COVID-19: Returning to Work While Managing Childcare

As we slowly recover from COVID-19 quarantine and roll into Phase 1, Phase 2 and eventually Phase 3 many workplaces will return to the office. However, other very important facets of our life, including the care of children are not on the same trajectory to return to normal.

Can we return to the workplace without reopening daycare, school and camp?

This week we are fortunate to have a guest contributor, with first hand experience as a working mom.  Welcome Yi-Hsian Godfrey, Co-founder, Apiari.  Yi-Hsian will share insights on this topic and what company leaders need to consider when bringing employees back into the office.

Guest Contributor: Yi-Hsian Godfrey, Co-founder, Apiari

In May, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that employees could work from home “forever.” For working parents, this could be the viable solution they were searching for as they fear returning to the workplace while schools, daycares, and camps are closed.

Working from home has proven to be a more productive and even enjoyable arrangement than going into the office. People can sleep in a bit now that their commute is nonexistent, dress more comfortably, make and eat meals together as a family, and do their work without distractions from coworkers. 

Still, working from home isn’t all roses. Employees, especially working parents, are also dealing with a number of problems: their work-life boundaries, if they exist at all, have been greatly reduced, they’re working longer hours, and those distractions from coworkers have been replaced by distractions from kids. Without outside help, these parents have taken on additional roles at home as teachers, counselors, coaches, short-order cooks, cleaners, and even barbers, just to name a few.

As state governments and business leaders start thinking about bringing nonessential employees back into the workplace, the larger question is how we do so without adequate childcare options in place for the 41% of parents in the workforce?

COVID-19 Impact on Working Parents 

Of course, everyone is experiencing stress in every arena, but none more so than working parents. “The fallout from the pandemic — job losses, prolonged stress and a deterioration of mental health — will be felt by families for years to come,” says UNICEF Chief of Early Childhood Development Dr. Pia Rebello Britto. 

According to Lean In research, “Women are shouldering a much heavier burden of household labor and caregiving during Covid-19, and it’s taking a toll — they’re experiencing physical symptoms of stress and burnout at up to twice the rate of men.”

“I’m actually finding working from home worse. I have two young children and going into the office set a clear boundary between work life and personal life. Having to be home and work and care for children and be productive is so challenging [that] I actually feel burnt out by the end of each day and desperately live for weekends, something that I didn’t do before,” Davina O’Garro writes in a community discussion on the women’s career-development platform Fairygodboss.

Research supports this. In the 2019 Women in the Workplace survey, 40 percent of women said they did all or most of the childcare and housework for their families. Meanwhile, new research by LeanIn.org and SurveyMonkey finds that 77 percent of mothers have taken on more household work since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Concerns About Returning to the Workplace

With schools closed until the end of the year in many areas and some camps closed, parents are concerned about returning to their offices without adequate childcare. 

Even those in places where schools and camps will resume soon are worried about the safety factor involved in sending their children. Given the fast-spreading nature of COVID-19, kids could easily be exposed to the virus and bring it home to their parents as well. And if parents become ill, who will care for their children?

Parents who are facing a return to the workplace are understandably upset. “I’ve had so much anxiety over this,” Katie M. writes in a Fairygodboss Community Discussion. “I am hesitant to send my children [to camp and daycare], but I know work will ask me to come back soon. So what do I do? Put all of us in harm’s way to go back to an office where I could easily do this work from home?” 

This, coupled with the fact that childcare is often prohibitively expensive — the average cost of daycare is higher than college tuition in 33 states — leaves many parents feeling like they’re out of options. After all, if most of their paycheck is going toward a nanny or babysitter, is the tradeoff of returning to the office even worth it?

Supporting Working Parents with Family-Friendly Policies

As business leaders begin to think about bringing employees back into the workplace, there are clearly many considerations they’ll need to take into account. To ensure policies support working parents, consider including:

Paid Leave: If your company doesn’t already offer paid leave, consider adding it. Parents, especially, will need to focus on putting childcare (and eldercare) arrangements in place. This gives working parents the time and financial security they need now in order to be fully engaged when they return to the office.

More Flexible Work Arrangements: Some parents are planning to trade off work-from-home days with their partners, while others hope to keep working from home full-time until they have the confidence to send their kids back to school or daycare. 

Providing additional flexible arrangements, such as coming in for half days, a few days a week, or alternating weeks or staggering work hours can help employees better coordinate childcare support before schools and daycare have resumed full operations.

Subsidized Childcare Programs: Given how difficult childcare will be in the coming months, workplaces can help ease the financial burden by offering partially or fully subsidized backup childcare programs, including private nannies and babysitters. Also, think about broadening the coverage definition to include tutoring and virtual babysitting sessions. Even if parents continue to work from home, having access to subsidized childcare can give parents the financial incentive and ease of access to have extra help when they need it. 

Without family-friendly policies in place, many parents will be forced to choose between their families or their work. Already during this COVID pandemic, we have already seen millennial women applying to jobs at a slower rate than men, most likely because of the responsibilities caring for young children at home. 

Why is keeping parents in the workplace important? As we already know, retaining top talent is substantially more cost-effective than recruiting talent. More importantly, losing parents, especially women in the workforce not only means having a less diverse business but also that your company is also losing valuable insights and feedback from one of the largest consumer groups in the marketplace. Women drive 70-80 percent of consumer purchasing in terms of buying power and influence. When they’re not as highly represented in businesses, a crucial perspective is missing.

As we plan Phase 2 — bringing employees back into the office to revitalize our businesses —  let’s ensure working parents, like all other employees, are being fully supported at work and at home so they can return to the workplace with confidence.

About the Author: 
Yi-Hsian Godfrey is CEO of Apiari. She’s a work-life diversity advocate and a mother of two school-aged kids. For more information about Apiari’s services or to connect with Yi-Hsian please click here.

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