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Podcast Length Icon 36:45 2 Feb 2021

How to support working parents during the pandemic?

The pandemic and stay-home orders have hit working parents and carers very hard. What are some of the measures and supports that the leading businesses across the United States have put in place? In this episode, we talk to Brad Harrington and Jennifer Sabatini Fraone of the Boston College Center for Work & Family to find out more.

In this episode, our guests are Professor Brad Harrington and Jennifer Sabatini Fraone of the Boston College Centre for Work & Family. Below is a short excerpt from the conversation.

Agnes Uhereczky: Brad, in the last months during which you worked with and accompanied your corporate members and employers about their challenges during the pandemic what were the main issues that they were faced with? And what was the impact of the pandemic on the families you have researched and heard about?

Brad Harrington: Thanks for having us Agnes, and I would just say that our Centre has a roundtable which includes members from a large range of industries from hospitality to insurance, to technology and pharmaceuticals and so forth. Different businesses and different employers had different challenges over the course of the pandemic. For some, especially those in hospitality and the travel industry and those kinds of areas, it meant really a complete shutdown and really the challenges for them have been around their long-term liabilities as a business. For others, it meant dramatic changes in how they work and how they operate but the business overall has maintained viability, and in some cases, the businesses have been extremely well. So, for the organizations, we work with the majority of them are in the knowledge industry so they are in consulting, investment banking, life sciences, etc. For a lot of them, it's been less about whether we survive as a business and more about how we will be able to be effective and productive working in a new way. So, back in April, most of our member organizations shifted the vast majority of their workforce into some kind of remote work arrangement. And, in some cases, they were very used to this because that was the way they operated anyway but I think for many it was really a dramatic change as they went from a limited amount of flexible work to 100% flexible work for the majority of their people. So those organizations have really tried to think about what can they do to maintain viability, connection, to maintain the health and wellbeing of their people. That’s been a really big concern for a lot of organizations as they shifted toward the virtual model. The second thing for those organizations has really been, that employees especially those with toddlers or school-aged children have had to take on full-time caregiving while they were working during the shutdown of the schools and the daycare centers. So, for these parents that’s been a real disruption in terms of their workday, and not just about that they needed to start working remotely but it's also that they are doing full-time caregiving and especially homeschooling as well. So, parents and employers had to show a lot more flexibility and agility in order to make this work and I think a lot of our employers have said that we just need to be flexible with our people because we understand that they are in a kind of no-win situation trying to do two things that are both very engaging full time. And, then when you ask about the families I’d say you know the main responsibilities seems to in the US shifting towards women which is not surprising but its a little disappointing in that because there is this all homeschooling and caregiving that hast be done in what is people’s typical workday. Somebody has to pick up that responsibility and anecdotal evidence in the US would suggest that that’s falling that burden is falling much more on moms than it is on dads. And that is something that you know organizations and families need to address in order to make sure that women’s progress you know doesn't take a step backward as a result of the time they have to provide caregiving during the day.

Agnes Uhereczky: Let me turn to you Jennifer, can you give us a little insight into how the Centre has supported businesses and employers throughout the pandemic so far? What were some of the activities that you were running?

Jennifer Fraone: Yes, I am happy to Agnes, and thanks for having this conversation with us. We have been a trusted partner for our Roundtable members some for 30 years, others relatively shorter time but we have always been an organization that they have looked to when they need information and support. So we really back in March pivoted into what I call crisis response mode and we took all of our programming online, did many virtual sessions. I think we have offered more than 40 virtual programs since last March and those have been a combination of experts led sessions where we brought a scholar or a thought leader in to speak with those members about a particular topic. We have had member discussions that brought them together around a topic that was critical and having them discussed that together whether that’d be child care or how they were shifting to that remote work model at the beginning of the pandemic or looking at issues like social isolation as the pandemic wore on and people were quarantined in their homes. We also had panels of members sharing their approaches to how they were supporting their employees during this time. We also had regular benchmarking touchpoints with them through surveys and requests for information we collected data from the members, we also were looking at the trends and the research coming out from other outside entities and summarising that so we could be really accessible for the members. Some of our benchmarking efforts included reports on childcare and how the members were supporting their employees with additional childcare supports, efforts to support mental health, and also more recently what the return to work process is going to look like, and envisioning the future workplace.

Agnes Uhereczky: What have you prioritized to focus on in 2021? What are the areas that you will likely focus on and work on?

