Flexibility is still the key to retaining working parents

In-person work without flexibility will prove difficult to maintain for working families and their companies. Plan now to avoid suffering “The Great Resignation.”

Over the last 15 months, companies adapted to accommodate employees safely working from home. Now, the decision of if and how to return to an office is upon us. Working parents are eagerly waiting to hear from their employers or waiting to see how their companies’ plans actually work in practice.

Companies that managed to retain parents through the pandemic may still see attrition go up if they don’t consider parents’ unique needs as they return to an office. Last year, our State of working parents study found that 1 in 4 working parents are considering finding a new job that better supports their dual role as a parent and employee. Now that parents have had a taste of flexibility, they’re not going to give it up quietly.

The benefits of flexible work for parents

It’s not news that 2020 was brutal for working families. But with a return to “normalcy” nearly here, there are some changes that many parents hope will stick around.

No commute means busy parents can spend more quality time with their families. Working from home creates flexibility that makes childcare more manageable. Remote work gives families choice over where they live for lower cost of living or proximity to additional support. Top employers will find ways to maintain this new-found flexibility as they return to offices.

The truth is, it’s far from easy and there are no quick fixes.

SJ Sacchetti, Cleo CEO

Types of flexible work

Interpretations of “flexible work” are near endless. Here are some of the options we’re seeing the most:

  1. Employee-led office schedule: This typically means having an office headquarters and a culture of in-person work, but empowering employees to create their own schedules between remote and in-office work. Often employees are still expected to be in geographic proximity to an office.
  2. Designated in-office and remote days: One of the most common interpretations of the “hybrid model.” This may look like “work from home Fridays” or in-person meetings on Mondays and Wednesdays. While this model supports reduced commutes, it may not offer the necessary flexibility to adapt to the curveballs of family life.
  3. Minimum in-office days: Companies may dictate a minimum expectation of in-office days for all employees without defining which days they are. This lets employees adapt their office schedules to their own lives.
  4. Extended work from home after welcoming a child: This means giving parents the option to continue working from home—sometimes for several years—after parental leave. For companies that rely on their office culture, this is a good way to support parents without making exceptions for the whole company.
  5. “Optional” office space: In this model, companies maintain one or more smaller office spaces for employees to use as they choose. While this option is favorable to many employees craving flexibility and the benefits of office culture, the right space size and location may be hard to calibrate and end up wasting money.
  6. Pre-approved remote work: Another common interpretation of a “hybrid model.” In this case, all employees are either in-office or remote, often with special approval required for remote employees. This option carries the risk of creating a divided or incomplete office culture.

How to know what’s right for your population

The first and most important step is to understand what your employees want—and listen. Leaders who make decisions based on personal preference (and personal privilege) will see their employees suffer. The typical CEO makes 320x more than their workers. Even for those with children at home, it’s dangerous to use executives’ experiences as a benchmark for all employees. Financial access to childcare, education support, healthcare, easier commutes, and more eases much of the pain working parents feel.

Instead, survey your employees, work with employee resource groups (ERGs), and talk to people managers to find a solution that offers the flexibility working parents will continue to crave while still maintaining the company culture executives hope to build. “The truth is, it’s far from easy and there are no quick fixes,” says Cleo CEO SJ Sacchetti. It will take time to evaluate what works—and you may fail a few times on the way to finding what’s right for your company. Be open with your employee population and solicit regular feedback to see what’s working. If people teams learned anything over the last year and half, it’s how to adapt quickly to support employees. Now it’s time to apply that test and learn approach to the return to offices.

The opportunity for meaningful change

Before the onset of the pandemic, working parents—particularly working mothers—were already being left behind. In 2019, women only made up 21% of the c-suite. Clearly, the status quo didn’t work. Companies that think they can return to the company culture, benefits, and policies of 2019 will no doubt see parents and women leaving for companies that are prioritizing their needs.

This year and the years to come are an opportunity to reset to a better workplace. To examine what systems served us and which are better left in the past. A return to office life is an opportunity for companies to rebuild what work looks like from the ground up. As you make plans for your company’s future, think carefully about who is supported and who is left behind.

If we just go ahead and say, let’s reset and go back to a pre-pandemic state of play, we’ve failed. This is a huge opportunity for leaders to think about, ‘who was that working for and who wasn’t it working for?

SJ Sacchetti, Cleo CEO

At Cleo we’re taking it slow. Since the start of the pandemic our revenue and team have both grown exponentially. Today, we have employees across 33 states and 13 countries. While there’s no doubt in-person work has immense benefits, Cleo has thrived without it for more than a year during a period of rapid growth. We’re not in a hurry to “force” our employees—many of whom are parents—one way or another. For the remainder of 2021, we’re starting periodic in-person collaboration on a team-by-team and as-requested basis while also getting creative about how we support our employees. Cleo employees are taking the lead and we’ll continue to move thoughtfully with their comfort and needs as our top priority.