The pandemic continues to affect schools, daycare centers and other family support systems, meaning employers face ongoing pressure to provide support for workers' families, particularly in the form of scheduling flexibility, child care subsidies and other benefits.
At The Home Depot, it has not been difficult to convince leadership that benefits like backup dependent care, provider databases and paid paternity leave benefits are worthy of investment, Debbie McKinley, HR vice president of the company's U.S. stores and international operations, said during a virtual event held Oct. 30 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
"It's honestly not hard," McKinley said. "Our stores, our products, our company is only as good as our associates are, and so we believe we serve our front-line associates first."
Research in September by consulting firm Willis Towers Watson, which found that 74% of employer respondents said supporting working parents was a "top priority" during the pandemic, appeared to indicate most employers realize that child care issues can spill over into the workplace — as well as their talent pools. The Chamber of Commerce found in August that employers were about as likely to pinpoint child care for preventing employees from fully returning to work in the past year as health and safety issues.
Yet for some, support for working parents has come not only in the form of leave, compensation and subsidies, but also cultural shifts. At Maryland-based Adventist Health Care, some of the most notable parent-friendly strides are being made on video calls.
"People had really tried to separate work and family for the longest period of time, and at some point during this pandemic, it became acceptable for a child to be playing in the background, or a toddler to be curled up on your lap," said Nicole D'Uva, associate vice president of employee health and LifeWork strategies at Adventist. "For me, that was actually a turning point in the respect and engagement I had for this organization."
Having empathy and understanding for the difficulties workers faced at home has helped to shift the way Adventist's supervisory model operates these days, D'Uva said. Similar descriptions have been used by other employers when explaining their initiatives during the pandemic, such as virtual summer camps.
Even though its employees faced rising patient volumes in recent months, providing subsidized or free child care enabled Adventist to increase the level of care it could provide to patients. "It was really a no-brainer that we had to alleviate the question for employees of, do I serve the community or do I take care of my children?," D'Uva said.
The need to serve communities is also familiar to Home Depot, said McKinley, given the chain's experience operating during times of crisis and natural disasters. The company's stores were classified as essential businesses during the pandemic. But to carry out that mission, McKinley said the company gave front-line workers "complete discretion" on their availability to work. In some cases, that meant workers who usually worked the day shift moved to the night shift.
"Families are feeling pressure for juggling work, school, safety … it becomes almost messy and confusing at times," she added. That observation led Home Depot's HR team to organize its child care resource center to ensure parents could find options that best fit their personal needs. "I think that's been very well received."
But not all employers are able to offer the same level of benefits or support to employees. Financial fears could play a role, McKinley said, but Home Depot has found that taking care of associates ends up taking care of customers in the long run. "For other organizations, that feels very risky if that's not your internal culture," she added. "But … if they take care of their people, they drive retention, they drive their associates bringing their best selves to work, they drive productivity by actually backing up and taking care of their associates' needs."
Additionally, not all cultural initiatives need to be expensive. "It's not an all or nothing," D'Uva said. "There are activities that are essentially free to an organization."
Adventist, for example, leveraged its employee assistance program that had already been providing child care resources and information to employees early on in the pandemic to direct them to services they could take advantage of themselves, she added. "I encourage you to think of the resources that you already have at your disposal."