By Anne Whiting, Senior Consultant

Recessions caused by periodic economic downturns typically hurt men’s employment more than women’s, but in 2020 and 2021 this has not held true. The Covid-19 pandemic has created a perfect storm – eroding women’s employment and making work-life balance even more difficult for working women at all levels. The institutions that mothers depend on to work outside of the home have been affected – stay at home orders have shut down daycare centers and schools have transitioned to remote learning. Grandparents, neighbors, friends are not able to provide childcare support due to contagion fears while they await vaccines.

Prior to the pandemic, women comprised more than 50% of the country’s workforce. Many jobs have simply disappeared, especially those in service, hospitality, and education – where women tend to be employed in larger numbers. Families have largely been left to navigate the pandemic on their own, negotiating childcare and homeschooling responsibilities while juggling work. As families are buckling under the strain of caregiving, many women, especially lower-wage earners, have opted out. While overall unemployment numbers for women continue to improve since the early part of last year, these numbers do not include the many women who are no longer seeking work. Data from the National Women’s Law Center is staggering: In the month between August and September 2020, four times as many women dropped out of the workforce as did men.

While it can be hard to imagine a positive angle on the massive exodus of women from the workplace created by the pandemic, the “shecession” does contain some valuable lessons for employers that are serious about creating more equitable and inclusive workplaces and retaining women.

The ongoing childcare crisis in the U.S. needs leadership at the federal and state levels, but employers have a significant role to play in creating structures and policies that enable employees to balance work and caregiving responsibilities. Policies that expand childcare benefits and bolster paid family leave will attract and retain women. Companies that make a visible commitment to closing the gender pay gap will also gain an advantage. This will require annual pay audits and use of tools and technologies that support equitable hiring and promotion decisions – and assessments of the potential for leadership roles.

Another key area for action is work flexibility. Forward-thinking companies have already realized that workers, especially working parents, want flexibility, but these companies – and those that follow – need to ensure that they are setting flexible and remote employees up for success.

Work flexibility is a broad term for options in the workplace that give managers and employees the freedom to decide when, where, and how work will get done. Flexible work arrangements may range from informal smaller agreements, such as: occasional telecommuting, having different start and stop times to avoid commute traffic, or an alternative schedule to accommodate daycare center and school hours. These arrangements can also be more formal, including compressed work weeks and fully remote work. With so many possible variations on “flexible” work, writing comprehensive organizations policies can be difficult. This often leaves decisions in the hands of individual managers, which leaves room for disparity, discrimination, and playing favorites.

Flexible work arrangements that are individually negotiated can adversely impact women; the “motherhood penalty” comes into play. According to WorldatWork, approximately 80% of employers offer flexible work arrangements, but only 37% have a “formal, written philosophy or policy to support flexibility options.” For many women, there is a stigma connected to the use of flexible work arrangements, one that adversely impacts pay and promotion opportunities and causes others to question their commitment to their job.

Organizations can better support women by having a clearly communicated written policy; one that defines which jobs are subject to flexible schedule and which ones are not. Defining core hours and meeting times are useful in helping women protect work schedules and organize childcare. Removing uncertainty helps both managers and employees make better-informed decisions about the flexibility offered to them.

The pandemic has proven that flexible work schedules and remote work are viable for many organizations. Going forward, companies are going to continue to capitalize on the remote work tools in which they have invested so much money and time. Employers who go further and integrate flexibility into their business strategy and transition away from employee-initiated requests to proactive manager-initiated programs supported by tools, technology, and training will differentiate themselves.

To succeed with remote and flexible workers, managers will also need additional support in defining and measuring key performance indicators and rewarding employees for their results, not for hours spent in the office. Performance management philosophies and systems will need to be revisited and redefined. Falling short in this area will have a direct impact on employee retention and business results.

Here are a few key strategies to consider:

  • Structured, meaningful conversations between managers and their employees are essential and should cover what is working well, areas for improvement, and support needs. Managers should receive support and training on how to have these conversations and can share common themes with HR and other senior leaders to inform policy and training improvements.
  • Employees need timely, honest, constructive feedback on their performance, ideally from sources that go beyond their manager for a more well-rounded view of how they are executing against their goals. Performance management systems that skillfully integrate 360 Feedback – and offer training on how to make feedback useful and have authentic conversations around performance – will have an advantage.
  • Access to coaching – whether internal or external – can have a dramatic impact on employee growth and performance and can be a vital additional source of support and guidance for women and men working remotely.

Ultimately, it is not just women and working parents that will benefit from well-considered and executed remote and flexible work arrangements. Other groups that have traditionally been shut out of the workforce or marginalized to some degree due to an uncooperative infrastructure, such as people with disabilities, should find more doors open to them that were once shut. The possibilities are exciting and long overdue.

Anne Whiting, MA is the Director of Consulting Services at 3D Group. She has over two decades of experience as a global HR leader and coach. Her direct industry experience includes consumer packaged goods, aerospace manufacturing, professional services, information technology, and healthcare. Anne earned her Master of Science degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Alliant International University in San Diego. 

This article was originally published on HR.com.