Advice to HR: How to Keep Women on the Job Through COVID-19 and Beyond

A record number of women have left the workforce since the pandemic began. More than 860,000 women dropped out of the workforce as of September 2020 compared with just over 200,000 men. The current unemployment rate for women has more than doubled the pre-pandemic rates, and economists predict the workforce exodus could set women back a generation.  

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Child and eldercare support systems have crumbled in the face of COVID-19 with added restrictions and closures, and 27% of U.S. childcare providers have still not reopened as of December 2020. So the responsibilities for women in these areas have soared, with the related brain drain having a significant impact on employers.

As the pandemic abates, the office landscape will become more complicated for women with caregiving responsibilities as they are stretched thin and look for support and flexibility from their employers. Many women are leaving good jobs with well-meaning employers that likely valued their contributions, but they have to reconsider their career trajectory based on these demands.

Here are some reasons that have been most commonly cited by women leaving the workplace—and ways Human Resources (HR) professionals can help prevent these circumstances from occurring.

Ensure Words Match Actions

When I talk to women looking for new, more flexible opportunities, they mention the disconnect between what they hear from their employers and what they experience on the job.

Ensure your employees feel valued through words but most importantly through actions. It’s easy to say the right things, but it’s critical to do the right things. Employees notice when words and actions don’t match. For example, saying that you support employees who work at home and then expressing frustration when kids pop up on Zoom calls negates the support you’ve communicated.

Talk to trusted women on your team, and ask if they notice this disconnect at your organization. Be open to their feedback, and hear what they have to say. Don’t judge your actions or existing policies based on their intention. Instead, consider how the efforts are perceived. Then, judge if the purpose still rings true and is valid given how the world has changed.

Establish Work Boundaries

Unfortunately, there is never enough time in the day, which is another reason women with caregiving responsibilities leave the workforce. As meeting times bleed into the dinner hour or the weekend, many find conflicts between their professional and personal obligations.

Adding boundaries to meeting times can revolutionize the workday for your employees. Dictating that meetings remain strictly within scheduled hours makes life easier for those who need to be free to manage school pickup, departures, and dinner hour without the looming threat of professional conflicts. In addition, encourage small teams that frequently meet to talk about meeting schedules openly. Often, it’s reasonably easy to accommodate the schedules of all team members with a short discussion that puts everybody on the same page.

Explore New Options

If employers are perceived as lacking the willingness to evolve in the workplace, this will result in prompt departures.

Encourage employees to come to you with creative solutions for evaluation. Taking a fresh look at job sharing and meaningful part-time options is a great way to help employees with caregiving responsibilities. Workers having to juggle obligations outside of work has become even more prevalent during the pandemic, trying to bridge these stressful times will prevent people who are affected from leaving your organization.

Update Policies

Clients often say that their companies’ official policies made them uncomfortable because the archaic expectations made it impossible for them to be caregivers.

Dust off your policy handbook, and scrub it for anything managers use to single out parents or other caregivers. This process can start by reviewing any performance metrics that include an hours component, noting that hour requirements chain workers to staying on the job. Many firms have a spoken or an unspoken expectation that employees routinely clock more than 40 hours a week.

Revamping your overall performance management system so that an employee working an unusual schedule is evaluated based on work quality and contribution, not face time, helps to revitalize your work structure. Reframe success as a focus on results, not time on or tasks at hand.

Eliminate Outdated Language About Telecommuting

Legacy policies often require presigned authorization for telecommuting or require home-based employees to have daily child care. With options for school and day care severely limited right now, having a policy that explicitly requires it—even if managers don’t enforce it—can add to your employees’ mental exhaustion. Likewise, stop requiring that employees have a dedicated space to work or own particular office furniture or equipment. With many families at home right now, it is near impossible to have set degrees of separation. 

These policy changes are examples of tangible ways to show that you care about employees’ experience, value their work, and honor their time and commitments. Once you start reviewing, you may find additional policies that inadvertently discourage parents with caregiving responsibilities. Take the time to gain insight about your company’s existing procedures, and do a little housekeeping on some potential updates. 

Support a Culture of Caregiving

Many caregivers feel forced to hide their caregiving responsibilities from their managers and coworkers and find the effort exhausting. Expectations that employees working from home will never be interrupted by kids or other caregiving responsibilities essentially tells people to hide. 

Employees who are desperately trying to hide kids in the background to avoid tipping their hat to their caregiving responsibilities cannot do their best work. In fact, it may encourage them to look elsewhere for an employer that’s more tolerant of the everyday interruptions that happen when employees work from home. Instead, be clear that occasional occurrences like kids popping into Zoom screens, babies playing underfoot, and dogs occasionally barking in the background are not reasons to stress out. Let their productivity speak louder than occasional interruptions to their workday. 

Model Caregiving Responsibilities

Being a professional and a caregiver can be lonely because oftentimes, those persons give all of their time away, keeping none for themselves and their own well-being. That feeling can drive your caregiving professionals away from work. 

Encourage leaders and other employees to talk about their caregiving responsibilities publicly. Encourage them to establish blogs, and mention caregiving as a matter-of-fact part of life in e-mails and other company communications. This helps to normalize caregiving responsibilities and lets the employees in your organization know they are not alone. 

Even something as simple as adding basic family information to a leader’s biography can help set the right tone. One note of caution, however: Encourage your leaders to approach the topic sensitively. Ask them to avoid saying things like “my spouse handles all the child care.” These types of statements are not supportive or productive and imply that the only path to leadership is via a spouse who does all the caregiving.

You Can Make a Difference

As an HR professional, you are in a unique position to change the perception among the women at your company. You can help keep talented women on board by demonstrating that you understand the unique circumstances they face daily. Awareness goes a long way, and we hope to have shed some light on the bigger problems caregivers experience in the workplace to drive essential changes. 

As both an entrepreneur and a mom of four, I am passionate about helping entrepreneurs and small businesses take their company to the next level by hiring dependable, talented, virtual professionals while helping mom professionals find legitimate, flexible, work-from-home jobs. Unlike mega career sites, https://www.hiremymom.com/ focuses strictly on home-based jobs and projects that work perfectly for savvy entrepreneurs and today’s modern mom. Since launching HireMyMom.com in 2007, we’ve helped over 10,000 entrepreneurs and small businesses find the right freelancers or remote employees for their company.

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