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While plans for bringing workers back to the office are top of mind for many companies, there’s another crisis that’s far from resolved: child care.
The uncertainty over what school will actually look like in the fall, coupled with far fewer child-care workers and child-care centers, is making the movement to bring employees back to work premature at best and unmanageable at worst, says Brigid Schulte, director of Better Life Lab, a work/family research organization.
CNBC recently spoke with Schulte about why companies need to address child-care infrastructure, how best to help working parents and why the old model of work needs to change.
The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
CNBC: Companies are calling workers back into the office, yet you’ve said there’s still a child-care infrastructure crisis that we’re not dealing with. What’s happening?
Schulte: Haven’t we learned in the last 18 months that when you do not have schools or stable child care, you have a workforce that can’t do its work, or if it does, you’re going to burn them out? There are 20,000 child-care centers that we know of that are closed because of the pandemic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1 in 9 child-care worker jobs have been lost. So even if parents want to come back to the office full time, there might not be a place for their children to go.
If we’re not having these conversations when we’re also talking about the return to work, then we have learned nothing. I just talked to someone last week who said everyone was ordered back to the office August 2. They didn’t ask the employees; they didn’t survey anybody. They had no idea whether people had young children or if schools were going to be open in the fall, or that there were no camps to send kids to this summer. That is outrageous and just bad management.
CNBC: Why do you think it’s happening this way?
Schulte: We have a mostly male structure that runs things. These are the people who are making decisions about what work should look like and when employees should come back. These are people who came of age in an office culture and it’s how they advanced. There is a real resistance to working any other way. So it’s partly status quo bias. The other part is that people just want to snap back to the way things were. Look, we’re all tired of the pandemic. Everyone wants to move on, but you can’t move on when you’re ignoring the very basics of what working parents just went through.
People were getting up early, homeschooling kids, staying up late. People were already sacrificing themselves for the company so when they’re ordered back in, it feels like such a slap in the face for so many who have put the company first for the past 18 months.
CNBC: What should companies be doing instead? It’s not unreasonable to want to have some employees in the office.
Schulte: Every business is different, but best practices should revolve around some basic questions. As a business, what is your core function and where do people need to be to do that work? How can people come back to a site that reflects flexibility? Why are we barreling down the road to bring people back to the office when companies don’t know what they’re facing at home? Ask people what they need. Survey them first, anonymously, to hear about the difficulties they’re having at home and with child care. When you have the data you can then better figure out how to offer flexibility that’s actually useful. Look at what’s worked in the last 18 months. There is so much wisdom among the people who have been doing the work. Some people who are in small apartments or who are lonely, they want more comradery. Other people hate the commute and have become more engaged with their families and child-care needs. But a company won’t know any of this unless they seek out the information.
CNBC: Do you feel that companies have to get more involved in their employees’ lives because of the pandemic?
Schulte: I think we’ve become so brainwashed that family is a private matter and that everyone needs to figure things out on their own. We can’t see that some of these things are larger social goods, the common genius. We have public education for a reason: it makes our society stronger and better. We need to be thinking about child care the same way. It helps the common genius. Families can’t figure this out on their own and when they have to, it makes everyone feel guilty and inadequate. It’s bigger than them. It’s like asking families to figure out their own K through 12 education.
CNBC: Do you think the war for talent that companies are experiencing now will push them to address child-care issues more seriously?
Schulte: This gives me some hope that companies may do something. Citigroup, for instance, is being flexible. Some of the other big banks want people back in the office full-time. If they find that doesn’t work, Citi says it will be able to attract those workers. So much is going to shake out in the next few months and there is an opportunity for some real creativity on the part of employers.
Just look at the companies that have gone to a four-day workweek. They’ve done the hard work of figuring out their mission. This is a real opportunity for companies not to go back to an inefficient status quo, not to snap back to a system that worked well for a small percentage of the population.
CNBC: What else can businesses do right now to help solve the child-care infrastructure problem?
Schulte: Businesses need to support public policies that support child care. We need to think about infant through 5-year-old child care the same way we think about K-12 education. It’s a public good. It’s a good investment. And we can’t keep expecting families — employees — to figure this all out. We need common solutions for these big societal problems.
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