Karsten Vagner is the VP of people at Maven Clinic. Opinions are the author's own.
The pandemic pushed working parents to their limits — and some beyond their limits. As of February, 3 million women had left their jobs. For the parents who stayed in their jobs, they had to scale back their hours and many of them experienced burnout. There are few silver linings when it comes to what the past year has looked like for working parents, but there is one that resonates with me as a parent and an HR leader — this was the year supporting parents catapulted to the top of benefits leaders' priority lists.
According to research we conducted with Great Place to Work, nearly 80% of the 1,244 companies surveyed reported that supporting parents was a top benefits priority. We learned a lot by cobbling together emergency response plans last spring, and trying to keep up with the rapid pace of change with schools and child care facilities, over the course of the past year. Now that we're plotting our return to the workplace, we shouldn't lose sight of some of the lessons we learned. There is much about returning to an office that we, as parents and business leaders, will be thrilled to do away with. However, there are a few learnings I hope we keep with us.
Keep talking to parents and getting new data points
The companies that were successful in supporting parents this year were the ones that built their strategies in response to real insights from their parent population. From tapping into parent employee resource groups to surveys to 1:1s, going to the source — and consistently going to them as the pandemic has continued on — has been key. What parents needed in March 2020 is likely different from what they needed in November 2020, which is different from what they need now.
Creating a culture of two-way dialogue can help us as HR leaders ensure we're serving those who need it and fostering trust and loyalty among our employees. But the culture of transparency and trust has to trickle all the way down the leadership structure — the average employee will be speaking to their manager about their needs, not their CEO. Empower managers and people leaders with tools and resources to help parents feel comfortable sharing their needs and challenges.
Revisit flexible work offerings
Flexible work schedules, which nearly 86% of companies surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management offered to abate the child care crisis, should be considered indefinitely for working parents. Working from home gave back family time to many working parents, who would have otherwise spent those precious few hours on the highway, subway or working late at the office.
If you're not currently offering flexible work schedules, consider how they can be implemented. And if you are, consider making them a permanent benefit for your employees, rather than solely part of your offering for new parents. Flexible schedules allow parents to work in the ways that are best for them and their family. With working parents, it's best to focus on results and outcomes rather than hours in the office. Our parents and, in turn, our companies will be better for it.
Normalize the human parts of working
Working from home exposed us to the personal lives of our coworkers, dissolving some of the boundaries that office life forced us to erect. Save for our favorite Zoom backgrounds, we could literally see into each other's houses. We met pets, family members and children. We learned about hobbies, shared cocktails from our bedrooms and living rooms, and even participated in trivia nights. Despite the chaos of the world, and even some of the embarrassment, it brought comfort to us by making work more human.
Parents — myself included — will undoubtedly be relieved to have consistent child care support and school schedules as things return to normal. However, I also predict that many parents will miss the time we got to spend with our families while at home. I, for one, have enjoyed peeking in on my daughter's virtual dance class or having an impromptu family lunch in between meetings and virtual school. Normalize being intentional about making time for family: institute and encourage calendar blocks for child care activities, and make it clear that having a life beyond work is critical to being productive. Show parents that it's okay for kids to make an appearance, whether in the Zoom room or at an in-person company event.
Apply a diversity, equity and inclusion lens to your benefits and policies
Through the pandemic, many of us learned that there's no one-size-fits-all approach to parenting benefits — much like there's no one-size-fits-all approach to parenting. Every parent has unique needs, whether they're a single parent, in a dual-income household, or same-sex couple.
Our benefits should always strive to be as equitable and inclusive as possible, so that regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, or racial background, parents can receive the care and support they need. Equity is crucial here: it's no coincidence that 33% of Black moms are experiencing burnout during the pandemic, compared to 18% of white mothers. Consider how your benefits programs are being utilized by different groups within your organization. Look at engagement numbers among women of color and LGBTQ employees, and don't hesitate to ask them what they need.
"Return to office" is complicated and there is much on HR leaders' minds, from safety protocols to hybrid work arrangements, and everything in between. I hope our learnings about how to support parents remain at the forefront as we design our workplace of the future. This past year has taught us many lessons about what it fundamentally means to be a working parent, and we must continue to put these lessons into practice. A career shouldn't come at the expense of a family — and it's on us to make sure of it.
Correction: A previous version of this piece misidentified the author. HR Dive regrets the error.