Working parents can’t hold out much longer: the time for HR to take bold action is now
While some of the US economy is reopening and employees in selected states are slowly getting back to work, for many working parents combining their remote work with childcare and other household responsibilities is a burning issue that is not going away any time soon.
How can we as HR leaders help employees overcome the exhaustion they are experiencing and take advantage of the resources available, without the fear of being penalized down the line? What can companies do to prevent a mass exodus of working parents and, in particular, to keep working women in the workforce?
As Nua Group and Après explore answers to some of these questions in the Workplace Reboot report, Nua Group Partner Elizabeth Scott and Après CEO and Co-author of "Your Turn: Career, Kids and Comebacks - a Mother's Guide"book Stacey Delo, both working mothers, are discussing how they are managing their work and the needs of their family, the purpose of the Workplace Reboot survey, the findings in the report that they found most surprising and the steps HR leaders should take in order to collectively create a better future for working parents.
We are living in extraordinary times - what has your personal experience of working from home during the Shelter in Place been like?
Elizabeth: It’s been really hard! As a dual career family, we struggled with the right balance of homeschooling and work, not to mention cooking and cleaning. We ended up with a “strengths based” approach. I took on the homeschooling in the morning while my husband took charge of afternoon outings and dinner/bed time. By focusing on what works best for us and our individual schedules versus trying to make it “even” and swapping off throughout the day, we struck a better balance.
What have you struggled the most with? Are there any positive experiences that emerged from the Shelter in Place?
Just a typical day at work for Elizabeth, with her sons J.T. (10) and Owen (8)
Elizabeth: My biggest struggle has been being able to focus on work without constantly getting pulled away and interrupted by the kids. Thankfully, my kids are at an age where I can put some rules and boundaries in place about when mommy can and cannot be interrupted, but they don’t always listen. The biggest positive experience has been watching my kids learn how to manage their own time and solve problems they encounter for themselves.
Stacey: I think there’s value in letting kids into your work, meaning helping them understand what you do and why, and literally bringing kids into the picture to humanize working parents in the workplace. This experience, as wild and challenging as it has been, has provided that for all of us.
Where did the idea for the Workplace Reboot survey and report come from, and what prompted you to explore this subject?
Elizabeth: When Shelter in Place first happened, our family was thrust into the challenge of balancing work and homeschooling just like so many others. It was really stressful. I was so thankful to have a job that allowed me flexibility and colleagues who were understanding, but I know in many of my previous roles in Corporate America that would not have been possible. When I thought about how I would have handled it in those roles, the first thing that came to my mind was that I would have had to quit. This made me want to learn what Companies are doing to prevent a mass exodus of working parents and to help identify solutions to keep working women in the workforce.
Stacey: Working mothers are no stranger to navigating career when work and parenting collide. We devote an entire chapter in our book Your Turn on how to make work work for you. So when Shelter in Place began, we knew immediately the added layer of caregiving, homeschooling, working and managing everything all at once would be extremely challenging for working parents. We wanted to understand what they could use to do their job better, and share where companies were shining - or not.
Elizabeth: The fact that 75% of our working parents reported feeling exhausted really resonated. Exhausted is different than tired... Exhausted to me is a combination of stress, frustration and feeling overwhelmed. It cannot be solved just by sleep. It requires different solutions that inherently need to be personal. I have had to do my own soul searching about what I need in order to maintain my own wellness and mental health. My heart goes out to the parents all around the world trying to find solutions that work for them.
Stacey: Sixty percent of respondents said meeting times hadn’t been adjusted during shelter in place to not align with the start of school. To me, this is such an easy way to be flexible with parents and shows an understanding of how challenging this period has been.
What report learnings were the most shocking or unexpected to you and why?
Elizabeth: Two things stood out for me - first, I was surprised at the number of companies who had not yet taken specific action to offer employees a greater level of flexibility, whether that was additional leave, reduced hours or adjusting objectives. Second, I was surprised to hear from both HR leaders and working parents the fear that working parents seem to have in taking advantage of the resources that are available. This highlighted that the problem cannot be solved by policies and programs alone, but that it requires a culture and mindset shift.
Stacey: I was really struck by the fact that working mothers didn’t want to tell their employers what could ease stress and be helpful during the pandemic work from home period because they are afraid of losing their job. I understand where they’re coming from but it’s unfortunate that there’s a culture of fear vs a culture that would be proactive in working with them to find solutions.
What are the biggest challenges HR leaders might face when implementing the 6-step approach outlined in the report? How can HR leaders overcome these challenges?
Elizabeth: It depends on the Company, but I think the biggest challenge right now is getting the executive team to make this a priority. It is such a stressful time for businesses on so many fronts that it can be hard not to focus only on the immediate needs, but to think about the long-term implications of not taking action now to support working parents. I fear if companies don’t do the right thing now they will suffer in the near future as a result of employee burnout or attrition.
Stacey: There’s a lot of hard work to be done around these steps. It’s not a quick fix. I think that’s the hardest part for employers.
How do the report findings correlate with the challenges you see your clients have been facing recently?
Elizabeth: The reality is that the problem of retaining working parents, and women in particular, is not new. Most of the clients we work with here at Nua Group have struggled with female workforce retention, especially in leadership roles. What this has done has brought the challenges front and center (literally). Several of the HR leaders we talked with are hoping that this is the catalyst for change.
What's one takeaway that you would like HR leaders to get out of the report?
Elizabeth: I hope that HR leaders take to heart the need for action. Understandably, many have felt they are in limbo waiting to see how things play out and the guidance that will be provided. But, I think it is becoming more and more clear that there are no magic answers and companies need to take it upon themselves to ask the tough question of who they want to be in the face of this crisis and take decisive action.
Stacey: We know intimately through our work at Après that the need to do better on behalf of working mothers - to respect the caregiving years - is critical to their success in the workplace. Solving for things like paid leave, child care resources, flexibility and a culture that respects caregiving, will have lasting impact on gender inclusion, pay equity, and moving more women into senior leadership. Shelter in Place has put a visual to these realities of working and caregiving like no other time in recent history. There’s huge opportunity for HR leaders to wrap their arms around this group - to do some caregiving on behalf of working parents - with systems that will enable them to do their job well, without fear, and move toward a more inclusive workplace.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Elizabeth: I remain hopeful that some good can come from this crisis in catapulting us forward to create workplaces with greater flexibility. As someone with a spouse who used to commute up to 3 hours a day, this has already opened the conversation about the need to be in the office 5 days a week going forward. Just a shift like that could have an immeasurable benefit to our family.