How HR Can Support Working Parents During Back-to-School Season

By Kylie Ora Lobell July 31, 2023
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​Back-to-school season is a hectic time when parents are focused on ensuring their children have everything they need to succeed in the academic year ahead. Employers of all sizes should be aware that most of their employees with children in school are likely facing this annual challenge.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the share of U.S. families with at least one employed family member was 80.1 percent in 2022. And at the end of last year, the labor force participation of mothers stood at 72.9 percent, the highest level since 2019.

Knowing that parents are dealing with packed schedules in August and September, some employers are helping them have greater work/life balance. Here are some tactics being implemented by HR:

Provide Flexible Schedules

Kimberly Harris, director of people operations at Poll Everywhere, a software company in San Francisco with 78 employees, noted that working parents are always busy. However, things can become especially hectic when a new school year is looming.

"Year-round, but especially as the summer comes to an end and schools are back in session, the biggest consideration for working parents is flexibility," said Harris, who is a working mother herself. "Allowing working parents more flexibility in their schedules, such as coming in later or leaving earlier and making up the time outside of normal working hours, can alleviate the burden of the back-to-school shift."

Damein Jaywalter, co-founder and senior HR manager at cellphone service provider DirectUnlocks in New York, agreed, saying that giving employees the flexibility they request during back-to-school time is critical.

"It provides our employees the chance to drop off or pick up their children from school without the stress of rushing back to work," he said. "We believe this flexibility contributes to a less stressful and more productive work environment."

In addition, Tara Henning, founder of an HR consulting firm in San Francisco, said employers should encourage employees to use communication tools when their schedules change. Sharing status updates, such as, "Taking my kid to meet their teacher—will be offline from 11-12, back soon!" on Slack or Microsoft Teams, as well as blocking off unavailable times on their calendars, will keep everyone in the loop.

"If you don't offer flexibility in your schedule, now's a great time to consider it," Henning said.

Offer Remote Work

While letting parents come in late or leave early can make a huge difference, giving them the chance to work remotely for part or all of the day, or even for a week at a time as needed, could ease their anxiety significantly, said Patrice Chew, an HR business partner at the University of Phoenix.

"If your company can accommodate such a need, I believe it's beneficial," she said. "Working remotely can cut back on the time spent in the car driving to work … [and] it also can offer the ability for your child to ride the bus home and you be there to greet them when they get off the bus."

Offer Help with Spending

Last year, parents spent an average of $661 per child in kindergarten through 12th grade on back-to-school items, according to the National Retail Federation. Working parents, especially those with multiple school-aged children, are feeling even more burdened during this period of high inflation, and some employers are figuring out ways to make things easier.

For instance, the University of Phoenix, with nearly 3,000 staff and about 3,000 faculty, provides a benefit called PerkSpot, which gives employees discounts at such stores as Target and Costco. Parents can use these offers to save on school supplies and clothes.

Another option is a flexible spending account, which can help parents budget for school-related expenses, Jaywalter said. "Our employees can use this pre-tax benefit to cover various costs, which indirectly can free up money for those back-to-school expenses," he explained.

Harris added, "For companies that are financially able, providing a child care stipend would also be a major benefit to working parents."

Ask Employees What They Need

Of course, it's critical to communicate with working parents to find out what would help them the most, then put those requests into action.

"The most important thing as an employer is to give grace to those parents that may be struggling this time of year," Chew said. "Making sure that all time-off options and benefits are communicated to the employee is vital, and simply asking what the need is can go a long way as a manager."

In addition, Harris said working parents often find it challenging to balance their work and personal lives, which is why it's important for HR to keep their perspective in mind all year long.

"I cherish the time I get to see my kids at school with their friends and in their classrooms or get more face time with their teachers," she said. "It's imperative to give employees the chance to live fulfilling lives outside of work, and for many working parents—including myself—opportunities like being able to attend school events during traditional business hours are very meaningful."

For Jaywalter, supporting working parents has proven to be a small investment that pays off in terms of talent acquisition and engagement.

"It's both socially responsible and smart management," he explained. "It's the right thing to do, and it also makes good business sense. When employees know we have their backs as caregivers, they tend to be more engaged, loyal and productive team members. A culture of empathy boosts morale and retention."

Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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