Can companies help working parents without alienating everyone else?

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Hit “play” on UNESCO’s interactive world map tracing coronavirus-related school closures since February, and you can watch how quickly Covid-19 invaded countries and wreaked havoc on school systems around the world.

In the beginning, almost every country is shaded blue, indicating that schools are open in those nations. Only China is pink, meaning its schools are partially shut. After a few days tick by, China flips to purple—all classrooms are closed. It’s soon joined by Italy, then the US, Canada, and Europe, all the places where public health officials ordered strict lockdowns. Eventually, there are flashes of pink and purple erupting everywhere.

The slideshow may be triggering for parents of school-aged children. Every hot hue on the map represents thousands or millions of households thrown into chaos, and the complete obliteration of meticulously calibrated schedules for meals, commutes, school drop-offs, and homework hours. For parents, it’s goodbye to your regular alone time, or precious hours for deep work, and the escape called the office. For employers, the map’s changing tints might call to mind a different wave of adjustments, those they made as they watched (over Zoom) as parents on the payroll were clobbered with conflicting demands on their time (and, later, comically convoluted school schedules).

Many companies immediately looked for ways to ease the pressure for parents dealing with antsy, anxious children who sought their attention every couple of minutes, asking for snacks, wanting to share a random thought, throwing tantrums. Salesforce, as just one example, offered parents and guardians six extra weeks of paid time off and the right to work from home as long as a child’s school was closed, even if Salesforce had reopened its offices.

Yet that is not the end of the ripple effects from all the shuttered classrooms. When companies began accommodating the needs of people raising children, they unintentionally neglected non-parents on their staff, who often found themselves working long hours to pick up the slack (or at least felt like they were making up for others’ lost productivity). As the media focused on the fresh hell parents were enduring through the pandemic, non-parents quietly fumed.

Now, however, there are rumblings of a backlash by non-parents. How companies respond could lead to changes that will last long after the countries on that UNESCO map turn blue once again.

The parents and non-parents divide already existed

In a sense, the current tension between parents and non-parents at work is linked to an actual battle, the First World War, which led to a push for maternity leave in several advanced economies just over a century ago. During the war, women in the US, the UK, and elsewhere left positions as seamstresses and homemakers to take factory and munitions jobs that would have gone to men. When the fighting ended and soldiers began returning, however, women who had supported the nation’s wartime efforts were fired from their jobs, so many began to organize with labor unions. Among their demands were protections for working mothers, including the right to paid leave for childbirth and infant care.

Since then, progress around what we now call parental benefits, a more inclusive label, has been uneven, differing greatly between countries and across industries. The governments of Sweden, France, Canada—well, every developed nation except the US—passed laws mandating generous paid leaves for parents, several stretching beyond one year, to be divided between two partners as they see fit. Only a few countries, like Suriname, Papua New Guinea, and the US, have yet to enact paid leave laws for new mothers. (US federal law guarantees the right to time off, but it’s unpaid.)

The US private sector has stepped into the void, however. Those lucky American parents who work for large firms might be offered three to six months of paid leave benefits. In the tech sector, in particular, a long-running war for highly skilled talent has led to a kind of arms race of rich benefits for those who procreate or adopt. Several tech firms—including Activision, Hulu, Qualcomm, and Snap—have given new parents a $1,200 crib, the Snoo Smart Sleeper, the perk that may be most emblematic of the parental benefit craze.

Naturally, bestowing such love and attention on working parents sparked problems inside many workplaces, says Rich Fuerstenberg, a senior partner at Mercer who specializes in employee benefits consulting for large employers. Tech companies emphasized parental perks because they were usually courting a younger demographic, he says. But the trend trickled into other industries not dominated by youthful workers and had an alienating effect. In short, non-parents have been fed up with their unequal treatment for a few decades, Fuerstenberg says, and the resentment is growing.

“Some say ‘I have no kids and never had kids, so what’s in this for me, other than picking up the work of the person who’s taking the leave?” he says. Parents with older children have complained to employers that they didn’t get the same perk when they had babies. Still others said, ‘“What about my sick parents?” Or “I need to take care of my brother and sister a few days a week, and I don’t want to burn through my vacation doing those kinds of thing.”

“I might not even have a support system”

Corporations are not alone in their fixation with parental needs, either. Galina Boiarintseva, an assistant professor of management at Niagara University in upstate New York, says management scholars and economists also have been overly curious about how parents are faring, or how maternity and paternity benefits impact productivity. “We have so much literature on people with children, on family-friendly policies, and how we can accommodate people with different parental responsibilities, that we almost overlooked every other population out there in the workforce,” Boiarintseva says.

