Thirty-six million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits over the past two months. While these are disproportionately less wealthy Americans, many high-profile companies have been laying off or furloughing their workforce as well, among them major hotel chains, airlines, clothing manufacturers, and retail stores. For those of us still lucky enough to be working, our offices are now co-located with our families. Two questions frequently arise: when will this be over and what will working look like post-COVID-19? While we have little control over the answer to the first question, the second one is important for us, especially employers, to consider. A post-COVID world should reflect what we’ve learned about people and what they need to flourish.
A New Narrative for the Working Parent
One of the narratives that COVID-19 has disrupted is one about working parents, especially professional women/mothers/caretakers. The narrative says that women can wear multiple hats – be power players at work and nurturers at home, and thus live to their full potential. For this to be true, however, women need to be sure that the dual life is indeed worth it. That might be harder than you expect. (A Gallup poll in 2015 showed that 56% of women with kids under 18 would actually prefer to stay at home, if they were free to do so.)
In order for both parents to work outside the household, a decision is needs to be made: is it more valuable to be home with family and forgo a paycheck, or to be out of the home and pursue a career? COVID-19 has made it clear that this choice is not limited to how much we make, but the risk we are undertaking to pursue careers that limit the time spent at home or caretaking for family members. This tension interferes with work quality, timeliness, and worker engagement. These are issues that we research frequently, lumped under “Social Determinants of Health” (SDoH), but they are largely discussed as they relate to the working class, immigrants, and the poor. COVID-19 has shown that it is not limited to these groups at all. In fact, the need for better support for employees/caretakers/women/mothers/fathers crosses race, class, and income levels. Employers need to think critically about how to provide for employees with these needs if they hope to get their workforce back to work, both in body and in mind.
There are two points that I’d like to make related to solving for the upended narrative of working parents. First, when more women work, economies grow, and so does the value of the companies they work for. It is in employers’ best interest to find ways to support women in having careers to add to the value of their organizations. Second, raising children is the most important of several jobs that some women have, but the ability to juggle multiple roles and to create value for employers is dependent upon the ability for mothers (and fathers for that matter) to be certain that their children are in a safe and healthy space and that the value of the work outside the home somehow improves the overall value of the family.
Employers have made significant changes due to COVID-19. This has allowed many to continue working remotely, from the home. Even better, colleagues, employees, and clients have gotten used to hearing the sounds of home life in the background of work calls. It has ripped up the guidebook for parents who work and, shockingly, it hasn’t disrupted work either – or at least not on the surface. Many companies have made the move to telework semi-permanent and others are closing offices and preparing for the office of the future – the home. But what does this mean for parents? Is this the best way to support employees to achieve the greatest value at home and at work?
I argue that it does not address the central thesis of the narrative – the tension of the dual job: wanting to be there for Junior and for the employer.
Parents May Need More than Simple Remote Work Policies
‘Who is watching Junior’ is a central point. Parents who work need more than just the flexibility to choose where to work. They need their children to be in a safe place while they are working, ideally not the same place as they are working. Practically speaking, however, nearly half of licensed childcare centers will likely close within weeks without government funding, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). But, even if childcare facilities reopen, how many parents feel like the second paycheck is not worth the risk? And, for those who do continue to work, what is the plan for the next large health crisis? It seems clear that employers should think carefully about what childcare looks like and to prioritize it just as much as laptops and healthcare for each employee.
Interestingly, this is not the case. In a Greenwald survey conducted with The Insiders, our proprietary benefits broker panel, 64% of brokers said that they and their clients believe that work-at-home policies and supplies are important to reduce business interruption. Only 3% feel that childcare resources and support are important to reduce business interruption.
Work-from-home policies seem to be how companies want to address the upending of the narrative of working parents, but simply providing the option to work from home when one’s children will be underfoot will not create the greatest value for the company, nor for the employee. There need to be better, more creative solutions if employers are to make returning to the workforce attractive. Flexible work arrangements, support for affordable childcare options, and promotion of a culture that supports a healthy life outside the office are all good starts, but I’m anxious to see what other solutions employers invent.
 International Monetary Fund (2018). Pursuing Women’s Economic Empowerment https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/Policy-Papers/Issues/2018/05/31/pp053118pursuing-womens-economic-empowerment
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