A Lifeline for Working Parents: 5 Ways Organizations Can Support Parenting & Leadership

Working parents taking picture while drawing with children modeling parenting and leadership concept

Can the New World of Work Help Those Balancing Caregiving and Leadership Responsibilities?

For years, many working parents sought to achieve a “work-life balance” that allowed their work responsibilities and family demands to peacefully coexist. Surely, many felt, it must be possible to excel in or, at the very least feel satisfied with, both realms.

Commonly touted solutions often suggested simple fixes to this complex problem: if only they could define boundaries, communicate more effectively, or find the right support, then work-life balance would naturally fall into place…

But then COVID hit, and the collision of work and home life created a tipping point. The pandemic’s shift to homeschooling and virtual work led many working parents — especially women — to take a step back in their careers, or to leave the workforce entirely. Organizations are still feeling the effects, as exhausted caregivers left (and continue to leave) their jobs in record numbers.

Now, as senior leaders grapple with how to fill openings and keep the talent they currently have, they should keep in mind that a key way to attract, develop, and retain women leaders (and working parents or other caregivers in general) is to ensure that they’re offering inclusive family leave policies, permanent hybrid and remote work options, and ample growth and development opportunities.

Organizations Must Lead the Way to Support Working Parents & Other Types of Caregivers

Even as COVID restrictions lift and physical offices reopen, many employees — both with and without children — remain hesitant about returning to work in person.

For those with caregiving responsibilities whose jobs can be done from home, most say that they want to continue working remotely in the future. A study from the Pew Research Center reveals that 64% of employees who are working from home at least some of the time (but rarely or never did so before the pandemic) report that it’s now easier for them to balance work with their personal life.

Increased flexibility in the workplace — combined with children back in school or daycare — comes as a long-awaited relief for working parents who struggled even before the pandemic to juggle both parenting and leadership responsibilities.

Is the idea of “balance” more attainable at last?

Certainly, flexible and remote work arrangements help, but the golden notion of “balance” probably still feels beyond reach for many caregivers and working parents, and for good reason: we consider work-life balance to be a faulty metaphor.

It’s simply not possible for caregivers to be fully present for their employers and their families all the time, while also taking care of their own health and well-being.

And the truth is, they shouldn’t be forced to seek this equilibrium without organizational support.

For companies to attract and retain talent, they must be willing to offer flexible work options, acknowledge the juggle between caregiving and leadership responsibilities, implement equitable family leave policies, and support their people in finding work-life integration.

Actions Organizations Can Take to Support Working Parents, Caregivers & All Their Employees

Here are some specific steps that organizations can take to support working parents — and all caregivers.

1. Offer equitable and inclusive family leave policies.

Amidst the “Great Resignation,” workers now have more bargaining power. Companies don’t want to lose talent, so employees can often enact change by calling attention to archaic and inequitable leave policies, courageously asking for the support they need from their organizations.

While these conversations are useful, we still believe the onus and impetus to adopt more inclusive leave policies should fall on employers, not on employees.

Organizations are charged first with recognizing that families come in all shapes and sizes. Statistics show that the traditional stereotypical idea of the nuclear family — 2 married, heterosexual parents of the same race with 2 biological children — has become increasingly obsolete.

To increase equity, acknowledge diversity, and build inclusion into your organization’s policies around time off from work, “maternity leave policies should be reframed as parental leave — or even better, caretaker or family leave policies — to reflect an expanded definition of caregiving. Providing care for a family member isn’t limited to biological mothers and new babies, and caregiving for children often includes fathers, adoptive parents, spouses or partners, etc.

Inclusive leave policies should also cover an employee taking time off work to care for any family member — including aging parents, sick partners, adolescent children, those with special needs, etc.

And further, managers should normalize actually using the leave to focus on childcare or other types of caregiving. Simply renaming your maternity leave policy to a “parental leave” policy is not enough; senior leaders should actively encourage new fathers and domestic partners to take the available leave (and model this behavior themselves where applicable). This signals that your organization is serious about enabling employees to bring their whole selves to work and helps to combat ingrained stigmas and societal expectations that a mother’s role as caretaker is more essential than a father’s.

When organizations offer inclusive family leave policies, they’re better able to compete for talent and retain strong performers. That’s why both company language and culture should be explicitly and intentionally inclusive, so that taking time away from work to care for a family member seems (and actually is) equally accessible.

2. Be a champion for flexibility by extending it to all employees.

Flexible work policies aren’t effective (and can actually be quite harmful) when they’re only available to a select group, or in specific scenarios. While talent managers generally acknowledge that new working parents just returning from leave might need flexibility in their work schedules, it’s important to specify and remind your employees that flexibility is available to everyone.

According to research, people without children sometimes feel they’re expected to pick up the slack at work when colleagues with children are granted increased flexibility. This dynamic not only inequitably burdens employees without children, it also creates an environment that positions flexibility as an organizational weakness instead of a strength. But the opposite is actually true.

