Most days over the past year, my calendar has looked like a crazy quilt of overlapping and wall-to-wall Zoom meetings, something that was barely on my radar during my “old life.” Early in the pandemic, my kids made plenty of uninvited appearances as they adjusted to having Mom’s office in the same building as their school and their playroom. At that point, being the leader of two teams—one composed of small people sharing some of my DNA and the other composed of larger people who share my employer—wasn’t easy. I realized that work/life integration had taken on a new meaning, especially for women.
Could there be good news in this? The pandemic has highlighted the need for changes that can positively affect women in the workforce now and into the future.
While I experienced what it’s like to shoulder more than one full-time job at the pandemic’s start, I was fortunate enough to bring back my kids’ nanny after a few months. Millions of other parents haven’t been this lucky and have had no break or help in meeting the demands of both work and family. Those bearing the heaviest burden are women.
Even before the pandemic’s onset, women performed almost twice as many unpaid care duties as men. Alarmingly but not surprisingly, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 2.2 million fewer women in the workforce in October 2020 compared to a year prior. In fact, this data showed that when school started back up in September, 80 percent of the 1.1 million people who left the workforce were women, many of whom simply couldn’t handle being a full-time teacher, caregiver, and employee all at once. Superhero capes were in short supply or seriously malfunctioning as mothers accepted their status as mere mortals.
Now that we’re seeing a slow return to the office, how do we bring women back into the fold and, just as importantly, retain the women who have been hanging in there? If employers do nothing to right the ship, it will take until at least 2024 before the number of working women returns to the pre-COVID level. To address this, proactive organizations may consider implementing some of these approaches and policies:
- Schedule Fewer Meetings: While we’ve become accustomed to virtual meeting platforms like Zoom and Teams, many of us are reaching the point of digital meeting burnout. Where we might have once handled a discussion with a brief phone call, now we’re scheduled for a face-to-face encounter. This often takes up more time, not to mention notable effort to appear professional when your five-year-old has his face pressed to the glass door of your home office. Undoubtedly, there are simply more meetings now than ever before because it’s so easy to schedule them, and there’s no need to space them apart to allow for travel. It’s time to dial back on the digital meetings and employ them when it makes sense.
- Create a Culture that Values Women: When there are women in the C-Suite, an organization sends a clear message about their value. Some companies, like Oswald, have created a Women’s Leadership Council to elevate and support women as they navigate their careers in a male-dominated industry. Internal organizations within a company can address women’s issues, offer relevant programs, and respond to their concerns, letting them know they’re important.
- Keep Communication Lines Open: Especially as we continue to work remotely, it’s important to touch base with your employees, both women and men. It eases the stress that many working mothers may be feeling when their challenges are acknowledged, and their successes are openly praised. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve hosted bi-weekly chats to keep spirits up and identify those who may be struggling. Yes, we’ve talked about business, but the point of these is to connect as co-workers who are often friends, too. Ask about children and pets and play a few virtual games to stay connected and take a break together.
- Reveal Your Human Side: There’s a reason someone once said, “Misery loves company,” and it stuck. People simply don’t like to feel alone when they’re battling challenges. It helps to know that everyone, even the office leader, doesn’t always have it all together all the time.
- Reevaluate Workloads: Now, more than ever, it’s important to divide the workload evenly. Make sure employees know which aspects of their jobs are critical so they can properly focus on excelling where it really counts.
- Provide Support Outlets: Make sure your employees know how to access your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for short-term counseling, assessments, and referrals related to personal and/or work-related problems. Consider subsidizing the cost of emergency childcare or educational assistance. This fall, Oswald implemented a tutorial reimbursement policy to offset the cost of professional help during remote education periods.
- Keep it Flexible: Although the demands of working from home while caring for and/or educating children have been great, there have been benefits, too. Eliminating commute time has afforded more time for healthy meal prep, saved money on gas and car maintenance, and allowed people to get more sleep. With life and work truly integrated, people have been able to schedule home repairs without taking time away from work. Employers who continue to offer the ability to work from home at least two or three days a week will be appealing to working mothers once childcare and in-seat education fully resume.
The days of working with a toddler clinging to your leg and a cat on your keyboard may be soon ending. In the post-pandemic world, companies will be left to make decisions that affect how we move forward to keep the good that has come out of a mostly negative world shift. We’re in front of a serendipitous opportunity to improve all employees’ quality of life while retaining women and bringing those who may have left back into the workplace.
No one would choose to relive a pandemic. However, those who are resilient see the positive as they move forward into brighter days.
“Going through things you never thought you’d go through will only take you to places you never thought you’d get to.” -Morgan Harper Nichols
View more from the Women’s Leadership Blog Series.
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