With birthrates dropping in developed economies, fewer people in the workforce are parents, she adds. In the US, only 41% of working adults aged 20-54 are parents, compared to 62% in 1968, according to a Washington Post analysis. “As academics,” says the professor, “we’ve only really been serving half of the population.” 

Two years ago, Boiarintseva produced one of the rare studies to dig into the experiences of non-parents at work. Through semi-structured qualitative interviews with 21  couples, she found working adults without children felt ignored by their company’s efforts to support a work-life balance and less entitled to ask for flexible hours or the right to work from home. They sometimes didn’t even feel comfortable going home at the natural end of the workday, as if they were expected to work late.

Now, Boiarintseva is returning to that same research, this time with her Niagara colleague Anna McNab. Although the interviews were still in progress when we spoke with Boiarintseva, she said she already could sense a change: “The mistreatment and the unfair treatment, as perceived by those people, has amplified during the pandemic,” Boiarintseva says. “If the rhetoric before was ‘Occasionally, I’ll have to pick up the slack,’ with the pandemic, people felt that it became a constant expectation.”

The resentment that childless employees feel shouldn’t come as a surprise. Through their pandemic perks for parents, employers—despite good intentions—have created a real-life version of that famous lab experiment in which two monkeys are given different rewards for completing the same tasks, leading to a minor revolt by the monkey handed inferior treats. Surely the non-parents at Salesforce could relate: While being a parent meant you were granted more than a month of extra leave, with pay, to deal with life’s crazy new stressors, everyone else was offered the standard free meditation apps and mental health videos.

The problem isn’t that non-parents don’t understand the magnitude of the pandemic’s profound effects on parents or on working mothers in particular. The issue is that employees without children need empathy, too.

“There’s this whole idea that if you don’t have children, you don’t have non-work responsibilities, or you don’t have to take care of yourself, and work really is the center of your universe,” Boiarintseva says. Those myths were damaging before, but now they have become almost dangerous, where some people “felt that they are at a burnout level and they’re becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their employers. They also felt that, given the situation with the pandemic, their job could be at risk if they were to refuse to pick up the extra duty and take up more work than their parental counterpart.”

Childless employees fear that if they were to say, “I feel unhappy. I’m going through my own crisis. I’m also sitting at home. I might not even have a support system. I might not have a spouse, somebody to bring me a cup of tea and here and there,” she says, “it would work against them.” Colleagues who are parents, meanwhile, don’t have to offer an explanation for why they may need a day offline.

Now that the pandemic has persisted for longer than expected, single people, in particular, are feeling cut off from friends and family, but “the perceived institutional support only seems to go one way, to parents,” says Boiarintseva.

The ways that some employers have fallen over themselves to keep parents happy has undeniably reinforced certain unspoken beliefs about who is valued in our culture and whose happiness deserves to be protected. That may be especially true for women.  (“[I]f a fifth of women are child-free, why do we feel so peripheral, so shut out? Perhaps— despite decades of feminism—it’s because there’s an assumption that the only truly worthwhile job a woman can do is to raise children?” one woman told the Guardian in 2012.) Parent-specific pandemic benefits have, in some cases, unintentionally given definitive shape to a whole set of invisible biases.

But that could change. Boiarintseva noticed a shift in the tenor of her interviews after the New York Times published a story in September detailing the way Facebook, Twitter, and Salesforce—companies with “comfortable profit margins,” the Times noted—dipped into their coffers to find more support for working parents in their firms, and other employees pushed back. “At Twitter, a fight erupted on an internal message board after a worker who didn’t have children at home accused another employee, who was taking a leave to care for a child, of not pulling his weight,” the Times reported in September, in just one example of many skirmishes they uncovered.

These days, Boiarintseva’s interviewees are getting “angrier and angrier,” she tells me. In many cases, they have found a collective voice, either through chatting with peers or through Facebook groups for childfree adults. They’re saying to her, “I might as well say something, because now it’s out there in the media,” she says. Some have even built up the courage to air their grievances to a manager, she adds, but with trepidation. “I’m not worried about right now, because they really have no one to replace me with,” they might say, according to Boiarintseva. “But what’s going to happen to my relationship with my manager next year? What are they going to think about me?”

HR managers have also told the researchers that nonparents are speaking up, whereas they really didn’t hear much from that group before. Employees who aren’t parents are saying, “I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t we should be getting paid the same as who worked less,” says Boiarintseva, or “I do also deserve holidays. I’m not going to be working those shifts, just because you don’t want to inconvenience parents.”

“I think there’s almost like mini-revolution going on within institutions, and it’s only getting stronger. There’s great momentum right now to start talking about it from all different angles,” she says.

