The pandemic has upended expectations for how people work and live. After nearly two years, the new normal is not so new, as more employees are working remotely (with 16 percent of companies fully remote, according to Owl Labs) or in a hybrid model. This dovetails with the 360 percent jump in searches for remote jobs.
Which raises the question, how has this blurred the lines between work and home? Are employees more productive? Are working parents getting more time with their families? There are no simple answers. While remote or hybrid workers save time commuting and have (in theory) more flexibility, burnout is real. A Gartner survey found that 93 percent of HR leaders are increasingly concerned about employee burnout.
On the lighter side of the remote or hybrid work world, we've seen viral videos or experienced kids and furry friends infiltrating Zoom calls and making guest appearances during important meetings. While these "disruptions" in the remote office are a sign of the times, the reality is that many employees are struggling to balance work and life during the pandemic.
What can employers do to help working parents and caregivers, while supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion? Let's think about this in light of the millions of women who have left the workforce since February 2020. Women's participation has dropped to 57 percent, the lowest since 1988, according to the National Women's Law Center. The reason, in many cases, is the need for women to provide dependent care--26 percent of women who have been unemployed during the pandemic say it's been due to a lack of child care, according to a Harvard Business Review article.
As a boy who grew up as a latchkey kid because my single mom couldn't afford an afterschool program, I find it hard to imagine that in 2021--when people can be productive anywhere--more organizations aren't open to flexible work arrangements. I'm also a dad and CEO of a company that's been remote from day one, so if a child wanders in during a video call, I say, let it be! It's a reminder that we're all human and need to support our teams with flexibility, understanding, and empathy.
Seeing firsthand the struggles my mom went through in trying to balance all the things a child needs and wants while doing it alone, I wanted things to be different for my child. So, when our daughter was born, we had a plan that both of us were going to make things work.
And yet my wife says her first day back to work was one of the most challenging days of her life. Even though we had a family network to help, and I had a clearly defined role to ensure that she got quality time with our daughter when she was home, she wondered, "Am I a bad mom for wanting my career? What will people think of me? Will our daughter grow up to resent me for this?"
We were lucky. Many of our colleagues didn't always have someone to pick up their child or had to miss a big event or work in an environment that didn't support women in their careers.
What both of us came to realize over time is how much our daughter values what Mom does, and that Mom's and Dad's work is equally important. My daughter says that her mom, who is now a partner in her firm, inspired her to earn a degree in business and finish her master's. With her mom as a role model, she expects her employer to respect her ability as a leader, woman, and mom.
Start with trust
Making remote or hybrid work successful starts with trusting people to do the right thing, wherever they are, and communicating clear expectations for doing the job they were hired for. In some cases, employees may need to advocate for themselves and let managers know what their caregiving situation is and what they need to succeed. Transparency and openness should be a two-way street.
For all the disruptions of the pandemic, it has helped to humanize workplace culture and spark conversations about creating a sense of belonging and psychological safety. And there are some simple solutions that can be put in place to show remote employees empathy and respect for their commitments outside of work, including:
- Regular check-ins. The simple practice of reaching out to remote employees shows you care about their well-being. It's also an opportunity to ask--and really listen to--what's on their mind.
- Offering more digital tools and technology to make it easy for employees to connect, collaborate, and share information, ideas, and stories.
- Pausing before hitting send. By not scheduling team meetings or sending emails or texts outside of work hours, you can eliminate some undue stress caused by off-hours messages.
- Summer Fridays all year long. We end our Friday's at 3 p.m., and employees love it. However, that doesn't fit everyone's needs, such as picking up a child from school. So, employees can use the extra time as they need to--it's all about communicating with their managers and making it work for everyone.
Besides offering flexible hours and work arrangements, organizations can support working parents by providing a dependent care assistant plan and employee assistance programs (EAPs). Dependent care assistance plans allow employees to use pretax dollars to pay qualified out-of-pocket dependent care expenses. The money employees contribute to a dependent care flexible spending account (FSA) is not subject to payroll taxes, so employees take home more of their paychecks.
EAPs assist employees in a broad range of issues, including child and dependent care, mental health, alcohol and drug misuse, and legal services. While 93 percent of employers offer EAPs, only about half of employees are aware they have access to one. Offering an EAP and promoting its benefits increases employee engagement and productivity and can reduce absenteeism and medical and behavioral health costs.
There are many other ways to help navigate the evolving workplace and attract and retain talent. By being open, empathetic, and flexible in our attitudes, work arrangements, policies, and resources, leaders can create a positive work culture in which all employees thrive and organizations succeed.
As the saying goes, "It takes a village to raise a child." More than ever, we as leaders in America's corporate community are part of that village.