27% of parents plan to leave the workforce. This is a big deal.

Kate Lee By Kate Lee

Leaders need to enact change to keep parents in the workplace and to create a culture that will accelerate, rather than reverse, gender equality in the workplace.

Last week, a senior executive shared with me that her company has been “absolutely incredible and beyond supportive” since day one of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, she is exhausted and is at her breaking point. With two children under the age of three at home since mid-March and no childcare and working full-time, she is burned out. Another senior executive shared a similar sentiment. While his company has “gone out of their way to accommodate working parents,” he says he is anxious and overwhelmed when thinking of the start of school. “We got through the end of the school year, but I honestly have no idea how we will manage work and kids and school this fall.”

They are not alone. In April, 6% of parents reported that they planned to leave the workforce because of COVID-19. A new survey puts that number at 27%.

This is a big deal.

The cost of replacing an individual employee can range from one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary — and that’s a conservative estimate. Further, it can take between 8-12 weeks to replace a knowledge worker, and then another month or two before the replacement gets to full productivity. It is also important to consider that those providing training and support for the new hire will also be less productive during this period.

While the financial impact of employee turnover is significant, there are additional realities to consider.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted women: a recent United Nations study warned that the COVID-19 pandemic risked reversing decades of progress concerning gender equality in the workforce.

Approximately 60% of the jobs eliminated in the first wave of pandemic-induced layoffs were held by women, with single moms losing jobs at a higher rate than other families with children. In April 2020, the female labor force participation rate dipped below 55% for the first time since February 1986.

Research finds that those women who have retained their jobs have been more adversely affected by the pandemic than men. Job satisfaction scores for women are 27% lower than those for men. Further, women rate their experience working during the pandemic 35% more negative than men.

What’s more, the economic impact of working moms’ coronavirus-related juggling act has been estimated at $341 billion.

Leaders need to act now

Leaders need to enact change to keep parents in the workplace and to create a culture that will accelerate, rather than reverse, gender equality in the workplace.

Microsoft and Google have expanded their parental/paid leave benefits with Microsoft adding 12 more weeks of paid leave, and Google offering 14 additional weeks. And Salesforce has added six more weeks of paid time off for parents. Many companies, however, are unable to offer this as an option.

Here are some actions leaders can take to enact change:

Be human

Leading a time in this environment is an opportunity to be a more human leader. This environment enables leaders to develop stronger relations and to connect with employees and team members on a different level. This is a silver lining in the pandemic and one that should be embraced.

Reduce stigma

In a normal environment, working parents often “feel like an unwanted guest at the world’s most tedious party, and what COVID-19 has done is essentially kick working mothers out of the room altogether.”

Leaders must foster an environment and a culture that reduces stigma, cultivates trust, and supports working parents.

Get input. Ask questions.

To understand the challenges working parents face and get ideas about what actions the organization can take, leaders need to talk with working parents and ask questions. Start by having one-on-one calls and by inviting working parents to a brainstorming session. Ask working parents to share the challenges they face, ask for ideas on what actions the organization could take to mitigate these challenges, and ask the question: “If you were me, what is the first decision you would make?” The conversation that ensues will generate ideas to help redesign and transform the organization.

Rethink the workweek

Support flextime and flexible hours and consider implementing a four-day workweek. Microsoft and Perpetual Guardian made headlines when their experiments with the four-day workweek resulted in productivity gains of 40% and 20%, respectively.

Set Communication Guidelines

The “always-on” mindset is exhausting and contributes to burnout. Establish clear communication guidelines and communicate them to the organization. For communication guidelines to be successful, leaders need to model the behavior – no weekend emails, no late-night emails.

Consider Meeting Times

With school starting again, consider changing recurring meeting times to make them more convenient for working parents. Shifting a recurring team meeting by just 15 minutes may make life a lot easier for a parent who needs to help a child access their first grade ZOOM morning meeting, for example.

Offer Support

More and more companies are rethinking childcare – they are starting to think of it as an operational expense instead of a perk. Further, companies can receive a tax break when they offer child care support to employees.

We are in an environment ripe for change.  These actions are a good start (for some organizations, a great start), but to keep parents in the workplace, bolder and more innovative actions will be needed. Now is the opportunity for leaders to take actions that will transform the workplace and the organization to support working parents and create a culture that will accelerate, rather than reverse, gender equality.

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