By Stephen Koepp | August 27, 2020
This story first appeared earlier this month on the website of From Day One, a forum on corporate values. Reprinted with permission.
Parents of school-age children are sharing uncharacteristic feelings for this time of year: despair, anxiety and anger. In normal times, this would be a season of pleasant anticipation, with kids about to head off to a place of learning and supervision. This year, it’s a full-on social crisis. All the scenarios for going back to school during a pandemic–remote schooling, hybrid schedules, or a return to the classroom–feel risky or nearly impossible to manage.
“All the choices stink,” Kate Averett, a University of Albany sociologist who has been interviewing parents, told the New York Times. “Parents tell me about not being able to sleep because they’re so anxious, or tell me they’ve been crying a lot.” Times columnist Michelle Goldberg is one of those perplexed parents: “When I lie in bed struggling to figure out how to balance physical risk, economic sustainability and emotional well-being, I can’t make the equation work. And If I can’t do it, I’m not sure how parents with far fewer resources are doing it either.”
Parents say they feel abandoned by government. This presents an urgent question for employers: In the absence of a normal system, what can they do to help the parents who work for them? The issue is not just a humanitarian one, but a practical matter. In a nationwide poll by the Washington Post-Schar School, “50% of working parents said it would be ‘harder’ or ‘impossible’ to do their jobs if their children’s schools provide only online instruction this fall,” a number that rose to 66% among parents of younger children. In another poll of parents, four out of five said they would have no in-person help educating and caring for their children at home.
Those are ominous statistics. In fact, solving the parenting crisis looks like a prerequisite for jump-starting as the U.S. economy. To see how businesses are responding, From Day One consulted HR executives and other business leaders who have spoken at our conferences. The overview: Companies are assessing the programs they have and considering what they should add. Among the solutions in play: flex time, additional paid days off, increased back-up child care, tutoring discounts, nanny stipends, help with forming learning pods, and information-sharing forums on how to cope with the situation.
Currently, only a tiny fraction of U.S. companies offer subsidized child-care centers or programs, but now many large employers are scrambling to explore their options. Megan Neumann, a consultant at Mercer who focuses on employer health and benefits choices, told the Washington Post she is getting four times as many inquiries from client companies about child-care and educational help as she did before the pandemic began. “Employers really haven’t ever been focused on [the needs of school-aged kids]” she said. “People have depended on the school year to provide for watching children and fostering a learning environment.”
In June, the Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank began offering employees 30 days of subsidized child support this year, either in-home or at a care center, the Chicago Tribune reported. RELX, a global information-analytics company, has increased its offering of backup-care days provided to employees through Bright Horizons, the largest provider employer-sponsored child care, according to Amy Noelle, RELX’s global benefits leader. Working with Bright Horizons, the company also offers “the ability for parents to engage with the Sittercity website to find an instructor to lead a learning pod,” Noelle told From Day One.
The reality is that most of the burden of solving this crisis will likely fall on women, which will cause them both immediate stress and potentially a long-term setback. “I have concerns looking at data that showcases how women are more impacted by child-care and elder-care constraints and what it may mean for retaining and attracting female talent long-term if we do not all take a more progressive stance in this space,” Annalisa Esposito Bluhm, head of executive and strategic corporate communications at General Motors, told From Day One.
“Here at GM, empathy is everything. It's difficult for so many and we have to provide flexibility for those juggling work with family-care issues,” she added. Bluhm offered a snapshot of the situation in the Detroit metro area and her own coping challenges: “Our district started the school year virtually and will assess at the end of October. We cannot find child care for our kids–all centers are at capacity. Nannies and tutors are in high demand and difficult to come by. Those who are available are commanding a weekly cash price north of $700 per week. There is no reality where I can find support and the only option I will have is to modify my work day to help my kids from 8:30 am to noon and then work from 1 pm to 6 pm and after they go to bed to make up the difference.”
What Are the New Boundaries?
One of the biggest ways for managers to help their employees, including parents, is to set forth work-from-home guidelines for managers and employees. Adi Ignatius, editor in chief of Harvard Business Review, praised the “work from home pledges” formulated by IBM and said his organization would be adopting them too. The guidelines include pledges to “be family sensitive,” “support ‘not camera ready’ times,” and “to set boundaries and prevent video fatigue.”
“This is a time when organizations can truly demonstrate what it means to have an inclusive culture,” Reneé Konzelman, VP of HR at Honeywell UOP, told From Day One. “Employees have to be agile and adapt to the challenges that these stay-at-home orders bring, and managers need to be flexible and understanding that the workday is no longer 9-to-5 given remote schooling obligations during the school day.”
Several experts emphasized to From Day One that corporations will need to develop a host of solutions to fit different needs. “This is new territory and there will be no ‘perfect’ answer,” according to Mikeisha Anderson Jones, VP of inclusion & diversity in the Colleague Experience Group at American Express. “Teaching (and remembering) about flexibility, creativity, resiliency, and agility will become even more important.”
