School’s In. What About Work?

Many firms were hoping parents could resume more “normal” work lives when schools reopen. The lingering pandemic may have other ideas. 

The executives thought they had nailed down a 2021 parent policy: backup babysitters, emergency flextime, a childcare hotline, plus a parent mentoring program. As a perk, they offered tutoring stipends because, well, everyone’s doing it. And then the word “variant” entered our everyday lexicon. Shortly followed by “delta.”

As 50 million working parents with children under age 14 send their kids back to school starting as early as this week, many companies are discovering that their assumptions about parents—whether they are in the office or at home—may be seriously off-kilter. To be sure, COVID’s delta variant is the biggest surprise, with some schools closing or sending entire classes home with no notice when a child tests positive—creating a scenario more volatile than in 2020, when most schools were either open or closed. “Most organizations and schools are very committed to trying to make things go back to normal, but there are just too many unknowns,” says Elise Freedman, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and a leader in the firm’s Workforce Transformation practice.

Even before the delta variant, experts say, many companies simply weren’t prepared for the massive challenge of blending the needs of working parents with those of corporate post-pandemic operations. According to one report, 42% of companies with employees back in the office do not have plans to help employees balance childcare, and nearly none address the reality that when the delta variant is in a household or nearby, backup babysitters are not an option. “Organizations certainly need to figure out how to be flexible and make things work for individuals,” says Freedman.

The question is, how? Catering to individuals is the bailiwick of spas, not organizations. Last year companies enacted top-down policies, first sending everyone home and then rolling out a hodgepodge of flextime and self-care perks, often globally, which worked because many developed countries faced more or less similar conditions (on differing timelines). Competent managers focused on output and turned a blind eye to knowledge workers’ sliding deadlines and curtailed hours. But, according to experts, those were Band-Aids, not solutions, with 71% of parents reporting high stress late last year.

This time around, most human resources experts are suggesting the best solutions will arise not from policy but practice emerging lower down the org chart. “Put the decisions in the hands of local managers,” says Ron Porter, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Human Resources Center of Expertise. “Everyone loves consistency and treating everyone the same and fairly, but this is about individuals’ unique situations.” If the idea of handing the reins to millions of local managers jolts you to your company-handbook-loving core, Porter agrees: “That is a little troubling. The risk is having inconsistent policies across the organization for situations that are similar.” Inconsistency is also inevitable. One parent might be granted two weeks of paid time off, while another will need to log long hours from home.

According to Joseph McCabe, a vice chairman at Korn Ferry, many of the sparkling new hybrid policies that assign staffers to red or blue teams by day, or mandate core in-office hours, are on a collision course with parents’ autumn realities. “You’ve got to have the flexibility and be inclusive of those who cannot be in the building or online at that moment,” says McCabe. “You’ve got to make a conscious effort to make sure that you have meetings accessible via Zoom or dial-in, and make sure that individuals are not excluded or left out because they cannot physically be there.”

For jobs where physical presence is essential, like retail, “put in plans right now to deal with individuals who can’t be at work,” says McCabe. “This requires more creative thought.” For example, higher-ranking employees may need to sub in for floor staff, or a parent with multiple kids at home may need to train online for a day and shift to online customer service. No “correct” answer will emerge here. McCabe says that successful digital workforce leaders share one trait: “Their tolerance for ambiguity is extremely high.”