Flexible and Family-Friendly Policies at Utah’s “Best Places to Work”

Setting the Stage

The COVID-19 pandemic that reached Utah in March of 2020 has had an enormous impact on the way companies do business. Perhaps the biggest change for employees came in the widespread shift to remote work as a public health measure, but many companies adjusted work practices and policies in other ways to support their employees during a challenging time. Many changes focus on flexibility and family-friendly policies, which have traditionally been a double-edged sword for working women. Though such offerings have made it possible for some mothers to remain in the workforce, taking advantage of such programs has often placed women on the “mommy-track,” where they are seen as being less committed to their careers. Yet these programs are not for women only, and men who utilize family-friendly benefits have also experienced backlash.

Generational attitudes have begun to transform this landscape somewhat over the past decade, as millennial workers are more likely than Baby Boomers or Gen-X to consider workplace flexibility to be essential. This shift, combined with a growing emphasis on the value of diversity within organizations, has created momentum toward increasing these types of offerings. But COVID-19 forced companies across the world to transition to remote work almost overnight, a phenomenon that many believe will revolutionize the way employees work moving forward. In this dynamic climate, Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP) researchers designed a study to highlight what types of flexible and family-friendly arrangements are available at a variety of Utah businesses; the study also addresses the impact these policies are having on companies and their employees now and into the future.

Study Background

In the fall of 2020, UWLP researchers collected data from 100 companies related to their flexibility and family-friendly policies and offerings. Participating companies were chosen from several “Best Places to Work in Utah” lists from the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah Business Magazine, and the Women Tech Council Shatter List, as well as Utah companies listed in similar national rankings from Forbes and Glassdoor. These companies were selected because they had been publicly recognized for offering benefits to meet their employees’ needs. Hence, this study should not be seen as describing Utah businesses generally but as examining best practices of companies that are leading the way in terms of employee satisfaction.

Flexibility and Family-Friendly Policies

As expected, due to COVID-19, the most common arrangement made for employees in this study is remote work, followed closely by flexible work hours, which are offered by the vast majority of companies (with plans to continue through the next twelve months). In addition to allowing companies to adhere to public health recommendations, these adjustments also support the health, welfare, and mental wellbeing of employees as schools and childcare centers have been closed, and as individuals are facing high levels of uncertainty and distress generally.

 As the companies we surveyed are known for their best-in-class employee benefits, we were not surprised to see that the companies strongly support new parents in the form of maternity, paternity, and general family leave. Three of four companies offer some form of maternity leave, with around 60% of companies extending that leave to fathers or for accommodating other kinds of familial support. The leave takes various forms; some companies combine sick leave, disability, or other PTO to provide paid leave for new parents. More than half of companies also provide unpaid leave (though this is required by federal law for most of the companies included in the study). Nearly half the companies also report some type of transitional back-to-work support for new mothers. Despite most companies offering policies to support new parents, fewer than one-fifth of companies provide childcare support. This relatively low percentage underscores the reality that childcare is one of the most complex challenges for working parents in Utah—and one that will require commitment from numerous stakeholders to address successfully. 

Varieties of other arrangements supporting employees who want or need flexibility were reported by study participants. Part-time roles for entry-level workers are plentiful (offered at 72% of companies), but such roles are much less common at higher levels (44%). This is relevant to the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon, wherein women are less likely to be employed in higher level positions. Utah women work part-time at much higher rates than women nationally, and if part-time roles are not available at senior levels, women may choose to forgo promotions or leave their companies rather than transition to full-time roles. Finally, a compressed work week, “unlimited” PTO, “returnships,” and formal job-sharing were also included as flexibility options.

With few exceptions, the percentage of companies planning to offer flexible options decreased slightly in their projections over the coming year. In terms of flexibility, we see decreases in companies that plan to continue offering flexible work hours and “unlimited” PTO. However, there is a slight increase in the percentage of companies that plan to offer a compressed work week, perhaps in response to physical space concerns related to COVID-19.

In terms of parental and family support, there are several planned decreases in offerings. Fewer companies intend to offer maternity leave, paternity leave, and general family leave over the next 12 months, and there are reductions in plans to offer transitional back-to-work support for new mothers. However, the data do show a slight uptick in plans to offer certain policies: we see an increase in the percentage of companies looking to offer higher level part-time roles and formal job-sharing programs, as well as the share of companies who intend to offer childcare support. These policies will provide welcome relief to the tens of thousands of working mothers who will face enormous pressures over the coming year and might otherwise be forced to leave their jobs.