“There is no magic bullet, rather a range of steps to help employers manage the stressors for employees,” according to Rich Maiore, president of Rocket Social Impact. “This includes flex-time and collective child-care, to mental-health apps and wellness coaching.” His firm has provided each employee with a $250 stipend to create a more functional home office or play space at home. He added: “I myself have turned my office into a panic room designed to keep pesky children out. It won’t win me Father of the Year, but may preserve my sanity.”
Appcast, a talent-recruiting platform, established a set of principles focused on fairness, flexibility and clarity about goals and expectations, Leah Daniels, SVP of strategy, told From Day One. Among the most important: “Clear communication between managers and employees about each employee’s unique situation and how the employee plans to manage through it.”
Promod Vohra, chief talent strategy officer at the IT firm ACS, agreed that managers need to listen carefully to employees as they decide on new procedures. “I feel that in addition to developing broad policies, most of the employees may need individual attention, as everyone’s needs are different. We must have patience and time to hear them out. That will solve half of the problem. These are unprecedented and unpredictable times and no standard policy can cover all bases. I hope this will result in better relationships and loyalty,” he told From Day One.
Where Do Parents Need Help?
When it came to discovering employee needs, Robin Schroyer, health and well-being manager for CommScope, conducted a virtual listening tour. “We have a global employee population, and to understand more of what our employees are facing with their children (focused on 10 and younger), I held a series of focus groups, connecting with people around the world. I am still working to complete my qualitative analysis, but there are a few themes I have identified: vacation time, network connectivity issues in the home, quality of child learning, impact on youth psychological and social growth, health, money (childcare vs private schools), productivity, communication strategies and mental health.” Schroyer is working on solutions to many of the issues.
Managers need to make sure that in adjusting schedules and workloads to respond to the needs of some, they don’t let bias creep in. Appcast’s guidelines warn of this kind of thinking: “Don’t assume that primary parents or parents of young children are working less hard or that our employees with older children or no children are picking up the slack.” Daniels mentioned a few other current necessities: “A sense of humor, empathy and recognition that the best-laid plans can go south when there are small children involved.”
At a time when uncertainty and ambiguity are rampant, some companies have tried to bridge the information gap by creating a forum for sharing tips, resources and other information. At Zillow Group, where the company has been offering flexible hours to their staff, managers have also “set up parents groups and have brought in speakers to provide guidance on home schooling,” according to Scott Moore, the company’s senior manager of early-talent recruiting. Fortive, an industrial and tech giant, asked parents to share their own tips with each other, curated the information, and circulated a flyer across the organization, according to Shinder Dhillon, the company’s VP of inclusive and diversity.
Since the parenting crisis overlaps with a pandemic health crisis, companies have been considering both simultaneously. At Hewlett Packard Enterprise, “We’ve been focused on building our internal communities–parents, caregivers, those living alone,” according to Samanntha DuBridge, the company’s VP of global benefits and culture/engagement. “We are also providing additional days if needed for COVID and in the U.S. expanding our backup childcare. We’ve continued to add to our mental-health offerings and added Headspace,” the meditation app. At Southern California Edison, the company has offered 10 additional paid days off, on top of already existing vacation and sick time, for COVID-related care of the employee or any member of the family. The utility is also offering a stipend of $500 for home-office gear including ergonomic support, according to Liji Thomas, the company’s head of diversity and inclusion.
A new corporate charitable program that has been growing in popularity in recent years, the employee relief fund, could be a helpful source of funding to mitigate the child-care crisis. Such funds were inspired mainly by the need to help victims of natural disasters, but they can be used for other kinds of personal emergencies as well. Since March 15, E4E Relief, a nonprofit that administers these programs on behalf of employers, has awarded nearly $70 million in 100,000 grant awards to employees at its partner companies. In a time of COVID, such financial grants have helped families avoid personal crises like missing a rent payment or losing their child care, according to Holly Welch Stubbing, CEO of E4E Relief.
While many employers are rushing to address this crisis, only big and prosperous companies are likely to be able to pay for substantial solutions. A more sweeping response would require a philosophical sea change in how the U.S. deals with child care, which is exactly the demand of a new cohort of political activists: the “rage moms” who are sick of being expected to do it all. Senator Elizabeth Warren, wo made child care a priority issue in her Presidential campaign, told the New York Times she has experienced a new surge in support for her position. “Right now, I think women have just had it up to their eyeballs. They no longer feel isolated and one-off in how they couldn’t figure out how to make the system work, and recognize the system is broken, and nobody’s making it work,” she said. “They’re fired up. And I love it.”
Steve Koepp is a co-founder of From Day One. Previously, he was editorial director of Time Inc. Books, executive editor of Fortune and deputy managing editor of Time.