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Trading School Supply Lists for Flexibility, Agility, Compassion and Resilience

The Staples back-to-school television commercial has brought smiles to millions of parents in the United States for years. A father skips through the aisles of the office supply store, gleefully adding staplers, Post-It notes, pencil sharpeners and pencils to a cart of supplies while his two school-aged children follow miserably behind. And it’s all set to the tune of Andy Williams’s holiday smash, It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

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This clever, annual commercial ushered in a new school year that welcomed daily routine and structure to family homes. But this year, nearly 25 years after its premier, many employers and parents are starting the 2020-21 school year with anxiety, hesitation and mixed perspectives. Notebooks and lunchboxes are replaced with a more grown-up supply list for working parents from their employers that includes flexibility, agility, compassion and resilience.

Nearly 10 months since the first cases were reported in the United States, COVID-19 continues to disrupt societal institutions, and parents continue to wrestle with balancing the demands of an uncertain school year for their children with demands from their own work.

Childcare needs have prevented many parents from working during the pandemic, according to an analysis by Goldman Sachs economists David Choi and Joseph Briggs. “Single parents, workers that cannot work from home, those with children with special needs, and parents with young children are most at risk of not working due to child care needs,” the analysis found, estimating that 30% of the pre-virus labor force has children at home, and roughly 24 million workers (15% of the labor force) are in at least two of those three cited situations.

The Issue

Long before COVID-19, many employers instituted flexible work arrangements, caregiving programs and leave policies intended to support employees with dependent care needs. Many of these benefits became a fundamental part of the employee value proposition (EVP) and total rewards portfolio that helped attract, retain and engage key talent by offering greater work/life balance and integration. In turn, this has led to greater well-being and higher, more sustainable engagement (50% of employees reported being highly engaged in companies that frequently allow flexible work, versus 33% without flexible work). Generally, this leads to greater productivity.

When the global pandemic struck, organizations quickly moved employees to work-from-home arrangements when possible (approximately two-thirds of employees around the world were working remotely as of June 2020, compared to 11% prior to the pandemic) and assessed the needs of essential workers who were required to remain onsite. With simultaneous school and childcare closures, parent-employees in both settings were saddled with the added responsibilities of caregiving and remote learning. This placed greater pressure on employers to double-down on their commitments to the well-being of working parents in order to maintain engagement and productivity.

According to a series of Willis Towers Watson surveys conducted during 2020, many employers responded to the demands on working parents in the early months of the pandemic:

  • 87% offer (or are considering offering) flexible work hours to allow employees to address childcare or elder care responsibilities (2020 COVID-19 Benefits Survey)
  • 42% of companies offered (or considered offering) voluntary unpaid leave of absence for interested employees (Managing Costs and Pay Practices)
  • 37% offered (or considered offering) voluntary alternative work arrangements to interested employees at reduced pay (e.g. shortened work week, extra PTO for 2021) (Managing Costs and Pay Practices)
  • 50% of employers continued to pay salaried employees and 48% continued to pay hourly employees who could not work from home and whose child’s school/childcare was shut down. (Managing Costs and Pay Practices)
  • Nearly two-fifths of employers provided shift flexibility to employees with additional childcare responsibilities (Talent Implications Survey)
  • 26% subsidized emergency childcare for employees who are required to work during this pandemic (2020 COVID-19 Benefits Survey)
  • 81% have or are considering training managers on promoting the importance of flexibility to employees’ needs and challenges related to the COVID-19 restrictions (e.g., managing children at home) (2020 COVID-19 Benefits Survey)
  • Nearly 1/4 of employers suggested use of PTO, including creating a negative balance. (2020 COVID-19 Benefits Survey)

Despite these efforts to support working parents, many employees found the responsibilities to be both overwhelming and unsustainable. By the end of March, among parents with children under the age of 18, 57% of mothers and 32% of fathers said their mental health was worse because of the pandemic, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

As parents strive to keep pace with the constant change at work and at home, they need family-friendly programs, practices and stated policies that support the multiple roles of employee, parent, teacher and childcare provider. Just as importantly, they also need a sense of support from across the organization in the form of flexibility, agility, compassion and resilience.

For organizations, this means:

  • Creating a culture in which leaders, managers and colleagues consistently acknowledge the challenges and balance of working, parenting and schooling from home
  • Demonstrating empathy and psychological safety
  • Recognizing the dignity that comes with flexible work by providing employees choice and control over how and when work is done
  • Fostering inclusive experiences for working parents via virtual collaboration and team dynamics
  • Prompting well-being discussions on topics such as stress, sleep, self-care and resiliency, as well as from physical, financial, emotional and social angles
  • Being mindful of the working-parent experience overall.

Providing What Working Parents Really Need

Prior to the pandemic, 65% of employers indicated that they provided family-friendly benefits (including flexible work arrangements, caregiving and leave policies) because they align with corporate strategy, mission and desired culture, according to Willis Towers Watson’s “2020 Emerging Trends in Health Care Survey.” Today, companies demonstrate a deeper commitment to employees by adapting their organizational culture and programs to support working parents through the four components of culture: mindset, behaviors, enablers and experience.  (see figure 1)

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Figure 1: Culture Definition and Model

Clarify the Company Mindset

Company mindset defines the underlying principles, values and beliefs that express why a company does what it does. Align the company’s overall mindset and values associated with agility, dignity, respect, nonjudgment and inclusion. Support values by asking working parents what they need through pulse surveys, virtual focus groups, interviews and other listening strategies. Connect the physical, financial, emotional and social well-being of working parents to productivity.   

