Putting Parents First Could Be the Secret to a Successful Return-to-Office
Want to lure reluctant employees back to the office five days a week? Forget doughnuts and food trucks. Give them something actually essential: on-site day care.
It might be only a minority of white-collar professionals who need incentives to resume their commutes. But private investment in child care would benefit workers of all kinds.
Even before the covid-19 pandemic, the supply of child care in the United States was dismal. And for many families, if care was available, it wasn’t affordable. Yet most employers treated a lack of child care as an individual problem, rather than as a systemic one that risked undermining the labor market.
Then came the extended closures of schools and day cares — which made clear the extent to which the whole economy relies on care work.
Without safe places and people to entrust with their children, millions of American workers faced terrible choices. Those who could work from home could try to juggle parenting with professional demands, while feeling they were failing at both. They could leave their jobs entirely. Or they could risk leaving their children inadequately supervised and hope that nothing terrible might happen during a shift.
These choices were infuriating because employers could have invested in making them unnecessary. Ample precedents for the feasibility and value of on-site day care exist, from hospitals to the buttoned-up world of corporate finance, to the crunchier world of outdoor sports equipment.
Goldman Sachs, for example, operates backup child-care facilities and a permanent day-care center. And at Patagonia, which opened an on-site day-care center at its Ventura, Calif., headquarters in 1983 and at its Reno facility in 2017, the company’s pandemic response and return-to-office plans were guided by the existence of its child-care program.
Sheryl Shushan, the company’s director of family services, told me that when nonessential workers were allowed back in the California office, Patagonia prioritized parents, starting with breastfeeding mothers, to get them access to care. This parents-first approach allowed the company to keep the number of people in the office low enough to give returning workers their own offices to decrease the risk of infection.
This strategy has worked: The company’s program now serves 92 percent as many children as it did pre-pandemic, getting both those kids and their parents back to its Ventura campus.
But on-site day care has the potential to do far more than getting butts back into seats.