, and if so how many days can she be there? Would a part-time schedule be better for her and for her teachers?
Are the teachers going to have the supplies and support they need to be in classrooms with walking talking Petri dishes all day?
If schools shut down, how am I going to manage full-time childcare, schooling, and work again? That was already hard but the PreK curriculum was very optional. Kindergarten, not so much.
The list goes on.
Working Parents are Stressed, Including Teachers
Here’s the thing about all these questions and stresses. I’m very lucky.
I have a job I can do from home and so does my husband. We live in a part of the country where COVID cases have declined dramatically. Daycare reopened and we had the option to send our kids part-time while my mom helps out on the other days. My work is flexible and I can get it done on my own time because I have a supportive team and managers who have utilized many of the strategies I’m listing below. So if I’m stressed while sitting on cushy island right now, that says a lot about how others must be feeling.
With all this stress we’re feeling comes a barrage of emotions and words that don’t always come out so nicely. The debate around what schools should and shouldn’t be doing is getting ugly and I know it comes from a place of concern for the kids, but we have to cool our jets a bit. We also need to stop asking schools to be the only ones getting creative about how to make this all work. Many of the teachers are working parents trying to figure this out too.
We ask a lot of our school systems, and they pull through. They care for our children, protect our children, feed our children, and teach our children. I know as a nonteacher I don’t ask nearly the same from my employer. I doubt any of us do. But right now we need to start asking.
7 Ways Employers Can Support Working Parents Right Now
So what do working parents need to make the very real possibility of remote learning this fall manageable? What are we asking for that will help prevent more working mothers from dropping out of the workforce and mitigate the disastrous healthcare situation we are in? I have seven suggestions.
My list of solutions for employers to support working parents is not comprehensive, I know that. There are no silver bullets to fix this situation at work, but there are ideas. Ideas that may work for a university, but not for a restaurant. And vice versa. Ideas that could work for a manufacturing plant, but not for a family-owned bookshop. And vice versa.
However, my hope is that this can serve as a jumping point for this important conversation and inspire more ideas and more action. We need fewer conversations about “something” needing to be done and more doing.
That lengthy list of disclaimers aside, and opening myself up to additional ideas and what I know will be very valid criticisms, let’s dive in.
1. Work from Home
Since the start of the pandemic, 58% of American workers whose jobs are are focused on handling information have been working from home. To give this some context, that’s up from 5% in 2017. That makes sense because if your job can be completed remotely, it should be as the need for social distancing continues.
While some companies are bringing workers back to the office in parts of the country, it’s critical for employers to think about whether or not that’s truly necessary. There are numerous company benefits for work from home including lower maintenance costs, more efficient communication, and good PR. Then there are the benefits to employees, and for our purposes, working parents in particular. Cutting commutes to nothing reduces the need for before and after school care and allows parents the ability to be physically present for kids if they are doing school remotely. Plus work from home has been found to increase happiness and overall productivity which furthers the case for our next suggestion.
Long story short, if work from home is a possibility and employees have continued to be productive and effective from home during this intense and impossible time, companies should consider letting them stay there!
2. Flexible Hours
Is it critical that employees get their work done between the hours of 8am and 5pm? For some roles, yes, it’s critical. For many others, not so much. If work can get done at any point during the day, employers should think about trusting their employees and not holding them to a clock.
With flexible hours employees can manage school drop off and pick up without asking for even more time from teachers and childcare workers. When schools are closed or kids are home due to a hybrid schedule, parents can be with their kids for chunks of the day without panicking that they aren’t in front of their computers at 3pm. The extra work that might be missed can then be picked early in the morning or later in the evening. It’s what many of us have been doing for months and the show goes on.
Is this nonstop work life ideal? Not at all. Is not having all of your employees available for a 4pm meeting ideal? Nope. But we’re in a pandemic. Nothing is ideal. So let’s try to get creative and flexible so that we support working parents and don’t push them out of their jobs entirely.
3. Results-Focused Versus Face Time Focused
Now here’s where we really need employers to step up to support working parents, and ultimately help all employees. Work from home is great, flexible work is great, but the best option is being results-focused versus being face time focused.
What does this look like in practice? It’s companies not caring if their employees are clocking in 40 hours a week. Instead, they care more about what results employees are producing. Let’s say Sandra is incredibly efficient with her time and can crush her to-do list in 5 hours a day instead of 8. Awesome! Employers would want 100 Sandras on their team! So, instead of monitoring the amount of time Sandra’s backside is on her desk chair, employers should trust Sandra, acknowledge Sandra, and pay Sandra for her contributions, not her hours.
Does this solve for every type of company? Certainly not. For one out of the two parents in this house it does though. If your employer operates more like my husband’s and hour tracking is important because of contracts, think about the suggestions below.
