Last year, millions of mothers dropped out of the workforce due to Covid-19 and most have not yet returned. Although there was some brief optimism over the summer as vaccination rates rose and cases declined, the more contagious Delta variant has left many parents and employers in a state of uncertainty. With back to school starting, we are already seeing school shutdowns, indicating that this year will be anything but normal for parents in the workforce.
As the CEO of a childcare marketplace, I thought my company was well-positioned last year to handle Covid-19. After all, employees could work from home on flexible schedules that worked with their childcare arrangements. But even with these perks, last year was challenging. From mental health struggles to temporary closures of school and daycare, Covid-19 took its toll.
Here are a few things I've learned that my company and I are doing differently this time around. They are so simple and any employer can implement them.
Reduce risks where possible.
Just because you are taking a risk somewhere (like sending your child to school or child care) does not mean you should take other risks like eating indoors in a restaurant. Put simply, risks add up. As an employer, you can play a big role by not adding to your employee's risk pool. Don't ask employees to travel, attend conferences, or take meetings in person if it isn't necessary.
Build redundancy into roles.
A virus doesn't give you a warning. At any moment an employee can be out for health reasons or because their kids have to quarantine from school or childcare. Prepare ahead by ensuring everyone has a backup who can take over any critical work at a moment's notice. Don't have just one expert in the company who is able to execute a task. It's worth some upfront cost to avoid interruption to your business.
Consider paid leave and backup child care benefits.
Do your parent employees know what they will do in case of a school or childcare closure? Even though the federal law around paid leave has expired, it's still important for employers to have a policy in place to handle sudden absences. Paid leave allows people to take the time off they need and not feel the need to log on at night or on the weekend. This ultimately is in the employer's interest as much as the employee's, in that it helps reduce burnout.
In cases where a school or daycare center temporarily closes, backup care can be a lifesaver. Offering backup child care stipends can substantially reduce the risk of employee absenteeism and is a far simpler and cheaper offering than one might think. There is now a growing network of caregivers that provide backup care, including new, virtual options should a quarantine be necessary.
Be aware of employees' individual circumstances.
Regardless of whatever benefits you are able to extend to your employees on paper, a key form of support is to simply keep lines of communication open. The pandemic has taken a huge toll on people's mental health and burnout is real. You never want to suddenly lose an employee you had no idea was struggling.
One survey revealed that lack of support or recognition from company leadership was the top driver of employee burnout. Simply being sensitive and understanding about employee stress levels can go a long way, particularly when it comes to working parents.
Though the pandemic has been an unprecedentedly difficult time, it ultimately exacerbated existing hardships and inequities. For this reason, you would be well served to take the lessons of Covid-19 and apply them to an uncertain fall and beyond, permanently creating a workplace that is more efficient and compassionate.