(Photo by Lise Gagné, iStock by Getty Images)

HP, the tech company, has operations in Wuhan, China, so its managers had an early warning when COVID-19 began affecting business as early as January. Something that struck the company early on was feedback from its employees around the world: caregivers, from parents to grandparents, were struggling as their care arrangements were disrupted by the virus, and it greatly impeded their ability to work.

“Early on we were thinking, What can we do to address the issue right away?, because we were hearing it was coming,” said Luciana Duarte, HP’s global head of employee experience. “Our chief HR officer hosted a webinar where we pulled together three teachers and a home-schooling parent and did a panel discussion with the whole company to just get their questions answered. It was an immediate kind of response.”

Duarte was one of five expert speakers exploring “the Future of Parenthood and Careers: How Will Corporate Culture Evolve,” a panel discussion at From Day One’s virtual conference this week on how employers can offer better support for working parents in the midst of the pandemic. Moderated by Myla Skinner, chief of staff of OneGoal, the speakers tackled issues ranging from the day-to-day challenges of working parents as both employee and caregiver, up to longer-term, transformational changes that Corporate America could make to empower caregivers.

Companies first moved swiftly to address immediate needs that had sprung up. HP listened closely during its webinars to “understand what was most concerning for parents at that time,” said Duarte. “We then created additional tactics to address those issues later on.” The company has since offered gym classes to keep kids engaged and Slack channels for employees that correspond to their children’s age group, among other creative approaches.

Marsh & McLennan, the global insurance giant, built a digital “kid’s corner” to respond to needs that emerged from an employee pulse survey, said Rochelle Rosato, the company’s talent, learning and inclusion leader for the U.S. and Canada. The Marsh Kid’s Korner offers activities and exercises categorized by age groups up to high school, plus yoga and meditation for kids and adults. “Into early May, we began to ask colleagues, What do you actually need now?,” Rosato said. “Rather than one-size-fits all, the needs were so different.” In many cases, the company worked with overwhelmed employees to create more manageable, flexible schedules.

From Day One's speakers on working parents. Top row from left: moderator Myla Skinner of OneGoal, Gina Nebesar of Ovia Health, and Rochelle Rosato of Marsh & McLennan. Bottom row, from left: Luciana Duarte of HP, Sarah Sheehan of Bravely, and Lauren Lopez of the NBA (Image by From Day One)

At Ovia Health, a provider of maternity and family benefits, there has been a focus on the managerial staff, according to Gina Nebesar, the company’s co-founder and chief product officer. “We’ll bring in experts to educate the management on how to support employees and how to retain women and working families at this time,” she said. The company is addressing both client and employer needs, offering one-on-one support and distributing a “parent mental health toolkit,” Nebesar said. “It’s not just COVID safety, because there’s not a lot of information out there for new parents during COVID.”

Sarah Sheehan, co-founder and president of Bravely, an employee coaching firm, noted that “HR teams are being tasked with solving all the world’s problems.” She emphasized the importance of leadership: “Right now there’s an opportunity to no longer keep the personal and professional separate–it’s an impossible thing to do.” Leaders need to foster an honest, safe culture in which employees feel comfortable sharing what they’re going through, she said.

Lauren Lopez, head of talent and engagement for the National Basketball Association, said the company held a virtual take-your-child-to-work day “because we wanted some of that normalcy for the children and parents who enjoy that.” It also celebrated Halloween, sending candy to employee families. The NBA focused on leadership as well: “We had to equip leaders with tools to have those difficult conversations, but those difficult conversations all of a sudden became a bit more difficult when we brought in the social-justice component” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Lopez noted. “We held community conversations where we equipped leaders with tools.”

As working parents struggle to manage work and family, one of the issues that has emerged is the need to distribute work fairly, given the different realities of each employee. For example, corporate efforts to help parents with extra benefits created a backlash among non-parents. Duarte, at HP, said that managers are frequently checking in with their teams and then updating leadership in regular check-ins. “They talk very openly about the need for flexibility, making sure that people are safe and well cared for, and also their mental health and ability to stay productive,” she said.

Duarte added the company has distributed resources to meet different employee needs in an engaging, thematic way, with each day of the week designated to resources including training, wellness, volunteering and family fun.

There’s no easy way to track whether work is truly being distributed equally in the midst of the pandemic, said Rosato. “When we look to the future, what are going to be the learnings in all of this?” she asked. “To me, this is going to be the future of work–what are the learnings where we can pivot and sustain the momentum into the future, so we can lean into the future to work and build this out further for working parents.”

Sheehan pointed out that the issues caregivers are facing today have long bubbled under the surface. “We know women are leaving the workplace in droves. COVID is shining a light on a problem that has already existed for women for decades,” she said. “It’s a whole new way of supporting employees, from a leadership perspective.”

Panelists were candid about the challenges they face as working parents and caregivers, struggling with feelings of guilt, anxiety and even shame as they navigate the day-to-day challenges of the pandemic. The panelists also spoke about the struggle of caring for their employees and balancing their own needs. In facing such challenges, Skinner emphasized the importance of a community support system. And the speakers all agreed it’s okay to lower one’s expectations, given the situation.

“You are doing the best you can,” Lopez said at the panel’s conclusion. “There is no striving for perfection at this point, it’s just not there. As long as you’re making sure you can get up each day, still feel like you’re keeping some semblance of sanity, you’ve done your job for the day.”

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.