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Improving the work-life equation: Rethinking workplace flexibility to include parents

By Lindsay Goodman and Melissa Acker / September 17, 2019

Evolving preferences and a younger workforce have companies re-evaluating their workplace offerings in order to attract the very best of the best. But as employers go back to the drawing board and rethink their offerings, they often stop short of creating policies that account for every employee’s needs.

The most glaring omission? Parents and other caregivers who are responsible for the health and well-being of dependent children or elderly or disabled relatives.

With unemployment sitting at 3.7 percent, job seekers are becoming more selective about which opportunities they want and which they want to turn down. In response to the candidate-driven market, employers are investing more upfront in their culture and work perks to attract the cream of the crop. When companies offer benefits like work-from-home policies, they not only distinguish themselves from competitors but also enjoy improved employee performance, a higher retention rate and greater feelings of company loyalty.

So often when organizations talk about flexibility, however, they mean structuring their policies to meet the needs and expectations of Millennials and Gen Zers. While it’s great companies are looking for ways to improve the experience for the young hire fresh out of college, employers also need to consider how flexible policies can work for those who are parents and caregivers too.

Research shows working parents are feeling the stress of juggling parenting and work, with 60% reporting burnout and 40% saying their lives have been affected by it. And with four in ten full-time working moms saying they always feel rushed and worried they’re doing a horrible job at everything, it’s unsurprising to see 43% of qualified women quitting their jobs to be stay-at-home mothers. For a workplace environment that brings out the best in employees, companies need to reevaluate who they’re creating flexibility policies for and who they may be excluding.

One-size does not fit all

In theory, a flexible workplace policy sounds simple enough to deploy, but in practice we find it’s much harder to create a single policy that reflects the needs of a diverse workforce. One study found that 96% of employees say they need flexibility at work, but only 47% have access to the type of flexibility they need. The consequence of inflexible policies are only magnified when we look at how they impact parents, who find themselves moving in and out of the office at a much higher rate than their coworkers.

Consider the usual circumstances that forces non-parents to change when and where they work. Employees could fall ill during lunch, have a doctor’s appointment that can’t be moved or experience travel delays preventing them from coming back to the office. For childless employees, these disruptions occur every now and then but for working parents, they happen on a more frequent and unpredictable basis.

As mothers ourselves, we know firsthand what it’s like to get a call from the school in the middle of the work day because our child needed stitches after a playground accident or threw up in class. These unexpected incidents—trust us when we say there are too many to count—force parents to get creative with where they ‘plug in’ to work; we’ve turned daycare lobbies, public transit and even emergency rooms into makeshift offices. And even the planned events can pose a dilemma, like having to choose between attending a first grader’s parent meet-and-greet at 2:30 on a Monday versus going to an in-person meeting with your director.

The problem? When workplace flexibility is treated as a mandate, anything listed outside of the formal policies can be viewed as ‘breaking the rules.’ A one-size-fits-all approach to flexibility leaves room for too much ambiguity–and parents are left wondering if they need to regularly ask for permission to leave the office. Rather than empowering all employees, including parents, to make their own choices about managing their time, it results in employees who feel anxious about using their flexibility or uncertain if they can.

Flexibility requires a perception change

As if the responsibilities of parenting weren’t stressful enough, working moms and dads also struggle with a perception issue holding them back from fully embracing a flexible work-life style.

Roughly three in 10 parents feel they could be fired because of family responsibilities, with nearly a quarter of parents saying they’ve lied about parenting issues that could interfere with their work schedules. Because it’s one thing to commit to workplace flexibility—it’s another to implement it and build a culture that supports parents coming and going without question. Comments like, “Your kid is sick again? Can’t your partner stay home?” speak volumes about how parents tend to be perceived when dealing with things out of their control. And for single parents, those feelings of guilt and stress are only compounded because of the lack of a co-parent to balance those responsibilities.

Another barrier keeping parents from taking advantage of flexible working arrangements is they feel it will stifle their career advancement. As a result, working moms and dads are susceptible to elevated levels of stress and feeling like they’re unable to put their best foot forward in the home and in the office. In order for workplace flexibility to be successful, the way employees perceive flexible work needs to change. Instead of treating flexibility as something employees need to earn first, employers should trust their working parents to get the work done when they can and wherever they can. And 73% of employees say they want their office culture to judge people on the quality of their work rather than the number of hours they put in.

Seemingly minute adjustments, such as publicly recognizing good work, go a long way in both supporting working parents and signaling to their colleagues the work is still getting done. For parents, being open about the challenges of juggling personal and professional responsibilities can further cultivate empathy and understanding in colleagues who struggle to relate to a working parent’s situation.

Normalizing a culture change starts at the top

One reason why employees don’t use flexible working arrangements is because there’s a gap between what’s said at the top and how it translates to their everyday working life.

Effective change starts at the top, and employees look to the leaders of their organization to determine what’s acceptable and what’s not. When Sprout’s very own CEO, Justyn Howard, took his full four months of parental leave, it signaled to every employee that taking the entire leave was not only acceptable but encouraged. Similarly, a director in our sales department not only encouraged the parents on his team to take their full leave but he also set the example and took his allotted time off as well. Choosing to shorten one’s parental leave, like what Marissa Mayer did at Yahoo, can send the wrong message to employees about what’s acceptable and what isn’t—especially for those interested in leadership roles.

To further normalize flexibility, Robbert Rietbroek of PepsiCo Australia and New Zealand announces whenever he leaves work early to pick up his children from school. Rietbroek encourages his executive team to “leave loudly” to let middle management and new hires know it’s okay to take advantage of flexible working arrangements. In order for flexible policies to work, your CEOs and business leaders need to be seen as champions of flexible working.

Flexibility is a win-win for everyone

As workforces grow increasingly diverse, the needs and working styles of every individual are going to evolve. And to get the most out of their teams, employers need to design flexible work policies that works for every employee, regardless if they’re fresh out of school or a single parent or a caregiver.

Because it’s not just working parents who benefit from a true culture of flexibility—when everyone is afforded the flexibility to work at their own pace, it can lead to a happier and more productive workforce. When done right, flexible working arrangements not only contribute to a business’ growth goals but also create an environment that attracts (and retains) the best employees for the long run.

Lindsay Goodman and Melissa Acker

Lindsay Goodman and Melissa Acker

Lindsay Goodman is a Principal Customer Success Manager at Sprout Social, where she helps Sprout's largest customers get the most out of the platform. When Lindsay isn't building strong relationships and helping customers achieve social success, you can find her being a Mom to her two children, Max and Sydney. Melissa Acker is a Staff Performance Engineer at Sprout Social where she works with the engineering and product teams to improve the overall health of their services. She also leads the Underrepresented Genders in Tech Business Resource Group and, when she's not at Sprout, she is the mom of two very active boys.
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