How organizations can help support working parents

By Kate Lee

Working parents are not okay.

In August, I wrote that leaders need to take bold and innovative actions to transform the organization to support working parents and create a culture that will accelerate gender, racial, and ethnic equality. This struck a chord with many people and spurred conversations with parents, leaders, friends, and colleagues. Through these conversations, it is evident that parents are not okay and that bold and innovative actions are urgently needed to keep parents in the workforce.

A Sales Director at a global software company with two children under the age of two (who have been home since March) shared a long list of impressive actions that her company has taken to support working parents. She acknowledged that she is “very lucky to be employed at a company that puts employees first,” but that she operates her days “under a constant veil of anxiety.” An Assistant Vice President at a global insurance company with four children under 11 said, “I’ve never felt so overwhelmed with work, kids, and life.” Another mother shared, “my company has done so much for parents, but the reality is that I honestly don’t know how long I can do this; it’s not sustainable.”

Several leaders I talked with shared the frustration that when they asked how the organization could better support working parents, they were met with a blank stare or a simple, “I just don’t know.” The parents I talked with told me that their companies are offering flexibility and are taking other actions and that they are worried about asking for more or for being viewed as incapable. One parent said, “I am ambitious. I want a promotion. I want to be valued for the work I am doing and not be seen as unable or unwilling to do my job.” Parents also told me that what they really need doesn’t seem feasible, so why should they put it out there.

Here’s the thing, to keep parents in the workforce, we need to rethink what is feasible. Not only are parents waving the white flag, but research also shows us that what parents are experiencing right now is unprecedented and unsustainable.

As one parent put it – “all at once, I am a mom, teacher, therapist, principal, friend. And I work full-time.” Another parent pointed out that while flexibility is invaluable, it is also leading to exhaustion, burnout, and frustration: “Being able to take time to be with my children during the day is wonderful, but having to make up the time in the early mornings, or in the evenings is not working. I am always on, exhausted, and I have no time to do the necessary things around the house, spend time with my partner, or take even a moment for myself.”

When we work with organizations, one of our favorite questions to ask to generate ideas and insights is: “If you were in charge, what would you do?” I asked this question to a group of parents. Here are their suggestions:

Paid Leave

Provide parents with children five and under, and parents of school-age children paid leave of up to 12 months.

Childcare Stipends

Provide childcare stipends not just for employees with young children, but also for employees with school-aged children.

Reduced Hours

Enable parents to make a temporary shift to reduced hours without reducing pay and without reducing or eliminating benefits.

Encourage Time Blocking

With the use of electronic and shared calendars, every second tends to get scheduled. Encourage employees to block out time on their calendar each day to reset, to get lunch, to go for a walk. And respect people’s blocked time.

Support “Video Optional”

While video is an important tool, not every call or meeting needs to be “on camera.” Encourage the use of “video optional” for calls and meetings. As one mom said, “Video optional would allow me to sit outside and watch my kids play or fold the laundry.”

Help at Home

Provide parents with gift certificates or gift cards for takeout or food delivery, house cleaning, or laundry.

Where to Start

Encouraging time blocking and supporting video-optional meetings are relatively easy ideas to implement. Other ideas such as paid leave and childcare stipends are more challenging and, for some organizations, just not possible given the cost. So, what can leaders do?

Start by seeking input from your organization. Ask your employees how they are doing, what challenges they are facing, and ask, “if you were me, what is the first decision you would make?”

Assemble a team to study the ideas generated and to identify best practices. When making recommendations, have the team consider cost, timing, and the impact on the organization. At the same time, encourage the team to think creatively. While actions taken must be ones that the organization can afford, for example, do encourage the team to think big and push on the edges. Change is not easy.

In August, I highlighted a survey that found 27% of parents planned to leave the workforce because of the COVID-pandemic. A new survey of working parents conducted by FlexTime found that 40% of respondents have had to change their employment due to the COVID-19 pandemic by voluntarily reducing their hours (25%) or quitting entirely (15%). The survey found that an additional 5% said that their partners needed to reduce their hours or quit their job altogether. It is clear that if we are going to keep parents in the workforce, we need to take big actions.

Throughout the past six months, I have often thought of the lyrics by Avicii – “I tried carrying the weight of the world, but I only have two hands.” Organizations that take bold and innovative steps to help alleviate some of the weight parents are carrying will not only do well now – but will also be well-positioned for the future.


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