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COVID-19 has upended the already delicate balance women must strike in the workplace. Unless employers embrace greater flexibility, work and home responsibilities will continue to push many women to a breaking point.

For women still participating in the workforce, child care and caregiving have largely fallen on their shoulders throughout the pandemic. These pressures mean women are more likely than men to leave the workforce: McKinsey’s 2020 Women in the Workplace report found one out of four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely because of COVID-19.

The risks to businesses and women’s career gains could be catastrophic and long-lasting. The McKinsey report forecasts that the wage gap will widen 2% after the pandemic recession, causing a $1 trillion loss to the global GDP by 2030.

“It's affecting the country, it's affecting companies, it's affecting an entire gender,” says Michelle Keefe, founder and CEO of MomUp, a job platform that connects working mothers with temporary contract positions. “The independence that somebody has from making their own income, financial security, retirement — all of this puts women in a very vulnerable place.”

Read more: Why keeping women employed during COVID-19 boosts business and the economy

To keep women employed, managers must get radical in how they approach workplace flexibility, Keefe says. Lack of flexibility was a top reason women feel forced out of the workforce, the McKinsey report found.

“This pandemic is not going to last forever. Kids will eventually be able to go back to school full time or back to daycare and there will be some level of normalcy,” she says. “It just feels shortsighted to say, ‘You want flexibility? Sorry, we have to let you go.’ If companies can bolster their support now and weather through this, they can avoid having to rehire, which is very costly.”

Read more: Why COVID-19 has been a 'pressure test' for company culture

Managers should be reassessing what a typical work day can look like and be open to redefining how they measure success, says Robin Kirby, chief human resources officer at Benefitfocus.

“How we think about productivity and performance, it's no longer about the number of hours you're clocking in at work,” Kirby says. “It's much more important to focus on outcomes and be really clear about performance expectations.”

If women are able to meet goals and expectations while working more flexible hours, it sets the tone for workplace culture overall, Keefe says. Creating an environment where all workers feel supported without judgment requires communication from both sides.

“It's creating a culture where a woman or anybody for that matter does not feel like there's going to be judgment or tension from their coworkers if they ask for some flexibility, and making sure that the workplace is a safe space where you can express that,” Keefe says. “Employers need to be proactive and reach out to their employees and say, ‘What are the needs that you have on a personal level?’”

Keefe suggests frequent surveys and one-on-one check-ins with employees to assess where they’re at with their workload. Then, managers and employees should collaboratively work toward solutions, like shifting start times or establishing a job share program.

“It might just be as simple as from the hours of 9-11 a.m., I really can't get on a zoom call,” she says. “It's understanding where the individual's obstacles and challenges are, and then establishing some level of boundaries and expectations.”

Keefe’s company, MomUp, helps employers work toward these flexible work arrangements to keep women employed during COVID-19 and beyond. The platform places women in contract roles to fill vacancies, while ensuring the employee maintains her job security.

Read more: Why working parents need extra support during coronavirus

“This is the time to think out of the box. If your employee says, ‘I need to be at home with my kids right now,’ it's worth looking at the different options we can come up with,” Keefe says. “Maybe it’s a job share where we bring someone in to offer support. Maybe it’s a temporary leave where someone else comes in as a contractor. It’s making sure you exhaust all the possibilities of the employee keeping their job.”

Employers are at the front lines of supporting their female employees during one of the greatest challenges they’ll face, Kirby says. Acting now will set the stage for major cultural changes.

“We're getting used to this new normal, and I think that what we’re learning right now will stay and be permanent,” she says. “Employees are going to demand this flexibility, and that really helps women over time.”

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Gender issues Voluntary benefits Employee communications Workplace culture Workplace management Workplace Options