Brad Harrington: So, we picked some issues in the spring of 2020 that will carry us through 2021, and I think when we all kind of went home in April from work we expected that this would be a few weeks or maybe a month or two, but never did we expect that we would be away from the workplace for so long so the issues we talked about back in the spring really continued to resonate now and will be our areas of focus for this year. The first issue we are looking at and probably the one that has the greatest sense of urgency in addressing is the race issue in organizations. And I know your listeners in Europe and wherever they come from know about the kinds of challenges the United States is faced with around race through the 8 or 9 months. No one event, I think, brought this more to the forefront, than the death of George Floyd. So, the first thing that we are looking at is how do we address race issues in organizations. And even organizations who over the years have sort of done good work with diversity have come to the realization that we really have got a long way to go and a lot of what we need to do is to kind of change the culture of organizations and to really have direct and candid conversations about race and where we are with that issue. So, virtually every member organization we work with is really teeing up that issue and thinking about what can they do to make progress, not in terms of increasing the diversity within their organizations but also making sure that people feel included and a sense of belonging. So, this is number one.

The second issue is really striving to achieve gender equality. I think in the US and certainly, worldwide it's true that women have made a lot of progress in lower levels of management and supervisors, even up to the middle level in some of our larger organizations but when you get up into the highest echelons of corporate organizations and other organizations as well you see that women don't tend to populate the senior roles in large numbers. And that’s been an ongoing concern forever I don't think that things have changed much in the last decade in terms of seeing more and more women in c-suite jobs or director level jobs. So, we are going to look at that and of course, covid is having a big impact as I mentioned a minute ago because mothers are taking on more responsibilities at home than fathers and as a result, we think that this issue is going to be more germane than ever and there is gonna be more problems and issues to address than ever. So, looking at women’s advancement programs and how organizations can help women achieve gender equality including supporting fathers to play a more active role at home which is sort of the flip side of that conversation, is going to be our second area of focus.

And, the third and I think Jennifer has already mentioned that in the last question you asked her, is really trying to envision the workplace of the future. We have had this 10 months now enormous pilot study in how remote work works and in addition remote work as I mentioned in my early answer is not just remote work is remote work with the responsibility of caregiving. And a lot of employees, while it has been really difficult for them, have appreciated the opportunity to work and think differently. And so what we are going to do is look at what organizations are gonna do as we return to work. To what degree are they gonna continue to support remote work, whether that's helpful, and still productive, and what are they gonna do if people are gonna do work more remotely to support employee engagement, employee satisfaction, and as Jennifer mentioned the mental health of employees through this period of time certainly we have shown a higher incidence of mental health problems as people have felt isolated, lonely and a little bit hopeless about the situation. Those are the three issues for this year and I think those are gonna have a lot of resonance with the organizations we work with because as we talked these through it seems like that every member we talk to said, we are working on two or three of those issues as our key priorities as well. So, these all marry up well with our members.

Agnes Uhereczky: If I could ask you, Brad, to build on your experience you had before the pandemic and also in this past 11 months. What advice would you give to senior leaders who are looking for information, or maybe not sure what it is that they could do to put in place and support their employees who are struggling, or who are carers or parents, and they don't know where to start. What would be your advice?

Brad Harrington: Well, first and foremost, this is probably not news because they have been dealing with these issues coming up a year now is to continue to be flexible. Everybody is doing the best they can during this unprecedented time to sort of say how do I pay attention to my health and wellbeing to my work, to my family, and all the needs that those present. And so I think that organizations that are gonna be the most successful at navigating the next sixth month to a year are the ones that are gonna continue to be flexible and be understanding that people are very very difficult situations around their health, family, and wellbeing, and getting their work done. So, the more flexible that we can be with our people the better will be for business success as well as for employee wellbeing. So, I don't think that putting employees in a situation where they have to choose between their own health and wellbeing, or their families and what the business needs are is a good place to be. It gets much better to be understanding and say “look we are all trying to do our best, how can you do things flexibly, and at the same time continue to be a productive member of our organization. And, then secondly I would just say that I think a lot of organizations as Jennifer said are doing a lot of good things to really say how can we best support employees during this period of time and what they can do obviously differs depending on how their finances are working, or whether or not they are in a position to be able to offer people some of the services that Jennifer outlined. But the one thing that you can do and I think that this can be done very simply is to simply ask employees what is it that we can do that could be most helpful to you. And it could be in a form of a survey, but the survey can you know could be literally one or two questions that say given what we went through as you think about returning to work, and kids hopefully are going to get back to school, as you think about any health concerns you have, what would be the most helpful support we could provide for you during this period of time. That would make sure that before employers launch large and expensive initiatives that they know what they are doing targets and fit the needs of their population. So, asking what can be done and maintaining a stance of flexibility to me are the simplest ways in which organizations can really be responsible and helpful to their people.

Agnes Uhereczky: Excellent points indeed. Jennifer, would you like to add something?

Jennifer Fraone: I would just say that what we have learned through this pandemic is how much the issues we review and research are very intertwined whether that be diversity and inclusion, and efforts to create inclusive work cultures, employee wellbeing, caregiving, flexibility, and remote work, etc. There are so many overlaps with these critical issues and they have all stepped to the forefronts of our minds and so we feel that our mission is to continue to help employers figure out how to create this new more benevolent workplace future and really leverage what they have learned to help them toward that effort.