Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: as the latest surge appears to slow, many companies are seizing the opportunity to implement long-standing plans for hybrid work and full office returns. But with confusion and concern around mandates, booster shots, and supply chain shortages, many things still feel up in the air—and out of our control. 

For employees with or expecting children, that uncertainty makes planning their responsibilities incredibly challenging and stressful. How can HR teams best assist them returning to the office this time around? Transparency and support.

As companies return to the office, what's changed?

In 2022, there will be key differences in the path of the pandemic and its policy response. As the government pushes to keep the economy open despite new variants and record cases (but lower death and hospitalization rates), it raises new questions for companies.  

Government policies are set to change:

  • While the CDC has halved its recommended isolation time for asymptomatic COVID infections down to 5 days from 10, the agency may revise its guidelines again.
  • The Biden administration indicates that it may change the definition of "fully vaccinated" to require booster shots.
  • Pfizer submitted their clinical trial data on vaccine safety for children under 5 for review by the FDA.

Meanwhile, testing capacity is still limited by supply shortages, and controversies around mandates and resignations abound. Abrupt changes, sharp pivots, and general uncertainty leave businesses with a lot to think about: how much can they ask of or expect from employees? How much longer will this go on? How can businesses stay efficient while the holding pattern persists? 

Some companies will change their vaccination policies and may lean toward requiring boosters for all employees entering their offices to mitigate the risk of virus-related callouts. Employers will also need to reconsider their policies surrounding COVID leave, quarantine rules, and testing requirements, especially with tests in such short supply. And while larger organizations may be able to buy tests in bulk, smaller businesses may not find this accessible. Deciding which employees to prioritize for tests, how to verify the test results, and who pays for them will be a matter of contention for leaders in the coming months. 

Many companies will also include hybrid working policies in their return-to-office plan: 

According to Harvard Business Review, more than 90% of employers plan to implement a hybrid working model for their knowledge workers in 2022. Hybrid work will bring even more unevenness about when, where, and how many employees are working.

The concerns of working parents returning to the office 

Since the widespread remote work arrangements of the pandemic blurred the lines between "home" and "the office," working parents had more opportunities to construct their job around caring for their children. As the transition of returning to the office begins, it's essential to keep the concerns of working parents top of mind:  

Childcare & caregiving 

Childcare and caregiving responsibilities are top concerns when returning to the office. According to a 2020 survey by PwC, working parents with kids under 18 were more reluctant to return to the office than non-parents. More than a fifth of all respondents reported reluctance to return to the office due to their responsibilities as a parent or caregiver. 

Health concerns

Health and safety are significant concerns for parents of younger children not yet eligible for vaccines. Working parents may be worried about the exposure risks of being around other employees in the workplace or on their commute. Plus, while waiting for children's vaccines, working parents can't be sure all employees in their office are inoculated unless there are strict company policies set in place. 

Logistical issues

While many schools have reopened, there is always the risk of COVID outbreaks and the rapid switch back to virtual classes. The mix of caring for children, homeschooling, and varying schedules makes for major logistical concerns. There may be some differences in school situations for working parents with multiple children.

How employers can help working parents prepare for the return-to-office transition 

In the wake of the pandemic, more companies realize that attracting and retaining a productive and engaged workplace means appreciating that working and caregiving are interconnected. Providing continuous support and benefits for working parents results in better performance and bottom-line results. Here are some ways your organization can help working parents prepare for the latest return-to-office transition: 

Offer family-friendly benefits 

Employers can help by providing year-round family-friendly benefits such as child care assistance, paid parental leave, flexible working arrangements, lactation support, and more. Such programs can decrease absenteeism and bolster productivity among working parents. 

For employees who have caregiving responsibilities in general, you could provide services to assist working parents in finding the right child or elder care for their situation. For example, your organization can support breastfeeding parents by designating a private, nursing-friendly space in the office and offering a breast milking shipping service for when business travel resumes. For working parents with younger children, you can provide different types of child care support. Care@Work reports that employees who can access backup child care can work six extra days per year than those who lack it. 

Expand wellness support for all employees

Many companies are expanding their wellness programs to support all employees, including working parents. A recent Gartner survey of 52 HR executives found that 94% of companies made significant investments in their well-being programs, and wellness budgets continue to increase every year. Effective well-being programs are holistic: they acknowledge that mental, physical, and financial health are interconnected. By providing an ecosystem of benefits that help employees through various phases of their lives and the unique needs that come with them (like building and raising a family,) employers can ensure their needs are met.

However, companies have an overwhelming variety of options to choose from, and knowing what to invest in isn't always intuitive. Fortunately, some healthcare platforms offer whole-person care that provides coverage for fertility treatments and family building, mental health assistance programs, financial counseling, and more. Finding a healthcare vendor who can provide comprehensive and continuous support will be more convenient and cost-effective than cherry-picking point solutions. 

Be open to flexibility

HR leaders should consider adopting an open-minded approach to workplace flexibility once employees have transitioned back to the office. Granting flexible arrangements for working parents who may need to work from home to accommodate their caregiving responsibilities shows empathy, respect, and understanding. 

Flexible policies are critical to building a work/life balance, and everyone needs flexibility at one time or another. Whether it’s an employee needing to stay home with a sick child, or someone needing to take a parent, spouse, or even themselves to the doctor, allowing for flexibility can help your employees adapt on the fly without losing productivity. If workplaces are designed so that everyone, especially working parents, needs flexibility, employees will feel more engaged, productive, and satisfied at their job overall. 

Make the return-to-office transition easier with Maven

As you prepare to bring your employees back into the office, Maven can help you reevaluate your policies and benefits to ensure parents feel supported and safe through the transition. Download our ebook for practical steps you can take today to set working parents up for success.

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