“Mommy, I am hungry,” says my eight year-old. “I left you a snack on the counter,” I respond and then turn back to an inbox overflowing with unread client emails. “Mommy, my iPad just froze,” she says 15 minutes later. “Figure it out, give screen time a break or ask your father,” I say, then try to make a dent in the emails before the next request comes in. “Mommy, when will you be done working today,” she asks less than 30 minutes later. “Never, if you don’t leave me alone,” I snap back, before feeling guilty, apologizing, and promising her an afternoon swim as soon as I finish my 4 p.m. conference call. Then, just as I am within reach of an up to date inbox, I hear the phrase now comparable to nails on a chalkboard, “Mommy, I am still hungry!”

This is the plight of the working parent in the COVID-19 economy. We’ve been home with our families since March trying to figure out how to balance their needs with those of our employers, co-workers, and clients.  The light at the end of the tunnel was the promise of schools opening back up in the fall. But, with Coronavirus cases surging, my Florida public school district, like so many others across the country, will most likely be sticking to an all virtual fall semester, leaving working parents to walk this tightrope for the foreseeable future.

As the school opening debate rages on across the country, in the moments I can find mental clarity it has occurred to me that while the stakes are a lot higher, working parents, particularly working moms, have been refining and recalibrating the work-life balancing act for centuries, no, make that millennia. (I googled it and found a  2017 University of Cambridge archaeological study that concluded women have been juggling work and motherhood for at least 7,000 plus years.)

This is a tale as old as time (quote credit to Disney, and a debt of gratitude to Disney+, the saving grace during the pandemic for working moms everywhere). Jokes and ideological views aside, the lessons already learned by working moms and corporations that have created employee-driven workplaces where working moms, and their battle-tested ability to multi-task, prioritize and adapt, can thrive, should be applied to the COVID-19 induced career conundrums of today. 

So, what are employee-driven workplaces? Why are they beneficial to both working parents and corporations? And, how can companies create them? Let’s start with what employee-driven workplaces are, or better yet, what they are not. 

There is a falsehood that a company that offers a generous employee benefits package will also be a great place to work. A company may offer sought after perks like unlimited paid vacation and flexible work from home policies, both of which rbb offers (and I am blessed to have), but benefits alone are not the key to solving the heightened struggles created by COVID-19 that working parents now face.

Even before the pandemic rbb worked on numerous marketing campaigns for Hilton brands highlighting the alarming number of working Americans who don’t use their earned vacation days.  While an organization’s value statement may promote their “work from anywhere” policies, if you surveyed their staff you’d often learn that before the pandemic most managers frowned upon employees that worked remotely too often. Having great benefits does not mean you’ve created a culture where employees can access them when and how they need them most.

Flexibility and respect are the foundation of an employee-driven workplace. As rbb CEO Christine Barney advised in PRNews’ Employee Communications Guidebook, when companies treat their staff like thieves and liars, the result is a nonproductive atmosphere of fear and distrust. Moreover, in the COVID-19 economy, this is a recipe for reputational risk and legal action.

Consider the California insurance company being sued for discrimination by a former employee who says she was fired after a supervisor complained that her kids could be heard on conference calls. Florida State University faced similar backlash when it announced employees could no longer care for children during work hours. The school has since retracted the policy to start affording the working parents on staff more flexibility.

An employee-driven workplace strives to meet its employees where they are. rbb allows every employee, including our accounting staff and administrative assistants, to have a say in their location and hours of work. I can appreciate that offering this type of flexibility may alarm some companies who have concerns about how they will know that employees are really working. To counter this, I once again channel the wisdom of our CEO who has long noted the following two principles of an employee-driven workplace.

  • First, every good human resource department should have effective time/productivity tracking.
  • Second, the results speak for themselves. If the work is not getting done, or is done poorly, it will be discovered. No one can “cheat the system” for very long. In an employee-driven workplace, often other employees are the first to call out the slacker who lets down the team.

