Parent-friendly work policies benefit all

My low point as a working parent came at the beginning of the pandemic when I crawled out the window to take a call on my roof because my kids were being so loud. At this point, stories like that don’t even raise eyebrows. 

Two years into this crisis, we’re well aware of the plight of working parents—everyone with kids at home has pulled off some serious heroics to keep their families and their careers afloat. And with omicron wreaking havoc on schooling and childcare, yet again, the need to support working parents has never been higher. 

But what about the non-parents in the room? 

We all know COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate: The pandemic has cranked up the stress on all workers, with burnout and anxiety at an all-time high. And, I get it: When you don’t have kids, it can sometimes feel like your family-focused coworkers get special treatment

Running a company of 500+ people, I feel grateful that we worked hard to put many of our parental leave policies in place long before the pandemic hit. Still, we’ve tried to continually improve how we support our employees since this all started—both those who have kids at home and those who don’t. My biggest goal: Avoiding the false dichotomy so many workplaces fall into that unintentionally pits parents against their colleagues without children. I don’t think it has to be that way.   

The truth is, a work environment that truly works for parents actually makes a company better, and more attractive, for all employees—no matter their family status. Here’s why:  

Parent-friendly means people-friendly 

Working remotely during COVID-19 obliterated the old-school division between work and home. During the pandemic, we’ve gotten to meet many of our coworkers’ kids, but we’ve also met cats and dogs, peered into peoples’ hobbies, and gotten to know our colleagues as three-dimensional individuals—all facing unique challenges and navigating different phases of life. 

Supportive work policies need to respond accordingly. 

For parents, that means acknowledging that having a baby is like a neutron bomb going off in the middle of your life—in the best possible way. Your relationships, your sense of self, your priorities around work: It all transforms overnight. 

One of the most shocking revelations for me since becoming a dad is how much work it is just getting my kids off to school and daycare in the morning. That one hour can be as exhausting as a 10-hour day at my desk. That’s why we not only offer things like paid parental leave for both moms and dads, but also have gradual re-entry to work and peer mentorship before and after extended leave to help new parents find a new balance. 

But having a kid certainly isn’t the only big change people experience that requires attention and encouragement from employers. Whether you get married, lose a loved one, or come down with an illness, we all go through big shifts in life—some good, some bad. 

A company that’s responsive to the needs of parents is also well equipped to support other employees through those ups and downs. No matter if you need to take a few months off for your mental health, enjoy an extended vacation for a honeymoon, or are caring for an aging relative, policies that acknowledge people as humans first ultimately benefit everyone.  

Parent-friendly companies are built to last

The pandemic has made finding and retaining great people more challenging than ever. From the “She-cession” to the Great Resignation, the message from workers right now is clear: we’re putting new priority on balance and wellbeing, not just a paycheck, and not just any role will do. 

As we shift to an employee-driven labor market, progressive policies—around not just parental leave but work-life balance writ large—represent a real and decisive advantage.

The research backs this up. Companies that offer more paid time off see better retention. What’s more, firms with generous — yet general — paid time off for family issues see a significant reduction in women leaving their workforce. This not only saves the considerable financial cost of replacing employees, it also alleviates stress on remaining employees in times of labor shortage. Ultimately, it builds gender diversity, which is proven to boost the bottom line.  

One benefit that I’ve seen first hand is continuity. Having flexible, paid family leave has been instrumental in keeping parents, especially women, on our team while allowing them to find the family structure that works best for them. For example, my co-founder, Miranda Lievers is a powerful and visible senior leader whose husband takes on more responsibility at home. Flexibility for parents yields a massive upside in terms of retaining their institutional knowledge and domain expertise. 

Working with parents means finding better ways to work

One silver lining of COVID-19? It highlighted the absurdity of demanding people work 9-5, and the idea that butts-in-seats equaled productivity. Working parents have long known there are (or should be) better ways.

The reality is—parent or non-parent—we all work best under different conditions, and against a backdrop of distinct challenges. Imposing one uniform way to work in this context is frankly counterproductive. What’s essential is a shift in focus from inputs—hours worked, rigid schedules, etc.—to outputs.  

I know how important this is as a parent of now slightly older kids. We’re (thankfully) well past the newborn stage, but that doesn’t mean I have completely uninterrupted days to spend at my desk. From dentist appointments to professional development days to dance recitals, kids require flexibility. And so do other elements of life. 

Long before the pandemic hit, I reached a point of accepting that work isn’t about how things get done, it’s what gets done. Our team is well aware that there’s no shame in taking time for endeavors beyond work, from side hustles to family to passions—as long as you meet your commitments to your team. We’ve done away with punching a clock and instead focus on setting crystal clear expectations on deliverables. How they happen, and when, is up to the individual. 

Ultimately, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that old ways of working weren’t working—not for parents, not for anyone. The Great Resignation is a wake-up call for employers who still expect to return to business as usual. Workers are demanding to be treated like adults who have full and complex lives, whether that includes kids or not. If they don’t feel those needs are being met, they’re not afraid to walk.

Greg Smith is the founder and CEO of Thinkific, the leading platform for creating and selling online courses.

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