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5 fundamental steps to supporting (and retaining) working parents

Working parents still face an intense struggle caregiving while operating remotely. This is how managers can show their commitment.

5 fundamental steps to supporting (and retaining) working parents
[Photo: Fuse/iStock]
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Earlier this week I was on a video call with the executive team at Mailchimp, and my youngest daughter Jane woke up crying. I turned off video, put on headphones, and balanced my laptop on her changing table so I could pay attention to the meeting while I got her back to sleep. As I was bouncing and shushing her over the noise machine, Zoom kept reminding me I was on mute, and I just hoped no one would ask me a question.

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Jane eventually fell asleep. I tiptoed back to my desk and turned the video on as if nothing had happened. In that moment, like so many moments, I felt equal parts chaotic and capable. That’s a glimpse of every day for many parents right now: We’ve become incredibly efficient multitaskers, but we’re hanging on by a thread.

We’ve been doing this since March. With a new year now upon us, it’s all sunken in a little deeper. Parents are supposed to be packing lunches, greeting kids at the bus stop, and getting ready for school concerts. But we’re teachers’ assistants now too. Our homes are offices and classrooms and playgrounds.

We also know the childcare crisis that’s been compounded by COVID-19 is going to negatively impact women more than men. McKinsey estimates millions of women are considering leaving the workforce, and women’s jobs are an estimated 1.8 times more at risk due to COVID-19 than men’s jobs. This is partly because women more often carry the childcare burden, and partly because women, especially Black and Latina women, are more likely to work in industries disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. In many such industries, workers are not afforded an option to work from home.

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Nobody knows when all schools will be open, and many daycares and preschools are closing permanently. As in-home childcare becomes more common, many parents won’t be able to afford it, putting lower-income families at an even greater disadvantage. This situation is untenable, and if nothing changes, women will drop out of the workforce in record numbers. This has already started to happen.

It all sounds hopeless, but there are tangible ways businesses can help. When there is not enough government support to go around, the onus unfortunately falls to employers to help people through this time. Companies that get this right have an opportunity to improve their employees’ lives during a universally difficult time, make a positive impact, and create a competitive advantage for years to come.

Offer benefits as simple as a relaxed schedule

Working parents need flexibility and financial support. Support can come in the form of childcare benefits, time off for caregivers, or even a work-from-home stipend for all employees.

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Of course, this pandemic is hard on everyone. As you think through the challenges parents are facing, consider benefits that would help all employees. More companies are offering emergency sick leave, additional PTO, and mental health benefits such as therapy sessions. These benefits can help your employees who are taking care of family members, struggling with isolation or other mental health issues, facing financial challenges as a result of the pandemic, or dealing with major life changes.

For businesses that are struggling right now and can’t offer much financial assistance, there are other ways to offer time and flexibility. Managers can offer a temporarily reduced schedule, set quiet or no-meetings hours, or introduce part-time roles or job-sharing opportunities.

Be deliberate in crystallizing the “new normal”

With many people working from home for the foreseeable future, leaders must set new norms for internal communications. Now is the time to audit the meetings happening across the company. Standing meetings without a clear purpose or agenda need to go. Also, take a look at the length of meetings; we’ve all sat through hour-long calls that could have been 15 minutes (or simply an email). Try recording meetings so people can review important information later, without having to worry about failing to log on.

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In meetings, don’t pressure people to turn their cameras on. Even if you’re fine with kids running around in the background, parents may be uncomfortable with it—maybe they’re setting someone up for virtual learning or changing a diaper. Maybe they didn’t have one spare second to put on real clothes this morning. Or maybe they’re just tired of being on camera and need a break.

Overcommunicate

One of the biggest mistakes leaders make during times of crisis is going silent once the initial shock is over. The pandemic is not over, and employees are still worried. Increase the frequency and transparency of your communications. Consider adding new channels such as video messages, “Ask Me Anything” sessions, and daily or weekly company-wide updates. You won’t always have the words. When you don’t know what to say, it may be a good time to check in with employees and follow their lead.

Do a listening tour or send a simple survey. Ask employees how the pandemic has impacted their lives. You may end up with insights that validate what you were expecting, or you may find some surprises.

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At Mailchimp, we surveyed the entire company and learned that parents were nervous about sending their kids to school in person and struggling to balance virtual learning at home. We also learned that employees appreciated the time off we provided but didn’t feel like they could use it without the work piling up. With that information, we were able to follow up directly with managers to help employees balance their schedules.

Foster a community of support

No matter the size of your company, there are plenty of simple (and free) ways to create communities for parents in your workplace. If you have an Employee Resource Group for parents, give them the resources to host discussions and gather feedback. Invite speakers to talk about parenting while working from home or start a chat group for the parent community. Our “#parents-at-mailchimp” Slack channel is a mix of questions and advice, and lots of adorable photos.

Leaders who have kids should be open about parenthood to the extent that they’re comfortable. This is a powerful way to connect with employees and make them feel supported. Let your teams know when you’re taking time off to spend with your family, or put it on your public calendar. Talk about the challenges you’re facing as you manage your kids’ schedules and your own. Sponsor the Employee Resource Group for parents, or mentor someone who is balancing parenting during a pandemic with a growing career.

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Trust in your working parents

You don’t have to lower your expectations—working parents can still be productive (most of us are used to doing a million things at once), but this shift is going to require new ways of working and a lot more asynchronous collaboration. It’s also going to require thoughtful and compassionate leadership.

A survey from theBoardlist and Qualtrics found that dads are 3 times as likely as moms to get a promotion while working from home during the pandemic. Challenge your own assumptions and biases: When you know a mom has young kids at home, do you hesitate to give her more responsibility? Do you have the same feelings about a dad of young kids, or do you assume he’s got childcare covered? We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, but all those conversations are only as good as the practices they inspire.

And if you really want to support working parents, offer long-term benefits that will improve their lives after the pandemic is over, starting with paid parental leave. Until everyone has access to paid time off to care for their families without fear of losing their jobs, employers need to fill in the gaps.

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COVID-19 and the resulting childcare crisis will cause a devastating setback for women in the workplace, and companies have a responsibility to try to counter the effects. It’s not only the right thing to do—it’s an opportunity to build your workforce for the future. Parents make your workplace stronger. You don’t want to lose them.


Kate Kiefer Lee is the chief communications officer at Mailchimp, where she leads the company’s PR, employee and strategic communications, and its corporate citizenship teams. She is the coauthor of the book, Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose and has spoken about writing and corporate communications at conferences around the world.