The COVID-19 pandemic that reached many countries around the globe in March of 2020 has had an enormous impact on the way companies do business. Perhaps the biggest change for employees came in the widespread shift to remote work as a public health measure, but many companies adjusted work practices and policies in other ways to support their employees during a challenging time. Many changes focus on flexibility and family-friendly policies, which have traditionally been a double-edged sword for working women. Though such offerings have made it possible for some mothers to remain in the workforce, taking advantage of such programs has often placed women on the “mommy-track,” where they are seen as being less committed to their careers. Yet these programs are not for women only, and men who utilize family-friendly benefits have also experienced backlash.
In the fall of 2020, I worked with researchers Robbyn Scribner and Michelle Vargas to collect data from 100 companies on their flexibility and family-friendly offerings and policies. Although we focused on Utah companies, the results should be interesting for other states in the US and beyond. We surveyed companies from several “Best Places to Work” lists because the organizations had been publicly recognized for offering benefits to meet their employees’ needs. Human resource professionals or other company representatives who have deep knowledge of company policies and their general effects on the businesses completed the surveys.
Participants were given a list of 17 flexibility or family-friendly workplace arrangements and then asked to report which ones they currently offered to their employees and which ones they planned to offer over the next 12 months. Here is what they reported:
- Remote work/flexibility with work location: Current – 92.0% | Future – 91.1%
- Flexibility with working hours (full-time employees): Current – 86.0% | Future – 80.0%
- Paid maternity leave: Current – 75.0% | Future – 71.1%
- Part-time roles (entry-level): Current – 72.0% | Future – 70.0%
- Paid paternity leave: Current – 64.0% | Future: 63.3%
- Paid family leave (general) 59.0% 50.0%
- Unpaid family leave: Current – 56.0% | Future – 54.4%
- Tuition reimbursement (employees): Current – 55.0% | Future – 53.3%
- Transition back-to-work support after maternity leave: Current – 47.0% | Future – 41.1%
- Part-time roles (higher level positions): Current – 44.0% | Future – 47.8%
- “Unlimited” PTO: Current – 34.0% | Future – 32.2%
- Compressed work week: Current – 26.0% | Future – 31.1%
- Other: Current – 25.0% | Future – 20.0%
- “Returnships” or other programs for returning workers (formal or informal): Current – 20.0% | Future – 21.1%
- Childcare support (e.g., onsite childcare, childcare reimbursement, emergency/back-up childcare): Current – 17.0% | Future – 21.1%
- Formal job-sharing program: Current – 4.0% | Future – 10.0%
- Tuition reimbursement for dependents/family members: Current – 3.0% | Future – 4.4%
As expected, due to COVID-19, the most common arrangement reported was remote work, followed closely by flexible work hours, which are offered by the vast majority of companies (with plans to continue through the upcoming 12 months). In addition to allowing companies to adhere to public health recommendations, these adjustments also support the health, welfare, and mental wellbeing of employees as schools and childcare centers had been closed, and as individuals were facing high levels of uncertainty and distress generally.
As the companies we surveyed are known for their best-in-class employee benefits, we were not surprised to see that the companies strongly supported new parents in the form of maternity, paternity, and general family leave. Nearly half the companies also reported some type of transitional back-to-work support for new mothers. Yet, fewer than one-fifth of companies provided childcare support. Study participants also reported varieties of other arrangements supporting employees who wanted or needed flexibility. Part-time roles for entry-level workers are plentiful (offered at 72% of companies), but such roles were much less common at higher levels (44%). This is relevant to the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon, wherein women are less likely to be employed in higher level positions. Finally, a compressed work week, “unlimited” PTO, “returnships,” and formal job-sharing were also included as flexibility options. The overall percentage of respondents who planned to continue offering various arrangements over the coming 12 months did not change substantially.
Policies like the ones I have discussed can be particularly valuable for women, as remote and flexible work are instrumental in women’s availability to stay engaged in the workforce even while women shoulder other responsibilities. The pandemic has shown companies that flexible work does indeed work, and these policies will be a key advantage for businesses looking to attract top talent. The full report, “Flexible and Family-Friendly Policies at Utah’s “Best Places to Work,” can be located at the link provided. Additional Utah, US, and global research on women can be found here.
Dr. Susan R. Madsen is a global thought leader, author, speaker, and scholar on the topic of women and leadership. She is also the Inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the Founding Director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project. Thanks to the lead researcher, Robbyn Scribner, and research associate Michelle Vargas for their contributions to this article.