Corporate America is in need of a reboot.
That's what advocates are calling for as working parents — especially women — are looking for more flexibility and other changes to help them juggle work and family life.
"This pandemic has turned the workplace upside down," said Amber Clayton, director of the Society for Human Resource Management's Knowledge Center.
"It has shifted the needs and priorities of employers and employees."
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Women have been hit the hardest. They've borne the brunt of the pandemic-related job losses and have stepped away from careers to care for children suddenly out of school. The end result is a lower labor force participation rate not seen since 1988.
"Smart companies realize that they are better off with more women in the workplace," said Karen Fichuk, CEO of human resource consulting firm Randstad North America, based in Atlanta.
Yet to keep women in the workforce, companies may need to adjust policies and leadership strategies.
Flexibility — both in work hours and the ability to work from home — is the most successful approach Fichuk has seen companies make to attract and retain women.
It appears to be a trend that will stick around.
More than 84% of companies are offering some flexibility during the pandemic, according to a new survey from global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. It polled 201 human resources executives from companies of various sizes and industries nationwide March 2 to 12.
When asked if the flexibility would extend past the pandemic, 95% reported some or all elements would continue.
About 84% said they are retaining remote work options for their teams.
Set the tone from the top
There is also a fear of speaking up. About one-third of parents said they were afraid they'll lose their job if they tell their employer about the stress of the workload while caregiving and homeschooling during the pandemic, a May 2020 report by Apres and NUA Group found.
Leaders must send a message that it is OK to utilize company programs meant to foster a healthy working environment, the report said.
That includes leading by example and reinforcing support through constant messaging. They should also lead with empathy.
"They really need to do the work to equip their managers with levers that they can pull to keep women when they come to them and say, 'I need to explore something different,'" said Stacey Delo, co-author of "Your Turn: Careers, Kids and Comebacks — A Working Mother's Guide" and CEO of Après, a website that provides career resources for women returning to the workforce.
Child-care costs sometimes keep some women out of work, since their salary may not even cover the cost. Others may be faced with a lack of options — about half of American families with young children live in a child-care desert, a 2018 analysis by the Center for American Progress found.
While companies can't absorb the entire burden of their employees' child-care costs, they can play a role, said Fichuk.
"There is an ecosystem approach to this," she said.
"If companies offer referral services, or stipends for child care, that is a key driver of retention."
So many of the jobs lost during the pandemic will never come back, Fichuk said.
"We need to teach them new skills or help them transplant the skills that they do have," she said.
For instance, someone in the hospitality industry will have fantastic customer service skills. With some technical training, they can land a job in customer service or customer support.
The key is finding that demand and the supply, making the match and filling the gap with skill training.
"There is this opportunity for all of us — employers, agencies, the government — to step up and fill the gap," Fichuk said.
The bottom line
The pandemic has opened many employers' eyes to the needs and struggles of working women, as well as the ability to work from home and still be productive, advocates noted.
That's why now is the time to make these changes to retain women or get women back into the workforce.
There is also a danger of women losing more ground in advancement and in pay equity, at a time when they already only make 82 cents for every $1 a man makes.
"If we can't figure this out, we have really failed women who have worked so hard to get to where they are," Delo said.
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