(Photo by SDI Productions/iStock by Getty Images)

At the tool manufacturer Stanley Black & Decker, working parents who left their jobs temporarily during the pandemic have been welcomed back through a returnship program designed in response to America’s child-care crisis. Kate Perry-Jones, a VP in charge of global HR transformation for the company, declares the pilot project to be a big success. “We assigned them buddies, we did part-time schedules. We had about an 80% return rate from the folks that went through that program that turned into full-time hires,” she said.

Layoff, furloughs, and shifting workplace expectations have thrown many careers off track. This is especially true for working parents and caregivers, whose lives are further complicated by responsibilities at home. Women in particular suffered the blow: Two and a half million have left the U.S. workforce as a result of the pandemic, creating gashes in the labor landscape.

Now, power is shifting. Because the current demand for employees is far greater than the supply, workers have the upper hand, and they’re using that advantage to change the workplace to support their needs. Employers are having to reconfigure policies and operations if they’re going to bring workers back–or keep them from leaving.

Perry-Jones spoke on a panel of experts focused on getting jobs and careers back on track, part of From Day One’s August virtual conference, “Learning From a Crisis About What Working Parents Need.” One of the biggest challenges in helping parents maintain career momentum is simply keeping them in the office (virtually or otherwise) or on the manufacturing floor. Michael Rothman, co-founder and CEO of digital parenting magazine Fatherly, who moderated the conversation, began by asking what has worked: “What has been the most impactful policy, benefit or cultural practice you have implemented since Covid-19?”

Perry-Jones said backup childcare, tutoring and schoolwork help, plus concierge services for things like pet care and food delivery, were most popular among workers. Jackie Butler, VP of human resources at Marriott Vacations Worldwide, said the company expanded sick leave to 80 hours for all associates to care for family, to get tested for Covid-19, or to get vaccinated.

Speaking about how employers can support working parents, top row from left: Natalie Mayslich of Care.com, Jackie Butler of Marriott Vacations Worldwide, and Fanaye Taye of Synchrony Financial. Bottow row, from left: Jennifer Lavoie of Piedmont Healthare, Kate Perry-Jones of Stanley Black & Decker, and moderator Michael Rothman of Fatherly (Image by From Day One)

Ultimately, the new career-supporting culture has been about flexibility. “What I recognized was that the parents want a choice,” said Jennifer Lavoie, director of employee wellbeing at Piedmont Healthcare, a not-for-profit healthcare network based in Georgia. “So we were able and fortunate to stand up many different options for our parents to help care for the children, not only when the schools shut down abruptly, but also through the virtual learning as of last year.”

Employers need to give parents a reason to continue their careers in their organizations. Doing so is often a matter of continuing the accommodations that made work possible during the last year. The pandemic is not over, and now we know more about what it takes to keep everyone safe while still keeping the economy moving.

Fanaye Taye, VP of HR at the financial-services company Synchrony Financial, said the company has offered its employees “the flexibility to work from home based on this environment, and we will be continuing that indefinitely. That really allows parents to mold their schedule around their needs.”

Marriott’s Butler said all call-center employees at the company have been working from home during the last year and will continue to do so permanently, marking a change in corporate attitude. “I don't think prior to Covid, this is something that the organization would have strongly considered.”

In the past, hourly shift workers have had little to no flexibility when it comes to hours and work schedules, but that’s changing as demand for this workforce segment grows. “We've done a lot of creative things around shift work and shift incentives, as well as flexibility and holiday, so we could try to retain the population we have,” said Perry-Jones of Stanley Black & Decker. Those incentives include breaks for parents who need to pick up or drop off kids during a shift, an accommodation virtually unheard-of for hourly workers before the pandemic.

“We're doing everything we can to try to mitigate [attrition],” she said. We currently have about 1,200 open hourly jobs across the globe, so we're continuing to grow, and we're trying to keep up not only with the attrition, but also the demand for the future.”

Natalie Mayslich, general manager of consumer and enterprise at Care.com, an online marketplace for caregivers, said her organization had decided to merge the spirt of flexibility with a standard of equity. “We will be a remote-equal company moving forward. We're spending a lot of time thinking about from a cultural standpoint, how do we make it equitable, fair and meaningful to our employees,” she said.

Panelists reached this consensus: If employers are going to help parents keep their jobs and careers on track, they’ll have to make empathic decisions.

Mayslich said this is an essential part of conversations she has had with Care.com’s corporate partners. “Attrition is probably in the top two or three concerns that we hear from our employer partners who are coming to us looking for help. The reality is, without care, people can't work. They can't focus. They leave jobs for more empathetic and supportive organizations,” she said.

She called this an HR awakening. “We've seen a fundamental shift in our employer partners. They're truly accounting for the whole person. It's no longer just about the worker and their capacity to contribute in that way, so as a result, we've seen our client base expand, and we've seen them expand the benefits that they're offering to include benefits that address wherever, however, and whenever their employees work.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.