CPA INSIDER

How to support working parents without losing efficiency

Flexibility and empathy can help employees maintain productivity during challenging times.
By Malia Politzer

Life in the global pandemic has been difficult for everyone. However, the closures of schools and day care centers across the country have created unique challenges for working parents, forcing them to juggle full-time jobs with the responsibilities of supervising small children or helping older kids with remote learning.

This has raised alarm bells for employers concerned with retaining valuable talent.

"I think what is at stake is potentially losing a percentage of your workforce — particularly when the burden is hitting parents, who tend to be experienced workers," said Lauren Florko, Ph.D., a development consultant based in Vancouver. "And anytime you lose employees, you'll also lose productivity. It's a downward spiral."

Below are some policies that companies can put in place to support their employees with children during this uniquely challenging time without sacrificing efficiency.

Flexibility is key

Perhaps the single most helpful thing that companies can do for working parents is to create flexible work policies that allow employees to determine when and how they complete assignments.

These policies can take different shapes depending on a company's unique needs. Some companies create "core work hours" (say, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), during which all employees are expected to be on call for meetings or to connect with supervisors but allow employees to fit in the remainder of their work hours when they can. This allows parents to work around meals, bedtime, or their children's remote class schedules.

California-based accounting and consulting firm BPM — which has been named a "best place to work" and a "best CPA firm for women" on numerous occasions — took it one step further and implemented an entirely flexible work schedule. This meant that employees were free to arrange their workweek however it best suited their individual schedules — even if that meant logging hours in the middle of the night or on weekends.

"We knew that things are challenging for our people right now and wanted to do what we could to support them," said Jim Wallace, CPA, CEO at BPM. "The first thing we did was expand the traditional workweek. So long as they work with their supervisors and meet their deadlines, they can work whenever they want." 

Not all companies are in the position to offer this degree of flexibility. But even firms with essential workers can create policies that take into account the needs of parents, many of whom continue to have no formal child care options, nearly a year into the pandemic.

Industrial and organizational psychologist Lucie Kocum, Ph.D., recommends that companies also consider allowing employees the option of working part time or opting for a "job-share," in which they split the full-time schedule with another worker. For some employees with kids — particularly single parents or those with small children at home — such policies can be a lifeline at a time when balancing work and child care responsibilities can feel impossible.

"Obviously, this isn't optimal for a lot of working parents who depend on a full-time income, but it's better than being forced to quit," she said. "And it's also a way for companies to hold on to talent."

Reevaluate work policies and benefits packages

Executives should also work closely with human resources to review company policies and benefits packages in light of the unique challenges that working families currently face due to the pandemic. 

"This is a good time to make sure that everyone has full paid leave, comprehensive health care, and access to mental health support," said Kimberly Acree Adams, Ph.D., an industrial and organizational psychologist and executive coach based in Pennsylvania. "Personal days are also going to be important, as people may need to use them to care for children or for a loved one who is ill."

HR can also provide support to employees who are struggling to find child care solutions. That might mean doing the heavy lifting of looking for and vetting potential day care centers (if day care centers are still open) or discussing whether to offer employees child care subsidies or stipends to bring in a babysitter to watch children during important meetings.

For example, BPM historically has offered parents support for emergency babysitting services, including a $200 credit to cover expenses and paying the monthly membership fee for the services. In light of the current challenges brought on by the pandemic, the firm also reviewed the benefits packages it already had and took steps to make them more robust by switching to a mental health provider that offered more comprehensive services tailored to pandemic-related challenges — including support for issues specific to parents. 

BPM also opened a Yammer channel for parents, where employees with children could offer one another moral support and share what was working for their families.

Wallace also makes a point of regularly expressing empathy for the challenges that his employees face in his weekly email and video updates and making it clear that leadership is open to suggestions how to make their lives easier during this difficult time.

"Again and again, we tell our workers that we know they are going through a lot," he said. "We can't change a lot of things — we can't make schools or day cares reopen, though we wish we could — but we can show that we know that they are struggling." 

Set clear expectations, and create individualized solutions

To ensure that people feel taken care of, but that deadlines are still met, Florko recommends that companies consider adopting a "person-first" approach, in which the focus is on how to manage the workload rather than micromanaging individuals.

"A person-first approach requires a lot of communication and coaching," Florko said. "Supervisors try to understand their team members' unique challenges and needs, then help create individual solutions that help address those challenges, but still ensures that the work gets done."

That might mean allowing a team member who has younger children at home to skip nonessential meetings during school hours and do most of their work at night, or temporarily redistributing tasks to relieve pressure on workers who are under strain at home.

Build a culture of communication

Because there is no one-size-fits-all solution for working parents, it's critical that companies create multiple channels of communication that allow employees to give feedback on what's working for them, and what additional support that may need. This can be particularly key for working mothers, who may be hesitant to draw attention to any struggles balancing work and parenting duties for fear it could affect career advancement, according to Kocum.

HR should also keep detailed metrics on new company policies aimed at supporting employees — including parents — during COVID-19 by having employees fill out detailed feedback surveys that go beyond asking, "How happy are you with this policy?"

"Surveys need to ask things like, 'How did you like this tool? Is it working? What could be better?'" she said. "This way you are focusing on the positive without washing away the negative. It's about deliberately taking a growth approach."

Adams also recommends that leadership encourage employees to connect to HR if they don't feel comfortable speaking directly with supervisors.

"The key is to create a culture of openness and communication where the employee feels safe being honest about their situation," she said.

Malia Politzer is a freelance writer based in Spain. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.

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