Leverage Leadership Behaviors

Advance the statements, actions and perceptions of company leaders and their impact on employees and teams. Behaviors are the “how,” framing how leaders and managers support others by:

  • Acknowledging the challenges associated with school and daycare closures.
  • Demonstrating compassion to all employees (including those without dependent caregiving needs who step up to help).
  • Creating psychological safety to encourage employee voice.
  • Demonstrating agility and flexibility.
  • Encouraging innovative ways of working.
  • Showing vulnerability when they themselves are affected by the uncertainty, stress and concern of managing work and home.
  • Demonstrating a sense of humanity during challenging times.
  • Fostering trust to increase engagement and drive change.

“Now, more than ever, it's important to lead with empathy and care. We're navigating through very uncertain times and, for many of us, that means finding a balance between our responsibilities at work and our responsibilities as caregivers,” says Jennifer Young, Head of Human Resources at TD Bank. “The stress of the unknown can have a big impact on our well-being — especially as parents begin sending their children back to school, and workplaces begin their return from remote. We need to challenge ourselves to be adaptable, flexible and creative, and also give ourselves some grace. Collectively, we're all feeling the effects of the pandemic and the more support we show one another, the better we can adjust to our new normal.”

Provide Enabling Programs to Support Working Parents

Leverage company programs, policies and practices that allow working parents to balance work and home responsibilities. Organization design, talent management, total rewards and work environment all demonstrate the “what,” and ways a company’s tangible assets align with and reinforce the culture while also creating greater sustainability for its people.

Programs that enable support for working parents tend to take two forms:

  • Flexible, work-related programs that (in a supportive and accepting way) allow employees to balance work and nonwork responsibilities during a period of constant change and uncertainty
  • Enhanced caregiving resources and benefits.

Assess the Employee Experience

Develop an understanding of working parents by measuring culture that supports employees through daily touchpoints and moments that matter. Assess the experience through ongoing listening strategies to understand what matters most, what is working and what gaps still exist.

“Whether it’s being ultra-flexible with work arrangements, providing extra paid and unpaid time off, offering online stretch and yoga breaks and sessions and access to experts on managing stress, sleep and mental health, we’re doing everything we can to help our employees balance their work and personal lives,” said Susan Cicco, MassMutual Head of Human Resources & Employee Experience. “Active listening has been taken to a whole new level during the pandemic and is inclusive of one-on-one and team talks, employee surveys, virtual all-employee meetings, business resource group sessions, and other means. Truly listening and hearing what employees need has been a ‘life line’ through this most unusual time to help inform plans and decisions so that our employees are supported during a stressful time where their home and work lives are blended more than ever.” 

Communicate Company Commitment to Working Parents

Throughout the pandemic, purpose-driven organizations and leaders have communicated frequently and with transparency. This has created a sense of trust and support and conveyed the company commitment to the health and well-being of its workforce. In turn, it has fostered a healthy company culture that is very much needed — and valued — during this time. 

What Employers Can Do Today

Employers can support employees — both working parents and those without children at home — by:

  • Using employee listening strategies to understand employee needs. This includes short surveys and focus groups (including employee resource groups) to identify concerns and where the greatest support is needed/wanted. Needs may vary by job function (including essential workers, those required to be onsite and those working from home), location, pay grade and demographic. While employers may not be able to address all needs, creating a platform to be heard is a key step and is appreciated by employees.
  • Demonstrating leader support for the challenges that pandemic-related school and daycare models create for working parents and nonparents. Create opportunities to show leadership awareness, advocacy and compassion. Ensure managers are equipped to effectively manage teams with working parents — and that they, too, feel supported if/when they face similar challenges. Leader and manager support (and training) must be tangible and go beyond communication and crafted messages alone.
  • Conducting a benefits review to assess current programs, practices and policies that enable working parents to create the right balance for optimal well-being. Identify opportunities to bolster leave policies and caregiving solutions, and consider enhanced caregiving benefits (in addition to virtual care, onsite care and concierge service support) that may include EAP resources and referrals, backup childcare benefits, discounts at onsite/near-site childcare centers and employer-sponsored subsidies.
  • Encouraging innovation around ways to get work done, such as flexible work-related programs that allow working parents to balance work and nonwork responsibilities. These can include flexible work hours that span the 24-hour cycle, compressed workweeks, flexible coverage models and roles (e.g., reduced schedules, job sharing), and flexible leave models.
  • Aligning company actions — including solutions and outcomes — to broader talent, pay, performance management, benefit, inclusion and diversity, well-being, healthy company culture strategies, sustainability efforts, and the EVP.
  • Communicating frequently about well-being, with a focus on flexibility, agility, compassion and resilience. Convey that the organization understands the needs of both parent and nonparent employees — and recognize that healthy employees make a healthy company. Such communication represents the top practice cited by companies in Willis Towers Watson’s "2020 Reopening the Workplace: Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey."

When the children in the 1996 Staples commercial reluctantly trailed their father down the aisle, they likely weren’t imagining what it would mean to shop for their own children during a global pandemic 24 years later. Yet, here they are, trading erasers for flexibility, staplers for agility, safety scissors for compassion and glue sticks for resilience. There’s a metaphor here. Leading employers understand this — and they’re ready to supply that list.

About the Author

John Bremen Bio Image

John M. Bremen is managing director, human capital & benefits, and global head of thought leadership and innovation, Willis Towers Watson. 

Amy Levant Bio Image

Amy DeVylder Levanat is senior director, human capital & benefits, Willis Towers Watson. 


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