During the pandemic, many employers realized that they don’t have to trade flexibility for productivity. On the contrary, studies revealed that productivity actually increased as many employees shifted to remote work. So don’t assume that, post-COVID, your organization should have everyone came back into the office or resume the same work arrangements as before.

Design company policies around flexibility, including remote and hybrid work options, with a focus on equity, as well as diversity and inclusion. Offer compassion and flexibility for caretaking of all kinds. Regardless of whether they have children, employees who have the freedom and flexibility to schedule when and where they work can be more productive with the time they have.

Provide as much autonomy as possible in determining work schedules and locations. You’ll improve employee retention post-pandemic with flexible work arrangements that enable a greater sense of control and lead to more fulfilled, engaged, and loyal employees.

3. Support Employee Resource Groups.

Also known as “affinity groups” or “business networking groups,” employee resource groups are formed by employees who share a common social identity characteristic, such as ethnicity or gender. Within these informal groups, members provide one another with support, career development, and professional networking.

During the pandemic, Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for caregivers gained popularity, as working parents and others struggling with balancing family or parenting and leadership challenges found they needed a network for support and advice. Your organization can help ERGs become even more impactful through your support. Here are a few ideas:

  • Assist the ERG in achieving specific goals; for example, connecting them with other working parents or caregivers throughout the organization. ERGs are most effective when they’re diverse and inclusive of biological, adoptive, and LGBTQ+ parents.
  • Share the ERG’s goals and immediate wins with your executive leadership team to encourage senior-level sponsorship and engagement.
  • Connect members with resources and learning opportunities.

4. Offer flexible opportunities for leadership development.

When working parents and other caregivers are feeling challenged by conflicting demands, leadership development can give them new skillsets and mindsets to adapt and show up in the ways they’d like to — both at work and at home.

For example, our long-running Leadership Development Program (LDP)® introduces participants to the idea of a button with 4 holes as a symbol for holistic leadership. The button helps participants remember that leaders are most effective when they understand how the 4 elements of their lives — self, family, career, and community — are woven together in an interconnected way to work in tandem and lead to optimal outcomes.

Other training opportunities that incorporate vertical development can be especially helpful for employees trying to juggle parenting and leadership responsibilities, because it helps them grow through heat experiences and walks them through the process of reconciling colliding perspectives.

Importantly, for any type of professional development to offer genuine benefit to the employee and to avoid overwhelming their already full schedules, there must be adequate “air cover” from the organization. Acknowledge training as an important business priority, and provide participants with the space and time to focus on their development, as well as to integrate the learnings into their daily routines.

Working parents and other types of caregivers need options for how they engage in leadership development opportunities, including the format that best fits their needs. Whether it’s face-to-face training, virtual development programs, asynchronous learning, or a combination of formats, providing flexible development opportunities in a variety of modalities will help your employees balance parenting and leadership demands, while improving engagement and retention of your talent.

5. Support employees who choose to “power down” and stay the course.

Some caregivers and working parents may choose or be forced to step away from their careers entirely for a period of time to focus on child-rearing or other family needs. Talent managers within organizations can support this decision and also offer an alternative.

Link to: Kick Some Glass: 10 Ways Women Succeed at Work, Jennifer Martineau and Portia MountAs outlined in the book Kick Some Glass: 10 Ways Women Succeed at Work, co-authors Jennifer Martineau and Portia Mount explore the “power down” alternative for mothers balancing parenting and leadership, advising that “women may not need to leave their organizations if they can adjust the demands of their roles to accommodate childbirth and child-rearing.”

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionally impacted women, causing many to step back from their careers or leave the workforce entirely, Martineau and Mount’s advice is widely applicable to working parents and caregivers in general. Organizations can support employees by providing opportunities to reduce their hours if needed and enabling them to stay connected through professional networks.

To ensure caregivers avoid losing momentum in their careers when doing this, talent managers should have candid conversations about what the “powered down” period will look like, when it might end or be reviewed, and how they can support working parents or caregivers when they do ease back into work. Organizations can also pair young working parents with more senior mentors and sponsors who are willing to provide guidance and support, as well as advocate on their behalf.

While sponsoring and mentoring at work are beneficial for all employees, these programs can be especially critical in supporting and retaining women leaders. Learn more about sponsoring and mentoring women in our free guide and workbook.

Help Caregivers Bring Their Whole Selves to Parenting & Leadership

While many companies around the world have publicly made claims about their support of and commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion in the past couple of years, many lack organizational accountability and true follow-through when it comes to actually changing their policies, processes, and culture. 

To show your internal and external stakeholders that you’re genuinely committed to making real and sustainable change, your organization must evaluate your current practices and make upgrades where necessary — including addressing outdated leave policies to better support those struggling with caregiving and workplace responsibilities.

Properly supported working parents and other caregivers will become better, healthier leaders at work, at home, and within their communities — leading to positive impact for your organization that’s much greater than an annual retention report might reveal.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Working parents and other caregivers need equitable support from your organization in order to thrive and continue to share their talents with you. Learn how our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion practice can help you build a culture that attracts, retains, and supports a diverse workforce, today and into the future.

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May 16, 2022
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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