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How Your Company Can Better Support Working Parents (and why the current approach won't work)

Dear Employers Everywhere:

Your efforts to support working parents these last few months, while well-intentioned, are increasingly misguided as the pandemic drags on.

Don’t get me wrong; we’ve appreciated working parent supports like employee resource groups, childcare leaves, and flexible schedules. (Even if our child-free colleagues resent it.) These were useful stopgaps in the *short-term* as we navigated the uncertainty of quarantine and virtual learning this spring.

But these solutions are increasingly unsustainable and untenable – both for the organization and for us, your employees.

Just look at two of the most often mentioned working parents supports – paid childcare leave and flexible work hours – and you can start to see the challenges long-term.

1) Childcare leaves are temporary and eventually come to an end. By their nature, childcare leaves are intended to be a temporary solution, not an indefinite employment status.

As the pandemic lingers on, many working parents who requested a leave in the spring to support virtual learning still find themselves with no viable childcare or in-person schooling. At least 35 of the 50 largest school districts opted to educate students virtually this fall. Even with modifications from the spring, this new normal continues to require much more time and involvement from parents.

Without major changes, working parents – and primarily working mothers – will not be able to return to full-time work as they continue to shepherd their kids' learning in Google Classroom.

Also – to get down to brass tacks – if your organization offers paid childcare leave, how long can you realistically afford to sustain that cost?

2) Flexible schedules still operate in a universe with only 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week. Unless and until working parents can bend the space-time continuum, there remain only so many hours in a week.

This means that working parents with increased life and home responsibilities must “make up” missed work hours somewhere outside of the 9 to 5. More often than not, this means finishing up work at the expense of sleep. While only 3-4 hours of sleep per night might be fine once in a while, continuously burning the candle at both ends is a recipe for burnout.

For organizations, this chronic lack of sleep isn’t just an employee-level sustainability issue. When employees sleep less, they also have significantly lower productivity and performance at work too.

Something’s got to give if you want to retain your working parents - especially working mothers, who are already dropping out of the workforce at startling rates.

As a leader in the HR space for more than a decade, I know all too well that our default response in organizations is to ADD MORE stuff in the hopes something will help.

  • Organize an employee resource group.

  • Create flexible schedules.

  • Host a one-time training.

  • Offer a childcare leave.

We ADD MORE accommodations, policies, new ways of working (remote work, flexible hours or days, etc.)

But this "Pile On" approach, as I call it, does little to alter the fundamental amount of work on a working parent’s – or any employee’s – plate.

If anything, it creates one more thing (or series of things) for a working parent to manage and ADDS to an already overflowing plate beyond the “real work” you are paying them to do.

I personally don’t need even one extra thing right now. Do you?

Now, I want to make this crystal clear; I'm not necessarily against added benefits for working parents and employees in this moment. Many of the resources in the Pile On approach are, in fact, quite helpful.

But by overlooking the actual day-to-day work of your employees, you squander a huge opportunity to be more efficient and make sustainable change for your employees and your organization as a whole.

There is a better way.

What if, instead of adding more, you looked more closely at the professional (and even personal) work that’s already on employee’s plates and consider how to lighten that load?

To do that, you need to be willing to ask a different question:

What can we REMOVE from our working parent’s plates during this time? (Frankly – this makes sense for all employees, not just working parents.)

As an employer, you have the power to reduce the burden on working parents. Employees will remember how you treat them in this moment. Your actions now will have repercussions on your recruitment and retention for years to come.

In this moment, removing work from working parents' plates might look like:

1) Reducing or eliminating unnecessary work. You could:

  • Cancel or shorten nonessential meetings so employees could complete work during the day

  • Place a moratorium on written performance evaluations and use in-the-moment coaching instead

  • Create templates or easy-to-follow systems for repeat tasks – like invoicing, agendas, proposals, etc. – that everyone can use

  • Automate data reports or create dashboards that update automatically

  • Ask employees for recommendations of work that can be streamlined or dropped without compromising organizational priorities

2) Decreasing the mental load working parents are carrying right now – which hits working moms especially hard. You could:

  • Offer streamlined resources to address limited school or childcare options – like back up childcare, tutoring services, or child or eldercare subsidies

  • Create a "How to Use Your Benefits" 1-2 pager - which lists out available benefits and how employees can apply/access them

  • Designate at least one day per week as meeting-free. Make it the same day(s) each week

  • Contract a virtual assistant-type service employees could delegate key tasks to, like Villo or TaskRabbit

3) Readjusting your own expectations of what’s realistic right now. You could:

  • Slim down your organizational priorities or adjust timelines and targets

  • Say no or not now to new opportunities not aligned to those slimmed down organizational priorities

  • Focus on employee results and deliverables not hours spent working each week. In fact, working more hours makes you less productive

  • Ditch the expectation that employees be available 24/7/365

Real talk:

When I suggest reducing work or changing expectations, you may get jittery and feel real pressure to hit certain targets and numbers. I get it. But what's the alternative? Overworking your best employees to the point of burnt out? I can guarantee you that having to spend time hiring and training new employees will surely leave you in a worse position.

Let's also push back on the idea that every activity you require at the moment is value-added and contributing equally to your goals. You can ruthlessly axe the things that don't matter and still achieve your goals. In fact, it will make it easier to do so without all the extraneous work.

By now we all recognize that navigating the impacts of COVID is an Ironman, not a sprint. It’s unclear exactly where the finish line will be. But what is clear is that working parents can't continue on the current path we're on. We need your help and support.

What can you take off of working parents' plates today?


Exhausted Working Parents Everywhere


Danielle Pickens is the Founder & CEO of The Working Parent’s Guide, a coaching and consulting practice on a mission to reimagine working parenthood – both how we do it and how we view it. She offers her individual and organizational clients practical guidance and deep expertise in designing burnout-free career opportunities, simplifying the tasks of day-to-day life, and learning to do less to do better. In her spare time, Danielle also serves as the Chief Program Officer for a national education and talent nonprofit, the Urban Schools Human Capital Academy.

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