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Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, working parents have discovered that just about the only way to cope with family life in a state of crisis is make things up as they go along–and compare notes with their fellow parents and co-workers. “In the spring, my third grader was only getting about 90 minutes’ worth of schoolwork to keep her busy during the day. I don't blame the teachers, they were not prepared for this,” said Rose Sheldon, the director of enterprise learning and development at Allstate Insurance Co. “And I found that I was starting to create learning content to keep my kids busy. Soon, employees started aggregating their own home-made learning content on one page, so that they could all share resources.”

Almost no one was really prepared for this. Most homes were not built to serve as both schools and offices. Most parents weren’t trained to work and teach at the same time. And the U.S. as a whole wasn’t prepared either, being one of the few developed countries with a lack of federal guidelines for parental leave. The result has been tremendous stress and anxiety for working parents, a point of concern for their employers as well. Can Corporate America find ways to help? This was the topic of a recent From Day One webinar (as well as a virtual conference scheduled for next Tues., Nov. 17). The stakes are high: in a setback for gender equity, the vast majority of people leaving the workforce in the midst of pandemic-related parenting challenges are women. In the webinar, led by Fast Company contributing editor Lydia Dishman, five business leaders explored an array of within-reach solutions. Among them:

Make Resilience More Than a Buzzword

The twin themes of resilience and well-being have been buzzy in recent years, but in a time of disruption like this, they became crucial. “We started some support resources, like our daily Zoom wellness calls, just covering topics related to wellness and resilience,” said Jackie Bassett, director of people strategy at University of Chicago Medicine. “That's become a recurring theme that has stayed in place since COVID. And in fact, we have Family Fridays, when it's a family-related topic that we talk about,” Bassett said. “We’ve had an employee-resource group (ERG) for quite a long time for working parents; we've brought in guest speakers to talk about mental-health related support, talking about educating kids at home, topics that are especially important for parents right now.” Materially, UChicago Medicine offered employees reimbursement for 15 extra days of backup childcare, in addition to the 15 days a year already provided.

The panelists, top row from left: Rose Sheldon of Allstate and Jackie Bassett of University of Chicago Medicine. Center row, from left: Gina Nebesar of Ovia Health, Susan Bridges Gilder of Beiersdorf and moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company. Bottom row: Quentin Watson of the Salvation Army  (Image by From Day One)

“On my team, we were seeing some needs for just people wanting to self-educate on things like resilience,” said Sheldon. “So we partnered with some of our content providers like LinkedIn Learning to put together some channels that our employees could go and learn more. We’ve seen people really taking advantage of that opportunity to develop.”

This extends to employees’ children, as Sheldon discovered. Educational companies in these times have sought to be helpful. Tutoring companies, Sheldon suggested, might be willing to strike a deal with an employer for a one-year access pass, which can then be extended to employees as a benefit. It wouldn’t hurt to inquire with, say, ABCmouse or Kumon, she said.

Be Mindful of People’s Time

It’s hard to disentangle the notion of productivity from the notion of time. Quantity does not equal quality. In his almost three-decade-long career, Quentin Watson found that the only place where work time was strictly regimented was at his current employer, The Salvation Army, where he is employee relations manager. “Most of our employees work just 36.25 hours a week; they only work 7.25 hours a day with two 15-minute breaks that they take religiously, and a 45-minute lunch,” he said. “When I tell you that this is the first organization I've worked at that when they say 8:30 to 4:30, they mean it. You go home.” He added that because time is limited, “most of us work at 120% productivity.”

With the onset of the pandemic, Watson and his colleagues have been doing things differently in order to maintain a similar level of engagement. Right before COVID-19 arrived, they had implemented a live, online behavioral-health component into their benefit plan, which at first had low participation. But once the pandemic really spread, its use skyrocketed, and this mental-health support boosts employee engagement, Watson said.

Gina Nebesar, co-founder and chief product officer of Ovia Health, which provides maternity and family benefits, is open about the struggle in productivity that comes about by having work life, home life and childcare all in one place. “I have the interruption of the kids all day long,” she said. “We have a very transparent work culture. I lead product and engineering, so it’s agile development. Everyone sees your workload every week. But we've been making a lot of accommodations for each other.” A colleague might say, for example, “I don't have childcare from 1 to 3. Can we reschedule the meeting?” Nebesar added: “I've noticed more of a team camaraderie. We're all in it to help each other out.”

