Hybrid Work, Connected Culture, Curated Communications

The (COVID) parent trap: how companies can help

Family working from home during COVID-19 pandemic. Companies help their employees with digital workplaces and additional support

Since it first appeared out of thin air at the beginning of 2020, COVID has evolved. A pandemic we thought would be ‘under control’ by now has made it clear it’s not going anywhere, families are considering vaccines for kids age 5-11, grappling with the risks, and debating the best way to manage their children’s education.

Parents and caregivers aren’t completely okay. Stress has been at an all-time high as we’ve all struggled to balance work and family life without all the support we typically rely on. As a result, the number of families with at least one unemployed member increased from 4.1 million to 8.1 million in 2020.

Businesses and families are feeling the pain, especially as parents and caregivers make up at least a third of the US workforce of over 150 million. Companies intent on enabling productivity and winning the war for talent, are putting measures in place to help their work families thrive.

In this post, we’ll discuss:

  • the significant impact a lack of support has on the workforce, economy, and companies;  
  • the reason businesses must evolve to adequately support families in today’s world; and
  • how innovative companies stay ahead of the pack, by providing caregiver employees tools and resources that make them feel valued and supported. 


The ugly truth about being a parent or caregiver today

Households with full-time working parents and caregivers have been pushed beyond their limits. From juggling stressful jobs and virtual school to constantly making difficult decisions on behalf of their children, elderly, or immunocompromised family members – the pandemic has done a number on all of us.

For many families, the supports they depended on and relied on are missing or are severely limited.  The COVID uncertainty resulted in a massive childcare shortage The shortage already existed pre-pandemic, but COVID sent it off the rails, and it’s been especially detrimental for families seeking state-sponsored support for disabled and elderly family members.

This perfect storm of conditions made it nearly impossible for families to find consistent, quality care. For those taking care of a high-risk child or adult, the stress and stakes are even higher.

Beyond logistics, parents and caregivers are plagued by serious mental fatigue. Every decision that needs to be made is shrouded in incomprehensible risk. Does the social detriment of keeping their children out of school outweigh the physical risk? Will keeping my elderly mother or father away from family for their safety do more mental harm than physical? Weighing these issues is heavy on the minds and hearts of so many, and it’s not over yet. Then, you add a demanding job on top.

So what’s a parent or caregiver to do?

There’s a mass workforce exodus impacting your business

Attempting to incorporate some form of balance with no outside help or resources has become impossible for many families. This led over 3.5 million mothers to leave the workforce between March and April last year – resulting in nearly one in two (45%) mothers of school-age children not actively working last April. Furthermore, Cleo talked to 1,500 working parents and found that in almost half the families they surveyed, one or both parents scaled back at work or left the workforce to care for their loved ones.

It’s gotten better though, right? With vaccines FDA approved for kids 5-11, schools re-opening, and more childcare and senior centers upping capacity? Unfortunately, studies show that families are still struggling, and four in ten working parents are considering leaving their jobs. 

What does this tell business leaders? It tells us we need to do better. 

This employee exodus is not a small issue, and the ramifications – both for the workers who had to step away from their jobs and for companies feeling those losses – are huge. Companies continue to lose valuable people every single day.

On a bigger scale, having fewer women in the labor force is costing the U.S. economy more than $650 billion each year. Furthermore, women’s drop in labor force participation during the pandemic led GDP losses to grow by $97 billion, as compared to February 2020. 

And how are employees who have ‘stuck it out’ being rewarded? Unfortunately, the answer is not a pretty one at companies that are not family-focused. Full-time employees feel overworked, undervalued, and burnt out. Major coverage gaps are prevalent in many companies, demands are high, and hours are long – especially for parents and caregivers who are still desperately attempting to find a workable solution to dually prioritize their job and their home life.

All these challenges illuminate questions that companies must urgently address. How can our workplace effectively support employees and their families? What changes can we make to ensure talented workers know they’re appreciated and valued? What can I (CEO, HR Leader, People Team Lead, Departmental Head) do to build a culture that truly prioritizes the whole person? Let’s take a look.


Innovative companies support their work family – and their families

Having family responsibilities doesn’t take away your employee’s ability to do a phenomenal job. However, these last two years have certainly revealed cracks in the system when it comes to how workplaces support parents and caregivers – or don’t. 

Until now, companies have never really been forced to be involved in the ‘caretaker’ side of life. Kids were in daycare or at school while parents worked. Out of sight, out of mind. But that whole concept got turned upside down during COVID, and the way a company responded either helped employees feel safe, secure and valued – or it did quite the opposite. 

