Evolving your child care benefits for working parents during COVID-19
“What is your child care strategy?” This question has permeated all of my conversations with leaders over the past eight months — as well as my dinner table conversations, Slack channels and text message threads as a parent myself.
In March, our strategy was simply to get our working parents through the school year. Over the summer, we assembled virtual summer camps and helped our employees access other types of virtual child care. As we look ahead to a winter that is expected to see a surge in COVID-19 cases, changes in school protocols and more uncertainty for families, we’re again forced to take a step back and reevaluate what we can do to help the third of our workforce who are working parents.
While our specific strategies may change — and should change to meet the evolving needs of our parents — the fundamentals stay the same. Here are a few things to consider as you’re approaching your support for working parents through this winter and beyond:
Continue to get new data points
When the pandemic hit in March, many of us sat down with our working parents to see how they were doing and to ask them what they thought they needed to feel supported during this time. We need to do that again and to keep doing it, as unfortunately what parents told us in March is likely an outdated data point. Some employees may be comfortable raising their hand in front of everyone during an all-staff meeting, but most won’t. By checking in on working parents individually or in smaller groups, we can make sure we are hearing different perspectives and creating solutions that meet these diverse needs.
And this doesn’t — and shouldn’t — always fall to teams. We talk a lot about “the company” and “the employee” as the key stakeholders here but for many employees, “the company” is embodied by their manager. We must empower managers to have empathetic, supportive conversations with parents about shifting goals, redefining core hours, or more generally establishing what’s working and what’s not working.
When we’re having these conversations with parents, there is power in simply acknowledging that we know they’re going through a hard time. Showing empathy and opening up the lines of communication by asking parents how they’re feeling goes a long way. A lot of parents want the green light to ask for what they might need — can they go back to what they were doing in March or can they try something totally new? Opening up the lines of communication in whatever way we can — and continuing to do so as this situation evolves — is critical.
Think in terms of a suite of solutions, rather than a one-size-fits-all offering
I wish there was one magic solution that could help working parents, but the reality is that we need to think in terms of a menu of options in order to meet parents where they are. No two parents are dealing with the exact same set of problems — and the fact that some schools are open and some are not means parents within the same company are having very different experiences and therefore need different kinds of support.
There are certainly larger-scale policies, benefits and blanket moments that can help parents — flexible work policies, reimbursement for childcare, mental health benefits, guidelines on recommended PTO — but there are also seemingly smaller things we can do to make our parents feel supported. When we think in terms of a suite of solutions — big and small — we give parents options.
The worst thing we can do is say that we’re encouraging flexibility without giving any guidance on what that looks like or modeling it ourselves. At Maven, flexibility looks like being clear about who needs to be on a call and when a call is optional, and setting norms around response times to Slack or emails. It also looks like being thoughtful about when we host company events to make sure we’re not always hosting happy hours or lunchtime events that might conflict with mealtime with kids.
Another key way to build flexibility into the way we support working parents is to focus on impact over hours. Emphasizing results and outcomes over process, hours, or facetime, allows businesses to help parents without compromising results. Giving people permission to do their work however they need to get it done might be uncomfortable for some companies, but now is the time to stretch a bit.
When we embed flexibility into our company cultures, everyone wins — not just parents. Instituting company-wide no meeting blocks throughout the week, providing mental health benefits, and setting norms around meetings and response times to emails helps parents and non-parents alike. While we know our working parents are hurting right now, so too are our employees who live alone or our employees who are caring for a relative, and they need our support.
Lastly, we as leaders need to be flexible. As this pandemic continues to evolve, our employees’ situations at home will also evolve. The strategies we have now for supporting our working parents might not work in April or even in December. The best leaders I know are willing to be agile and to take the principles they know to be true about supporting employees — listening, showing empathy, being flexible — to guide them through whatever the next school year will bring.