Simple Ways Employers Can Get More From Parents on Their Payroll

Working parents have had it rough lately, with waves of disruptions to their kids’ schooling, extracurricular activities, and familial support systems. That’s created an opportunity for employers to do more—and reap productivity gains in return, says Daisy Dowling, chief executive officer of Workparent, a consultancy that advises employees and companies in the U.S. “A lot of us have been running with our hair on fire for a long time, and a huge percentage of parents are thinking of finding a new gig,” Dowling says. Her new book, Workparent: The Complete Guide to Succeeding on the Job, Staying True to Yourself, and Raising Happy Kids, aims to help parents balance their desires to be both involved in their kids’ lives and focused on work. Here are her recommendations for employers:

Concentrate on the day-to-day experience. Programs and policies are great, but offering flexibility and reasonable boundaries in daily practices is what matters most. “Don’t rejigger the parental leave policy repeatedly,” she says. “Take that energy and direct it toward the day-to-day experience, where you can have a big impact without spending a lot.” Practices are simply what you ask and expect managers and colleagues to do, such as allowing early hours or encouraging Slack to be turned off at set times.

Connect colleagues. A litmus test: Can a parent speedily crowdsource an answer to “Hey, has anyone used this nanny service?” If not, a parent Listserv is in order. Dowling also encourages peer-to-peer mentoring—and not just when parents return from maternity or paternity leave, but as needed, such as after a promotion or new responsibilities.

Clearly articulate off-hours. Most managers think they’ve communicated this, but the rules are often unclear, “so we’re all in this kind of constant, hypervigilance, and that’s crushing for parents,” says Dowling. Try:

  • “Listen, you’re gonna see a bunch of 9-10 p.m. emails from me, but I don’t expect or want you to read them until morning.”
  • “You are entirely off until 9 a.m. There’s no need to check your work phone before that.”
  • “I know vacations with kids aren’t always restful, so this month try taking a day off while the kids are at school.”

Create tangible milestones. “Every working parent has a to-do list that could reach California, and it never gets shorter,” she says. “Clever managers will give feedback like, ‘We’ve made progress on this project over the past three weeks,’ or ‘I’m really pleased with how you’ve been able to improve this document.’ It’s giving a sense of accomplishment.” Success breeds motivation; running in place on a treadmill doesn’t.

Create pre-parent education. Prospective parents are seeing headlines about parent hell, and they’re worried. “At all the seminars I do for companies, people turn up who aren’t yet parents,” she says. Normalize the topic for everyone. One of Dowling’s law clients added a training week session for summer associates on family support, with a parent panel.

Make policies gender-neutral. Parental leave policies commonly offer differing terms for mothers, fathers, and supporting parents. Instead, create a unified policy for everyone.

Communicate benefits. Would an aspiring LGBTQ dad at your company know about the backup child-care program? Or is it mostly marketed through the company’s women’s network? “A lot of programs and policies are packaged in a way that appeals to one group of parents over another,” she says. Simply clearing out hurdles to existent benefits is a low-cost, high-impact fix.  

Add family days. Dowling’s research shows that parents want day-to-day contact with their kids, such as driving the car pool or taking the team for ice cream after soccer. Offering time off to do those things can go a long way. “I would love to see these instituted at every major company,” she says. “It would allow people actual leeway to be at the pediatric dentist or school play—small-ticket, low-drama items.”

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