National Working Parents Day is celebrated each year on September 16. The other 364 days of the year—with an ongoing child care shortage, inadequate federal parental leave policies, and inflation that continues to squeeze family budgets—are decidedly less of a celebration.
As the pandemic wears on and enters a new phase, attention on the issues affecting caregivers is waning, with some companies already rolling back their pandemic-era benefits like increased parental leave. But especially in the absence of sustainable policy solutions, parents need their employers’ support now as much as ever: In one Pew Research Center poll from February of this year, 51% of working parents reported that handling child care responsibilities has been somewhat or very difficult, compared to 52% in October 2020 and 38% in March 2020. It should be no surprise that parental burnout continues to affect two-thirds of parents nationwide.
Over the past two years of the pandemic, we’ve talked with experts, practitioners, and parents about the best ways organizational leaders can make work better for working parents. Here are some of the best tips:
Consider caregiving obligations in writing role descriptions.
When recruiting, design roles to have the flexibility caregivers need—and then proactively communicate that flexibility to candidates. Doing so could have a huge impact on gender parity within an organization: As we’ve previously reported, when Zurich Insurance added six words to its job postings in 2020, applications by women for management roles jumped 20%. The words were “part-time, job share, or flexible working,” as the company highlighted the possibility of nontraditional work arrangements that left more room for caregiving obligations.
Clearly define what flexibility looks like in practice.
As journalist Katherine Goldstein, creator of the Double Shift podcast, has pointed out, a lack of transparency around what flexibility means can prevent people from actually taking advantage of it.
“Listen to what people want and then make clear policies, rather than just saying, ‘Do what works for you. Do what hours work for you,’” Goldtein said. “Because that creates this 24/7 explanation that has been killer for so many caregivers and mothers.” Instead, managers can work with employees to create explicit expectations around what times they’ll be in the office or online and how to handle urgent requests outside of normal work hours—conversations that can prevent parents from feeling like they’re on call throughout the day.
Without that specificity, flexible work policies may be implemented inequitably. As we wrote in our playbook, A Better Future for Working Parents, researchers have found that when managers grant flexibility on an ad hoc basis, men’s requests are granted more often than women’s. To prevent bias from showing up, create company-wide core coordination hours and norms for asynchronous working outside of those hours.
Build on-ramps for parents to reenter the workforce
It can be difficult for parents—particularly mothers—to reenter the workforce if they have taken significant time away from their career.
“We have lots of off-ramps for moms, and not a lot of on-ramps,” Reshma Saujani, founder of the Marshall Plan for Moms, told us. One example of an on-ramp is a returnship, a short-term position meant for workers who have taken extended breaks from the workforce. “Returnships are the one thing we’ve been talking about for like a decade. But we need to come up with other ways of bringing moms back to work,” said Saujani. Other arrangements that can help parents ramp back up to full-time work are part-time schedules and job shares.
Incentivize fathers and non-birth parents to take their maximum parental leave.
When we spoke with Saujani, she pointed out the disparity in the amount of leave fathers and mothers take, with 70% of American dads taking fewer than 10 days of leave after the birth of a child. That can have cascading effects on gender equality, she argues: “The reality is that unless you have gender equality in the home, you’ll never have gender equality in the workplace.”
Instead, she suggests, managers and other workplace leaders should encourage fathers to take parental leave on par with the women in the company. ““It should be tied to performance,” she says. “Literally every company should have to report what percentage of dads took it and for how long.”
Design caregiver benefits for maximum choice.
Instead of investing in specific child care-related programs, give employees a caregiver stipend for maximum flexibility. “E]very family has its own circumstances, in terms of what amount of income, if it’s a two-partner home and they’re both working, what amount of income they’re both bringing in, who has family close by,” explained Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester. “They’re going to want the flexibility and the agency to be able to decide how to use that.”
Be loud about caregiving.
Building a culture that supports caregivers requires normalizing caregiving as part of working life, argued Charter co-founder Erin Grau in a 2021 essay. “Especially if you’re a manager with caregiving responsibilities, put those responsibilities out in the open,” she wrote. “Make sure your employees and colleagues see when you’ve stepped away—a dedicated Slack emoji for caregiving is just one way to signify this—and be clear and communicative about your own scheduling needs.”
Audit your non-promotable tasks.
Earlier in the pandemic, Indiana University sociologist Jessica Calarco shared a tip that she and fellow caregivers were implementing in their own workplace. “Essentially there are steps that organizations can take to eliminate basic bureaucratic hurdles, paperwork, busy work initiatives,” she explained. Calarco and her colleagues targeted responsibilities like mentoring, serving on hiring committees, and coordinating events, lobbying their employer to more adequately compensate and recognize those who take on these tasks or redistribute them more equitably.
These are responsibilities Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund, and Laurie Weingart call non-promotable tasks (NPTs) in their book, The No Club. Babcock, Peyser, Vesterlund, and Weingart also offer some ways for organizations to ensure equitable distribution of NPTs in their book, including setting up rotations for things like taking notes and preparing presentation decks, requiring employees to take on a minimum number of NPTs, or providing incentives such as additional time off for doing NPTs.
Join the policy conversation.
Companies that want to make work better for caregivers can no longer stay on the sidelines, argued Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at New America, in an interview with Charter last year. “…[T]he pandemic has clearly shown that companies need to take a stand on public policy,” she said, as parents and companies felt the impact of inadequate child care and paid family medical leave policies and, as a result, women left the workforce in droves.
Companies who care about recruiting and retaining top talent “need to recognize that you benefit from [caregiver policies],” she said. “And you need to be part of the conversation.”