Unfortunately, many companies chose to pretend their caregiver employees weren’t dealing with bored, irritable, Zoom-fatigued kids (as they were in the midst of their own Zoom meeting marathon). We don’t recommend that approach – but if that’s how things shook out for you and you’re in damage control mode, don’t sweat it. It’s not too late to turn things around.

Here are some ways companies doing it right are leveraging policies and procedures to better support their people. 

First and foremost, it’s important to be clear, define the tone, and set the stage. Make sure employees know that you’re focused on the well-being of their ‘whole self.’ You can do this by publicizing a ‘family first’ initiative from the top down to help employees feel empowered to do what they need to do to keep their home life stable and their sanity in check. But it can’t just be lip service – there has to be real action to back it up.

Second, it’s time to remove rigid time restraints when managing a distributed workforce. The truth is, not everything can operate within the confines of 9 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday, in the company HQ time zone. To accommodate, forward-thinking companies make it clear that flexible scheduling is the official “modus operandi”. 

If someone needs an hour each day to get their kids to school, that’s perfectly acceptable. If another person is always available for meetings between 8 am and 12 pm but has less consistent availability in the afternoons, great! Really standing behind a clear policy that gives employees some autonomy over their schedule, where appropriate, goes a long way toward making jobs more manageable for stressed-out caregivers. 

Third, it’s critical to be transparent about guardrails and expectations. What, exactly, does ‘flexible schedule’ mean within the confines of your business? How do employees go through the proper channels to get approvals for their requested schedule? When you ask someone to submit a deliverable, are you always including a clear deadline in the request? What are company-wide expectations for responding to communications that come through outside of business hours? 

You must be strategic and curate your communications. Developing clear policies and expectations that are easy to understand, communicated to everyone, consistently respected and enforced, and easily found in a central location for reference is crucial to getting buy-in and compliance from your team.

Fourth, the best companies focus on building a culture of trust through real conversations and accountability. One where leaders directly communicate, frequently check in on the well-being of individual employees and ask specifically if there is anything that is blocking their success. If an employee comes to you in earnest to tell you that there’s a major gap in the department and team members are getting burnt out, listen to them. Clearly explain how you plan to address hiring gaps or work with them to help take some things off their plate. Helping sidestep landmines that lead to burnout is critical to whole-team success.

Good companies build an environment where employees feel comfortable bringing up questions or concerns by providing ample time for one on one discussions with leadership, focusing on building relationships outside of work, providing forums where anonymous is truly anonymous and answers to questions submitted are specific and productive, and committing to putting fixes in place in ways that incorporate accountability measures on timeline. Leaders who actively listen and offer a specific game plan to solve issues nurture relationships that inspire loyalty.

This step can be difficult for startups and companies experiencing hypergrowth in the remote environment. Company culture is deeply ingrained in every fiber of the fabric that makes up the workforce, and leaders looking to spark change often face friction. Roadblocks often present themselves to leaders, in the form of significant resource constraints.

It takes chutzpah to pivot within an organization that needs to embrace a more fluid way of doing business. Dedicated leaders must be willing to set and hold firm boundaries and to responsibly represent their people in order to build trust. Taking this approach will help leaders develop and nurture a forum for open, honest communication within their respective teams.

Lastly, some Best Workplaces® family first companies are also adding innovative new family programs like virtual camps for kids, parent sensitivity training for management, emergency childcare programs, and virtual ‘take your kid to work’ days. 

Other companies, like NerdWallet, have launched internal parent support groups to provide in-house support for team members. Mobile marketing brand, Button, introduced a monthly stipend for parents to help with childcare and “extra expenses like educational materials, Disney+ subscriptions, or simply ordering in dinner to regain some valuable family time.”

Some companies also expanded benefit options to include things like resources to help employees find childcare or medical care for their loved ones, access to home-delivered pre-prepared meals, extended paid family leave, and mental health and counseling platforms.


The Bottom Line

Boilerplate benefits that have been around for decades are simply not enough anymore. It’s imperative that companies and People Teams take specific steps to build a family-first work culture, especially if you want to remain competitive in today’s ever-intensifying war on talent

Supporting your employees in all avenues of their life must be a priority, and that priority has to drive your organizational decision-making. The more your team feels like you care about them as a human, person, parent, and employee, the greater their loyalty will be.



Cleary can help you showcase all the ways your company embraces a family-first ideology. Staying connected is more important than ever in a distributed workforce, and Cleary makes it easy to clearly communicate the company’s priorities. Highlight programs and policies designed to support families and showcase executive communications that set the right tone. Team members can define and share their schedules, empowering them to set and hold firm boundaries without fear. People teams can communicate that you’re all together in the fight against burnout by highlighting caregiver social groups, child or medical care tools, parental leave policies, and any other resources you have to offer.

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