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Why “flexibility” may be the least helpful thing companies can offer working parents right now

Companies have piled on the perks for parents who are working from home during the pandemic. They should have been focused on systemic change.

Why “flexibility” may be the least helpful thing companies can offer working parents right now
[Illustration: Josh Cochran]
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Over Labor Day weekend, real estate mogul Rob Speyer got a call from an old friend: Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the union that represents New York City’s 75,000-plus educators. Mulgrew had a favor to ask. Could Speyer, through his role as president and CEO of Tishman Speyer, help monitor and improve ventilation in some of the city’s public schools, as he had done across his own commercial real estate portfolio? Good ventilation could reduce the spread of COVID-19 in enclosed spaces like classrooms—and lay the foundation for reopening the schools that serve New York City’s 1.1 million students.

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“Within an hour we had a team mobilized and ready to go,” says Speyer. On a pro bono basis, he started sending Tishman Speyer employees to two of the city’s largest school buildings to check that airflow was at an appropriate level. In addition, Tishman Speyer sourced a domestic supplier that could deliver more than 100,000 MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) filters, currently in high demand across the world, to New York City schools within a short time frame. While the effort would help keep teachers safe, it also presented a potential lifeline for working parents, who had spent the spring struggling to manage their children’s remote learning alongside their own professional obligations. As a landlord with a vested interest in seeing employees return to offices, Speyer understood the importance of reopening New York City schools, which provide childcare as well as education. “We’re doing what we can as citizens,” he says.

Corporate efforts such as Tishman Speyer’s, to lift the fortunes of entire communities, have been few and far between these past several months, which is a shame. Business leaders have an opportunity to alleviate some of the burdens that have fallen on American workers during the pandemic—and put into practice the oft-espoused idea that companies have obligations to stakeholders beyond their investors. More frequently, though, they’ve been focused on simply boosting (or, at least, restoring) the productivity of office workers who are now stuck at home.

Throughout the pandemic, companies have piled on the perks for white-collar employees: They’ve suspended performance reviews, encouraged staffers to take “staycations,” and invested in benefits such as bike sharing, teletherapy, and even virtual magic shows. It would be easy to cast this coddling as a tale of haves and have-nots, given that recent layoffs and furloughs have disproportionately affected blue-collar women. Indeed, for some knowledge workers, such perks may be sufficient to overcome their COVID malaise.

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But it’s not enough for parents—especially working mothers, who are arguably under the greatest pressure right now. More than 2 million women have left the workforce since the start of the year, exposing the long-term strains of balancing work, childcare, and education that cut across nearly every income bracket. Working mothers don’t need bike shares. They certainly don’t need magic shows. They need their companies to act as better corporate citizens and advocate for policies that address the daily needs of parents across the payroll spectrum.


“Most businesses, particularly in the past 40 or 50 years, have been completely brainwashed by this neoliberal notion that families are private, that government is bad, and that the free market can solve everything,” says Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at the New America think tank and author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. “It’s almost as if public policy solutions are this third rail.”

Nowhere is this prevailing assumption more apparent than on the topic of working parents and childcare. Like society writ large, corporate leaders seem to view the challenges that working parents face as individual problems, rather than collective ones. And so, amid the pandemic, they have marshaled every resource imaginable in order to fashion individual solutions. TutorMe, a startup that offers virtual tutoring for school-age children as an employee benefit, saw 30 times the interest from corporate customers in Q3 of this year as it did in Q1. Meanwhile, policy proposals such as universal pre-kindergarten and paid family leave, which have been shown to increase women’s participation in the workforce, have been languishing at the state and federal levels for years, with little corporate support.

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Crisis Point: The Pandemic Has Taken A Toll On Working Mothers At Every Level. Here’s A Look

Sources: Clockwise from far left: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; “State of Working Parents Study,” Cleo; “State of Working Parents Study,” Cleo; Center on Reinventing Public Education; U.S. Department of Labor; “How Is the Coronavirus Pandemic Affecting the Workplace?” SAP/AP-NORC Center Poll

Salesforce, which is renowned for its progressive political stances—in the past, the company has threatened to boycott states hostile to LGBTQ rights—responded to the pandemic by allowing working parents to take six weeks of paid time off. They can also be reimbursed for backup childcare five days a month, at up to $100 per day. At the same time, public schools in San Francisco, where Salesforce is headquartered, remain closed until at least January 2021; learning hubs established by the district to provide parents with childcare have the capacity to serve just 3.3% of students.

The company has no plans to connect the dots between employee productivity and education as a public good. “My role is really to prioritize how we can help our people,” says Abigail Hollingsworth, Salesforce VP of global benefits, when asked about policy engagement. “That’s where our focus is right now. We have to help the folks that we can help more directly.” She points to Salesforce’s well-being surveys as an indicator of the company’s headway. Back in June, just 33% of Salesforce employees with young children said they felt able to balance home and work. As of September, it was 51%.

Not surprisingly, companies’ whack-a-mole approach is showing signs of strain, if not outright collapse. In September alone, 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce, more than four times the number of men, according to the Labor Department. Since June, job growth for married women has decreased by 0.3%, while job growth for single women has increased by 7.6%. McKinsey & Company estimates that the pandemic could erase six years’ worth of progress toward greater representation of women and women of color in senior leadership roles. In other words, employers are failing executive-level working mothers as well as mothers making minimum wage.

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Even when employers do seek to advocate for the collective good, they often miss the point. In New York, for example, most large white-­collar employers are members of the Partnership for New York City, a powerful nonprofit led by longtime president and CEO Kathryn Wylde. As the organization grappled with the evolving coronavirus crisis throughout the spring and summer, the partnership surveyed its members on their priorities. Employers said they were most concerned about health, transit, and childcare, in that order. But when the partnership published its “call to action” for economic recovery, in July, its ideas regarding school and childcare centered around strengthening the city’s online learning capabilities—a solution that would do little to alleviate the dual burden of full-time work and full-time oversight of Zoom-based learning. And indeed, when New York City shuttered schools in November—but still exempted restaurants and gyms—there was barely a peep from corporate leaders. The schools are now on track to reopen, thanks in large part to the work of education advocates.

Employers have been “sympathetic” and focused on “offering flexibility” for working parents, says Wylde. Going forward, she predicts, flexibility will be a permanent part of the workplace. That may have sounded compelling and generous to working parents just six months ago. Now, as they log in early in the morning and late at night, many are starting to see flexibility as another word for burnout.


If there is any good news, it is that a new wave of women business leaders, many of them working mothers, recognize the limitations of the prior generation’s approach. Sarahjane Sacchetti, CEO of family benefits startup Cleo, bluntly states what has been obvious for months to anyone in a parent group chat: “There is no return to work if our kids don’t leave our houses.” C-suites would have realized this simple reality far earlier, she adds, if they “saw more people like me leading these companies.”

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Sacchetti is cautiously optimistic that employers are open to engaging on matters of policy, particularly as the data on women and employment grows more dire and the timelines for reopening schools stretch well into 2021. “People are finally paying attention and realizing that there is no finish line in front of us,” she says. She has been introducing employers to organizations such as PL+US (Paid Leave for the United States), an advocacy group that has been building momentum for paid family leave in state legislatures.

PL+US’s work, ongoing since 2016, is a reminder that working parents are currently experiencing many of the same challenges that they have faced for years, only in a more exaggerated and obvious way. Anxiety and exhaustion defined “normal” for working parents pre-­COVID. This is the moment for corporate America to decide whether anxiety and exhaustion will define working parents’ new normal as well.

About the author

Senior Writer Ainsley Harris joined Fast Company in 2014. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.

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