Three Steps to Stem the Pandemic Parent Talent Drain Right Now

Over the past couple of weeks, the pandemic’s unrelenting impact on parents and mothers, in particular, has reached the breaking point. You can’t help but think of the classic scene of Howard Beale in the movie Network yelling, “I’m mad as *%#!, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” This rage is well-founded.

Since February 2020, more than 2.3 million women have left the labor force compared to 1.8 million men. That puts the women’s labor force participation rate at the lowest level it’s been since 1988 — 57%. The stark reality in the numbers confirms the historical magnitude of the overwhelm.

As Bill and Melinda Gates noted in their recently-released annual joint letter, “With billions of people now staying home, the demand for unpaid care work–cooking, cleaning, and childcare–has surged…Globally, a two‐hour increase in women’s unpaid care work is correlated with a 10 percentage point decrease in women’s labor force participation.”

Families are suffering, women are suffering, but so are employers. They’ve lost, or are at risk of losing, valuable talent needed to power. The immediacy of the problem is evident, but how to provide relief right now isn’t.

The good news is many of the proposed solutions, which failed to gain traction for decades, may have finally found momentum in this crisis. They include access to quality, affordable childcare, paid family leave, and direct payments to parents. Unfortunately, these necessary fixes will take time to enact, yet people need help today.

From my two decades of experience working with organizations to help employees flexibly fit work and life together, there are three immediate steps employers and parents can take now to make a meaningful difference:

Step 1: Managers should ask impacted employees to submit a flexible work plan. We’ve seen that having a formal flexible work policy posted on the corporate website doesn’t translate into action, otherwise so many parents wouldn’t have quit.

Managers need to initiate the process.  Ask impacted employees including mothers, fathers, and anyone else facing daunting challenges to come to you with a plan on how to flexibly manage their work and personal demands.  Explain specifically what the plan should include to support success. It’s not just about remote work, but also flexibility in when work is done and how it’s done.

The following are key elements of flexible work plans that tens of thousands of employees have developed since I first introduced this guidance in my 2005 book Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You.

Be specific about the plan and pilot period: For example, depending upon a child’s school schedule and childcare support availability, a parent may suggest an alternate schedule such as work three 9-hour days, Monday through Wednesday. Or work 7 to 10 a.m. and then 2 to 5 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, and Friday and Saturday. Then designate a proposed pilot period to test this new way of working. At the end of the pilot, review and recalibrate as needed.

Clarify required changes to responsibilities and tasks: List specific changes to tasks, workload, or schedule. Explain how changes may impact the rest of the team and how to address impacts.

Specify expectations related to:

  • How to manage unexpected business needs/outside of work hours
  • Accessibility/responsiveness/communications
  • Performance tracking and measurement
  • Advancement
  • Compensation
  • Benefits

Don’t mention the possibility of quitting upfront:  In normal times, the business case for working more flexibly would include productivity and performance. But for now, the priority is so employees can continue to work as efficiently as possible while managing unprecedented personal demands. Don’t mention the possibility of quitting in the proposal. While the ability to quit can be a position of strength in a discussion, use it only as a negotiating point of last resort. Managers are under stress too. When gently reminded you may have no other choice but to leave, they may be more open to compromise.

Some managers are hesitant to encourage employees to submit flexible work plans because they fear it will open a floodgate of requests. But most employees won’t require a significant change to be successful. And for the valuable employees that do, wouldn’t managers prefer they work jointly to find a solution that allows the employee to continue to contribute, rather than lose them altogether?

If you are a manager stuck behind the floodgates fear, think about your organization a year from now when schools reopen, and business volume picks up. My experience is that managerial support and understanding today will be rewarded with increased employee loyalty, commitment, and gratitude in the future.

Step 2: Employees need to redefine success to match how they fit work and life together now.  This lack of alignment between the definition of success and current work life realities is where I’ve seen people struggle the most. They know they need to change how, when, and where they work temporarily. Yet, they continue to judge themselves by the same prestige, advancement, earning, and caregiving measures they used in the past. This realignment is even more challenging when a reset is forced upon you by circumstances out of your control, including a pandemic. I know. I’ve been there.

Several years ago, when our daughter was in high school, she was hit with a mysterious illness that left her nearly bedridden. During the arduous months of recovery, when she forced herself to go to school even for an hour, her one request was that I would be at home and available if she needed me. At the time, my husband worked out of state, so I was primarily responsible for her care.

For that year, I had to make the painful but necessary decision to cut back on client work that would have required me to leave home. I didn’t quit, but I did pull into the slower lane – scaled back my work — consciously redefining success to feel good about what I was able to do while caring for my daughter.

Step 3: Continue to drive meaningful change in childcare and paid family support.  While flexible work plans and redefining success can offer near-term relief, ultimately, the access to quality, affordable, and reliable childcare, and paid family leave will be critical. It’s important we continue to drive meaningful change, especially once the pandemic’s immediate crisis begins to wane. This is and will continue to be, the infrastructure of success for parents and industry. We now know without any doubt is that when there is no childcare and no family leave, there are fewer employees.

Employers and parents need to act today to make it through the next few months. Parents, and especially mothers, have shouldered historically unprecedented levels of work and personal responsibility. Now they are saying loud and clear they can’t do it anymore, nor should they. Understanding and flexibility at work, coupled with a redefinition of personal success, can provide some needed immediate relief while staying focused on the longer-term necessity of childcare and paid leave. This may just be the pandemic’s silver lining.

How is your organization taking immediate, meaningful steps to support parents and caregivers and stop the talent drain?