Tackle child-care disaster earlier than bringing employees again to the workplace

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While plans for employees to return to the office are a priority for many companies, there is another crisis that is far from being resolved: childcare.

The uncertainty about what the school will actually look like in the fall, coupled with significantly fewer educators and daycare centers, is driving the movement to make employees prematurely at best and uncontrollable at worst, says director Brigid Schulte of Better Life Lab, a work / family research organization .

CNBC recently spoke to Schulte about why companies need to address childcare infrastructure, how best to help working parents, and why the old work model needs to change.

The following questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

CNBC: Companies are calling employees back to the office, but you said that there is still a childcare infrastructure crisis that we are not addressing. What’s happening?

Schulte: Haven’t we learned in the last 18 months that if you don’t have a school or stable childcare, you have a workforce that can’t do its job, or if so, it burns out? We know 20,000 daycare centers that are closed due to the pandemic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1 in 9 educator jobs have been lost. So, even if parents want to return to the office all day, there may not be a place for their children.

If we don’t have these conversations, if we also talk about returning to work, then we have learned nothing. I was just talking to someone last week who said everyone was called back to the office on August 2nd. You didn’t ask the staff; they didn’t question anyone. They had no idea if people had young children, if schools would open in the fall, or if there were no camps to send children to this summer. That is outrageous and just bad management.

CNBC: Why do you think this is happening?

Schulte: We have a predominantly male structure who runs things. These are the people who make decisions about what work should be like and when employees should come back. These are people who grew up in an office culture and were thus further developed. There is real resistance to working differently. So it’s partly a status quo bias. The other part is that people just want to get back to the way they were. Look, we’re all tired of the pandemic. Everyone wants to move on, but you can’t move on if you ignore the basics of what working parents have just gone through.

People got up early, homeschooled children, and stayed up late. People have already sacrificed themselves for the company, so to so many who have put the company first in the past 18 months, it feels like a slap in the face when they’re ordered again.

CNBC: What Should Companies Do Instead? It is not unreasonable to want a few people in the office.

Schulte: Every company is different, but best practices should revolve around a few fundamental questions. What is your core role as a company and where do the people have to be to do this work? How can users return to a website that reflects flexibility? Why are we running down the street to bring people back to the office when companies don’t know what their home is? Ask people what they need. First, ask them anonymously to find out what difficulties they are having at home and with childcare. Once you have the data, there is a better way of working out how to provide flexibility that is actually useful. Check out what has worked over the past 18 months. There is so much wisdom among the people who did the job. Some people who live in small apartments or are lonely want more camaraderie. Others hate the commute and are more concerned with their families and childcare needs. But a company won’t know about it unless it searches for the information.

CNBC: Do you think companies will need to be more involved in the lives of their employees because of the pandemic?

Schulte: I think we are so brainwashed that the family is a private matter and everyone has to make up their own mind. We cannot see that some of these things are greater social goods, the common genius. We have public education for a reason: it makes our society stronger and better. We also need to think about childcare. It helps the common genius. Families cannot figure this out on their own and when they have to they all feel guilty and inadequate. It’s bigger than them. It’s like asking families to find out their own K-12 parenting.

Why are we running down the street to bring people back to the office when companies don’t know what their home is?

Brigid Schulte, Director, Better Life Lab

CNBC: Do you think the talent war that companies are now witnessing will make them look more seriously at childcare issues?

Schulte: That gives me hope that companies will take action. Citigroup, for example, is flexible. Some of the other big banks want people back to the office full time. If they find this isn’t working, Citi says they can attract these workers. So much is going to happen in the next few months and there is an opportunity for real creativity on the part of employers.

Just look at the companies that went on a four-day week. You did the hard work figuring out their mission. This is a real opportunity for companies not to revert to an inefficient status quo, not to revert to a system that has worked well for a small percentage of the population.

CNBC: What else can companies do now to solve the childcare infrastructure problem?

Schulte: Companies have to support public policies that support childcare. We have to think about caring for toddlers up to 5 year olds in the same way we think about K-12 upbringing. It is a public good. It’s a good investment. And we can’t always expect families – co-workers – to find out all of this. We need common solutions to these great social problems.

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