So how can you create an employee-driven workplace that meets the new, and urgent, needs of working parents during the pandemic? As GreatPlacesToWork.com contributor Claire Hastwell aptly recommended in a recent blog, companies should strive to co-create solutions with employees and be extreme about flexibility.

Some working parents on staff may need to start and end their day earlier than the standard corporate hours. Others may request that video and conference calls be scheduled during specific windows of time when they know they can minimize interruptions from small children.

It was an “aww-worthy moment when the world watched Prime Minister Trudeau tell his three young children, “Daddy’s on an Important Phone Call,” when they tried to get his attention during a Coronavirus briefing. But, at the end of day, working parents don’t want their children to interrupt calls or hinder results anymore than their staff and supervisors do. Which brings me to another pillar of an employee-driven workplace, helping staff access the resources they need to succeed.

More often than not, this simply requires reminding employees of the resources already available to them. rbb partners with Engage PEO, a professional employer organization, that helps small and mid-size businesses like ours deliver a wealth of added HR resources to our staff. These range from free counseling to legal services, and we recently made a point to remind staff of the former — a service this working mom is not embarrassed to say I needed more than ever, and I am not alone. According to a survey by motherhood lifestyle brand Motherly, 74 percent of working mothers say they feel mentally worse since the pandemic began.

However, sometimes the resources needed either aren’t available or need to be refreshed in order to address the current pain-points. A great example of this can be found in Wright Flood, a leading Flood Insurance company. At the onset of the pandemic Wright Flood invested in the creation of a digital marketing toolkit to ease the transition to virtual operations for its flood insurance sales force. This initiative included a collection of digital tools and corresponding how-to-guides and webinars ranging from setting up a home office and virtual sales planning to email marketing tips and social media outreach best practices. While this example may not be specific to working moms, by recognizing early that not all of its staff had the same comfort-level with digital tools, Wright Flood not only prevented the pandemic from curtailing sales performance, it took the guess work out for already overwhelmed working parents. Since the start of the pandemic the company has also instituted flexible schedules with supervisors working to create custom individualized office hours for each staff member that take into account everything from virtual school schedules and meals to small children’s naps.  

Still not convinced of the benefits of an employee-driven workplace? Or that it matters if you are able to recruit and retain working moms? Consider the high marks working moms get from co-workers for diplomacy, communicating, multitasking and remaining calm under fire in numerous surveys and studies. Still not enough? Perhaps your customers will help persuade you.

American consumers are becoming increasingly educated about the companies that make the products they purchase. rbb’s Breakout BrandsTM  surveys have found that more than 90 percent of consumers conduct some form of research before making a purchasing decision. Brand reviews and recommendations – both positive and negative — weigh heavily, but so does how a company operates, which includes how they treat their staff. It wasn’t too long ago that Uber faced backlash amid charges of sexual harassment and gender discrimination within the top ranks of the company resulting in a wave of female professionals ditching the ride-sharing app and/or switching to Lyft.

rbb’s research has also found that customers will pay more for a brand where there’s an emotional connection – a connection that is formed by how a company both communicates and displays its core values. When companies display their values in a very real way – whether it be Pepsico giving a raise and adding caregiver benefits to its front-line workers amidst the pandemic or Johnson & Johnson offering health and wellness benefits specific to working mothers like stress alleviation and sleep hygiene – the connection with consumers whose own values align deepens significantly.

Forbes and other market research has found time and time again that women dominate consumer purchasing decisions. It’s just good business for corporations to aim to please working moms by investing in employee-driven workplaces that respond to their unique needs in good times as well as bad.

Now I recognize that not all workplaces can accommodate the recommendations above. But I challenge the vast majority that are in the position to do so to use this unique moment in time to make thoughtful workplace policy changes that will not only ensure you can continue to reap the benefits of the bright working mothers of today, but also solidify yourself as an employer of choice for years to come.