How to defuse tensions—or not let them take hold

Companies can take steps to quell tensions and avoid interpersonal awkwardness, to blunt the development of employee camps, so to speak. Boiarintseva suggests surveying the organization —”at the very least,” she emphasizes—to see how people are feeling. “But if other people in your organization (besides parents) don’t complain, it doesn’t mean they’re not feeling the burnout,” she warns.

Managers should also involve employees in creating solutions, because they just may learn that small gestures can have an outsized effect. For example, one interviewee told Boiarintseva that it’s not the extra work that’s bothering him so much as the expectation that he’s always available. His only ask of his boss, had his boss inquired, would have been to commit to giving him more than five minutes’ notice to be available for a call or online shift.

Mercer’s Fuerstenberg advises that employers be flexible about scheduling, and open to allowing people to work when it makes sense for them. He also recommends supporting parents with benefits other than paid time off, the perk that’s most likely to raise eyebrows when denied to one group. Instead of giving people more vacation time, employers could focus on subsidizing emergency daycare and tutoring costs—the New York Times has given parents who work at the paper an extra stipend of $600 per week for this—and look for other benefits that make it possible for parents to maintain their usual hours.  Some companies have offered working parents a subsidy they can use to hire a family member to look after their kids. The pandemic calls for “a Swiss-army knife approach” says Fuerstenberg, to match the different needs of staff with the right tools.

Why benefits get created

But the bigger shift that’s needed is a change in attitude about how and why benefits are created, and this is a problem the pandemic has made more urgent.

“We need to start shifting the focus from family-friendly to everyone-friendly policies,” says Boiarintseva. “We need to be open to including those policies and making those policies child-status-free.” Perhaps you do have a stipend for employees, but it’s not tied to paying for childcare. Whether the funds go to boosting your home wifi or paying for more daycare, does it matter?

This universal design approach to company perks is not intended to minimize the very real struggle for parents and, in particular, working mothers. If anything, understanding what’s happening with parents can help employers spot the challenges others are facing, if on a less intense level. “What we found is if you make the organization better for working moms, you make it better for everyone,” Anne Morriss, a leadership coach and executive founder of The Leadership Consortium, told my Quartz colleague Sarah Todd in October.

Indeed, it’s probably not just the parents on staff who would appreciate greater empathy, shorter meetings, or the option to keep their video off during Zoom calls. “It turns out we’re all complex human beings,” Morriss notes. “When we’re caring for other human beings who are not of age, these problems are more acute, but they’re real for every single person in the workplace.”

Phil Burgess, chief people and operations officer for the ad agency C-Space, in Boston, recently explained in a Quartz at Work from home workshop how his company learned the same lesson this year. “We saw different groups beginning to form, and the people who are not parents were beginning to say, ‘Well, we’re picking up the work because the parents have got to go on the school run, or they’ve got their kids at home, so I’m doing more work,” he said. Management tried to listen and “tell a bit of a story about how everyone was experiencing [the pandemic] differently,” he said. When the leadership team decided its response would include instituting half-day Fridays, the policy was framed as something made for everyone, even though the idea came from a parent group. “We said ‘This is for everyone. This isn’t just so parents can spend time with their kids. This is for everyone to choose how to spend that time based on what’s right for them.” C-Space’s “focus Fridays” as they came to be known, have become a “positive ritual” to come out of a difficult period, he says.

The rise of unlimited time off

Perhaps the ultimate universally useful benefit is unlimited paid time off, a policy that can remove a lot of the stress around counting vacation days or planning for them when the only thing that feels certain in life is that you at some point will need mental health days, or time off to attend to family or friends.

Through the pandemic, a lot of companies have come to see the wisdom in this benefit, says Fuersetenberg. Not only is the flexibility reassuring to employees, it saves HR departments the energy and paperwork required to manage vacations. And this year, more employees than usual have not taken holidays because, well, where would they go? Now a lot of people are sitting a big pile of unused days, says Fuerstenberg, which could become an HR headache as we head into the new year.

Between 2015 and 2018, Mercer surveys indicated there was almost no change in the number of companies offering unlimited paid time off. The portion of employers to adopt it was stuck in the 3% to 5% range. Fuerstenberg expects that by the time the world reopens in earnest, the percentage of companies that have come around to accepting unlimited time off will be closer to 10%, which could be a tipping point. Many business leaders will see that their competitors are doing it and they’ll start to think about it for their own companies, Fuerstenberg predicts.

Detractors say that people take fewer vacation days when their company offers unlimited paid time off, because not having clear guidelines leads to uncertainty about what’s actually acceptable and what will raise eyebrows, but it is the benefit that employees want most, according to a 2019 survey by MetLife. And it’s exactly the kind of elegant solution that would take some weight off working parents—without slighting anyone else.