In all, there needn’t be a set view of what productivity looks like. “Productive isn't necessarily working 9 to 5 without a break,” said Susan Bridges Gilder, director of HR operations and people experience for Beiersdorf, the skin-care company. “It might be compressing your week. It might mean working in the evening, because those hours help an employee balance their workload. Ask [managers] to show that empathy and ask those questions: How can I help you? You know, you're trying to meet this goal, we have this deadline, let's figure out how we can work through this together.”

Consider Mental-health Resources

At this point, the crisis that working parents are experiencing during this pandemic extends to family planning as well. “There is a 250% increase in the interest in home births, which carry a lot more risk,” said Ovia Health’s Nebesar. “You can see all this fear of people thinking they won't be able to bring in their family or their partner [to a hospital birth], so they’re changing their birth plan around it.” The company studied the impact of COVID-19 on prenatal care, delivery, and fundamental access to health care. The pandemic aggravated inequities that were already present. “We noticed that over 60% of Black women were saying they were receiving less frequent and lower-quality care, compared to a little over 50% [previously]. This pandemic, you know, it's not just affecting our work environment, this is affecting our family dynamics, and our fundamental access to care and services,” Nebesar said. “The most important thing to parents is the health of our kids and our ability to make sure we’re able to take care of them.”

At Ovia Health, the company measures the well-being of their teams through anonymous surveys and feedback. Added Nebesar: “Much of our effort is channeled towards, ‘How do we help people detect their risk for depression or perinatal mood disorders amidst the pandemic?’ We’re delivering digital depression tools and screeners at three times the rate that's delivered in the clinical setting.” On Ovia’s platform, these screenings start early as when a woman is trying get pregnant, then multiple times through their pregnancy, and then several times postpartum and the baby's first year. “And then based on their assessment, we'll navigate them to the company's mental-health resources,” Nebesar said.

At the Salvation Army, employees were offered an extra 10 days of paid leave for those affected by COVID-related situations. “For quarantining, or just for dealing with the mental stress around dealing with COVID-19,” Watson said. “And they got an opportunity to use that time, if they can validate the time was necessary.” Because the Salvation Army doesn’t have the financial resources of a Fortune 500 company, the cost of the paid leave may affect the distribution of raises in the coming years, “but it's better for us to do this and really get through this whole situation, retain our employees, and the end of the day, get that return on investment because employees are definitely going to be more engaged by how you treat them,” said Watson. “And it's during these times, where you're challenged financially, that you have to think about those out-of-the-box solutions.”

Embrace Zoom Imperfection (and Don’t Overuse It)

While Zoom is efficient in its own way, bits and pieces of employee home life are bound to seep in–and that’s OK. “I remember one particularly challenging incident, where I was on a call with about 50 people, and I was getting ready to present and my son would not stop screaming,” recalled UChicago Medicine’s Bassett. “I was just so exasperated. And I remember yelling at him, and profanity may have been involved. And then suddenly realizing I was not on mute. So clearly not my finest parenting moment.” Moments like these, though, did make Bassett a more empathetic leader, she acknowledged.

The key for Beiersdorf’s Gilder is approaching our new normal with a sense of curiosity, empathy, courage, and humor. “We were rolling out a special  project this summer,” she recalled. “And then I heard someone flushed a toilet somewhere on the phone.” No big deal.

It’s crucial not to use Zoom as a panacea, though. Early in the pandemic, Zoom meetings ranging from important professional ones to virtual happy hours were perhaps overused. Allstate’s Sheldon remembers that at the beginning of the pandemic, her company asked managers to have a happy hour with their team at the end of every work day. “And make sure you're checking in and that they're visibly seeing you,” was one of the directives. “That's a terrible idea,” Sheldon recalled thinking. “Like, why would you want to slam this extra meeting onto their day and this forced social time when most of my employees are parents, and they would probably rather have that extra half hour to either go start dinner, or help with homework, or maybe sneak out another 30 minutes of work on a project?” Clearly, adapting corporate culture for a pandemic era is a work in progress.

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partner who supported this webinar: Ovia Health. You can watch a video of the conversation here. Please visit our conference page to register for more upcoming events.

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.