3 Lessons the Pandemic Taught Us About Supporting Working Parents

Parents working from home and being supported by employer

Since its onset nearly 18 months ago, the COVID-19 pandemic has created incredible new challenges for working parents — and illuminated many pre-existing ones. This has been the crisis of a lifetime, and the impossibility of what parents (who make up 41% of the workforce between ages 20 and 54) were asked to do was clear and well-publicized. As a result, particularly during the initial stages of the lockdown, many organizations doubled down on their efforts to support this segment of their workforce, from adopting flexible schedules to providing comprehensive offerings aimed at entertaining or assisting children and much, much more. The plight of the working parent was brought into the spotlight, and many employers responded in kind.

My life looks a lot different today than it did one year ago. Our school and daycare have reopened, albeit amid heated debates over mask mandates, and vaccines are widely available in the U.S. On the other hand, Delta has necessitated a return to many 2020-style safety measures and I live in constant fear of receiving “the phone call” that one of my children has been exposed to COVID — at best requiring a 10-day quarantine at home and, at worst, getting sick themselves.

As a working mother who benefitted significantly from pandemic-era programs, I can attest to the difference they made during what was undoubtedly the most challenging year of my life. But I can also attest to the fact that being a working mother already came with significant challenges, long before social distancing was a thing.

As organizations (and society) begin to slowly return to normal — or at least, a modified version of what used to be normal — let’s not be too quick to do away with policies and programs designed to support this key segment of our workforce. Let’s remember the lessons the pandemic taught us and strive to create an even better tomorrow for our people.

1. We Need Better Childcare Options

The pandemic underscored the fact that care work is critical work upon which all other work relies — without it, most parents were forced to either become less productive or begin extending their workdays to early mornings and late evenings to make up for the time lost to distractions and childcare during the day. 

Unfortunately, while many schools have reopened, we’re continuing to face a childcare crisis. Thousands of childcare centers across the country were forced to shut down in 2020, and many of them have not reopened. Even centers who managed to stay open are struggling to find enough qualified educators due to a dramatic increase in attrition and fewer new applicants than usual, citing chronic burnout and health concerns. With strict regulations regarding child-to-educator ratios, many centers have been forced to reduce their enrollment figures, further limiting childcare options for parents eager (or required) to return to the office.

Under the best of circumstances, choosing a childcare provider is extremely stressful, and the cost is often prohibitive. This is a clear opportunity for HR and business leaders to support employees by providing on-site childcare options or partnering with nearby centers to negotiate quality control and discounts. This could also look like HR looking for and vetting potential daycares for employees, deploying childcare subsidies and stipends, or covering memberships to sites like Care.com.

2. Flexibility is Foundational

About five years ago, I landed my dream job at UKG. Everything about the company, the culture, the team, the role — was absolutely perfect. The problem? Geography. Our office was located 50 miles away from my home, and my work hours were typically 8:30 to 5:30. The commute took me at least an hour each way, and I had to pick up my daughter near my home by 6pm. The math wasn’t adding up.

Fortunately, my boss was more than willing to help me design a flexible schedule. This support was ultimately what allowed me to accept the role and thrive in it while still being a present mother to my daughter. At the time, UKG was also already embracing the concept of hybrid work, and the addition of two extra hours back into my day made a world of difference in what I was able to accomplish (or better yet, simply enjoy) at home on days I worked from home. I could pick up my daughter earlier, I wasn’t stressed out from the commute, and we could spend that extra time cooking together or reading longer at night. My quality of life drastically improved, and I realized then that I much preferred hybrid schedules to working a week (considering that my career is one where working from home is an option).

And I’m not alone.

A 2021 FlexJobs report found that 61% of parents reported wanting to work remotely full-time forever, and 37% would prefer a hybrid work arrangement. That leaves just 2% of working parents who preferred working on-site full-time. What’s more, 62% reported they would quit their current job if they couldn’t continue working remotely, and they were willing to give up some benefits — including taking a 10% pay cut, reducing vacation time, or losing employer-matching retirement contributions — to do so.

Clearly, prioritizing flexibility is a key strategy for supporting working parents, and it’s become so important — and widespread — that organizations will lose key talent if they fail to do so.

Of course, many businesses and roles are not designed for remote work. And that’s okay. At its core, flexibility goes hand-in-hand with autonomy and choices; when employees have more control over their schedules, they are happier, less stressed, and more productive. Organizations who can’t support working from home can find alternative ways to offer flexibility, giving parents the gift of a better work-life balance (and likely retaining and engaging them in the process). Consider options like flexible hours, allowing for autonomous shift swapping, developing flexible PTO policies, and offering more part-time work opportunities.

3. Our Family’s Health Comes First

It shouldn’t take a global pandemic to remind us that health and life are fragile — but here we are. In a world where every sniffle or cough is cause for concern and families are singularly focused on keeping their loved ones healthy, health care — and specifically the cost of health care — is a primary concern.

Shortly before the pandemic began, a Gallup poll found that 25% of Americans had either delayed medical treatment for a serious illness due to the cost of care or had a family member who did. Many problems associated with the cost of health care coverage and services in the U.S. are frequently attributed to uninsured individuals or those who buy their own coverage, but even individuals with employer-sponsored insurance — particularly those with high-deductible plans — can struggle to afford their health care deductibles and medical bills. In a 2019 Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 34% of insured adults reported it was either “very difficult” or “somewhat difficult” for them to afford their deductibles.

Of course, healthcare is expensive for employers, too. In 2019, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that the average annual premium for employer-sponsored health insurance for a family of four had ballooned 54% in the previous 10 years, in large part due to rising costs for employers. The pandemic has accelerated this trend. Raising copays, deductibles, and other out-of-pocket costs is a potential short-term fix for employers, but while this strategy may initially reduce spending on health care, countless studies show that it disincentivizes employees to seek preventative treatment — and families with higher deductibles are less likely to take their children to the doctor at all, even if the visit is free. Of course, this leads to worse health outcomes for employees and their families — even more dangerous in today’s climate — and higher costs for everyone. Instead, business leaders can consider strategies such as leveraging telehealth and digital technology opportunities, partnering more closely with hospitals and physicians, and negotiating for health care solutions with the same ferocity they apply to other business purchases.

Providing high-quality and affordable healthcare should be a priority for every organization whenever possible. People remember employers who stepped up to take care of their families.

Applying Yesterday’s Lessons for a Better Tomorrow

Ultimately, the pandemic has served as a wake-up call for many individuals and organizations to reconsider what’s most important in their lives, and organizations are losing key talent in droves. It’s time to ensure you’re supporting your working parents as much as possible by continuing and building upon policies and programs adopted to help them survive this past year and a half. There’s a reason books like “Lean In”, “Faking Balance: Adventures in Work and Life”, and “I Don’t Know How She Does It” are chronic best-sellers: being a working parent has always been tough. Fortunately, there are countless ways businesses can make a meaningful difference in the lives of their working parents — and in today’s talent climate, that’s one of the best business cases there is.