4. Sick Time for Dependent Care
Paid Time Off (PTO) is different in every company. For those that split out PTO between vacation and sick time, sick time is often reserved for when the employee is sick or their dependent is sick. Some people run through their sick time quickly, and others are fortunate enough to have lots of sick time banked.
If the latter is true, companies could let employees use sick time to care for children when everyone is well. We’re in the middle of a health pandemic, and employees have earned that time, so caring for dependents a few hours a week seems like a perfectly acceptable use of sick time. Hours accounted for, employees paid.
Why not just use vacation time? Employees might be out of vacation time because they had to use it earlier in the year when school was closed. Or they might not get much vacation time to begin with. Or they simply want to be able to keep some vacation time available for time off in the future. Time off from work is important for employees’ mental and physical health too. So, this flexibility of how PTO is used can be very helpful.
5. PTO Donation Programs
PTO is great when it’s offered, but what if you don’t have any left? In a PTO Donation Program, other employees can donate their banked vacation or sick time to colleagues who need it.
So for example, Janelle has been with the company for a decade, banked more PTO than she will use this year, or maybe ever, and faces actually losing her earned time. Meanwhile, Alex is trying to juggle remote school and work, has hit their available PTO limit, and is left with no other options. Janelle decides to donate her unused time into a general pool of PTO to support her colleagues. Alex requests PTO from this pool so that they can manage through the next couple of months. The company gets to keep Alex who is a phenomenal employee and asset to the team.
It’s people helping people! Plus when employees take PTO it can save the company money. I know my organization has encouraged us to use PTO for this very reason. The math is a little complicated, but you can read more about it here.
The next argument is that someone is going to need to cover Alex’s work while she’s out though. That’s fair. So maybe employers help out Alex in a different way, like our next suggestion.
6. Childcare Assistance Programs
With daycare closed or with limited availability/hours, working parents are looking for different solutions. The same is true for parents with young school aged children who will need care when school is closed. One option is hiring a nanny or babysitter who can provide 1:1, or 1:2, 3, 4, or 5 care right in your home while limiting exposure.
This idea definitely works as we face COVID-19 because it creates reduced group sizes and the environment is more controlled. However, it’s also an expensive option. Not everyone can afford to hire in home help, most people can’t! So instead of relying on underfunded schools to take on the childcare role, employers can look at their own funding and see what can be allocated for childcare scholarships.
Let’s play this one a little further to see how it makes dollars and sense to invest some money into helping employees with childcare costs. If an employee is forced to leave his job because going to work will cost his family more money than paying for childcare, then the employer is going to need to replace that person. On average, a company spends $4,000 to replace an employee and the process takes about a month. Multiply that out by the dozens of employees a company could lose and I think you’re picking up what I’m putting down.
Remember, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a line item on the budget that carries over for years. It would be great if it did, but even if this is a short term investment it could have long term benefits for both PR and retention.
7. Job Sharing
We’re rolling now with our creative solutions, so let take a step even further outside of the box and talk about job sharing.
Job sharing is when two people work on a part-time or reduced-time basis to perform a job normally held by one person working full-time. The employer benefits because the work gets done while having two brains working on it, which you know what they say about two heads! The employees benefit by having a reduced schedule and more flexibility in their lives for other things, childcare for instance.
With a greater need for childcare at home, job sharing can help working parents stay at their jobs in some capacity and continue building their careers during this crisis. Plus, unlike some of our other solutions, job share is helpful for those roles that require employees to be physically present (teachers for example.) Like the other solutions we’ve discussed, job share arrangement can also help employers get to keep highly valued employees and showcase how they are a great place to work for working parents.
Again, perfect? No. Job share at the individual level means less income and potentially a loss of benefits so this option could be off the table. And for the employer, they are now managing two people instead of one and there are overhead costs to consider. But remember, we’re tossing out creative ideas and figuring out what could work. Doing nothing is not an option.
Employers, Working Parents Need Your Support
I could have written this same list of ways employers could support working parents last year and it would have been important and relevant then. Honestly, I should have written this post last year instead of spending so much time on that one article about chasing a bat out of our basement. But I wrote it now because we’ve moved onto a place of necessity.
Working parents need help right now. And let’s face it, because of the gender wage gap working mothers in particular need help right now. Mothers are at a higher risk of leaving the workforce during this pandemic and the progress women have made in the world of work is progress we can’t afford to dial back. We also can’t ask the schools to fix all of this, not on their own. It’s not a fair division of labor.
Instead, we need to advocate for solutions in all of our workplaces, and we need employers to step up and answer the call. What do we want? Support and action. When do we want it? And when do we need it? Now.