Benefits for Companies

Utah’s “best places to work” are seeing numerous benefits from offering flexible and family-friendly arrangements to their employees. Mirroring national reports about employees’ desire for greater workplace flexibility, the vast majority of respondents are seeing higher employee satisfaction and increased retention, including one respondent who had heard from employees that “no other company has given them the flexibility to attend to family matters and that this keeps them around.” Another stated that flexibility leads to “more loyal employees who know we care about them and their families.” Further, 71.9% of respondents reported higher employee engagement, and 65.2% noted increased productivity. One participant illustrated the long-term impact of these findings by stating, “As many of our employees have transitioned to work-from-home during the pandemic, we have experienced increased productivity, satisfaction, and retention. Although remote work wasn’t a strategic employment practice prior to the pandemic, it will be in the future.”

In addition to the above-mentioned benefits that apply to individual employees, companies also reported the following benefits to their companies more broadly: 60.1% said they were able to attract higher quality candidates due to their flexible benefits. In terms of internal diversity, 50.1% of participants said these policies led to more diverse teams, and 47.2% said it helped them place more women in leadership roles. One participant noted, “We have had women at different levels who still want to grow their careers have the opportunity to go part-time. We have retained good talent by providing flexible work schedules.” Retention of female talent can be a key factor in advancing more women into leadership later in their careers. Finally, 33.7% of respondents said that offering these benefits contributed to increased profitability. As many companies in the survey noted, they have had flexibility policies in place only for a short time (in reaction to COVID-19); it would be interesting to see if reports of increased profitability would grow over time, as employee engagement has been tied to higher profits.

Related Challenges

Though many companies in the study reported numerous positive outcomes from offering flexibility, implementing the policies can be difficult, especially as some of the transitions happened with little time for preparation. Around 60% of respondents reported two significant challenges: first, the loss of company culture that left employees feeling disconnected, and, second, the logistical challenges that come with managing schedules, workplaces, and equipment. Half of the respondents reported experiencing communication problems. The costs (in both money and time) to administer these policies was recognized by participants, as was some level of decreased employee engagement and productivity. The findings are not surprising, given that 2020 has been a uniquely challenging year.

Yet it is interesting to note that the percentage of companies experiencing decreased engagement is five times lower than companies reporting increased engagement, and the percentage of companies that reported decreased productivity is four times lower than those reporting increased productivity. However, it is beyond the scope of this study to determine what is making the difference among these experiences. Further, as this study was conducted during COVID-19, it is possible that these shortcomings are linked to pandemic-specific stressors rather than to challenges simply related to flexible workplace arrangements. Additional research would be useful in exploring circumstances that either improve or impair engagement and productivity when a company is implementing flexible and family-friendly workplace policies.

Moving to the Next Level

While every organization is unique and differently equipped to offer flexible and family-friendly arrangements, companies of all sizes and types would do well to emulate many of the specific benefits and offerings mentioned by Utah’s “best places to work” throughout this report—including paid leave and flexibility with location and work schedule. Yet research has shown that for all working women to thrive, businesses must address additional factors:

  1. Childcare: Though childcare support was one of the least common benefits offered by companies in our study (likely because of complexity and high costs), childcare is consistently recognized as the most significant barrier to working mothers’ professional progress. The pandemic has exacerbated this challenge, and the necessity for good childcare will continue long after the crisis is over. Support can come in a variety of ways, including on-site care, subsidies, back-up care assistance, and childcare FSAs. Organizations like Care About Childcare and the Utah Child Care Cooperative can provide valuable support for companies looking to assist working parents.

  2. Flexibility for employees at all levels: A common complaint about flexible work policies is that they are sometimes offered unevenly. When lower level employees see that flexibility is only an option for management, it can decrease morale and employee retention. While not all offerings are feasible for employees in specific roles, deliberate actions to provide critical benefits fairly and equitably throughout organizations will do much to improve loyalty and retain women at lower levels, which can then serve to strengthen the overall pipeline.

  3. Make COVID-19 adjustments permanent: Despite the devastating effects of the pandemic, a few positives have emerged from this crisis, notably an openness to new ways of working. Companies that embrace flexibility and family support for their workers will protect themselves against the dramatic loss of female talent occurring nationwide. The pandemic has brought severe challenges to working parents, but the opportunity to disrupt outdated workplace norms can counterbalance these stressors and create new opportunities for women.

Conclusion

This survey was conducted to explore and highlight flexible and family-friendly arrangements at Utah companies, but it can also serve to inform other organizations about how they can emulate the “Best in Class” businesses that are working hard to meet their employees’ needs. With the effects of COVID-19 predicted to continue well into 2021, these benefits have never been more important. Further, such policies can be particularly valuable for women, as remote and flexible work are instrumental in women’s availability to stay engaged in the workforce even while women shoulder other responsibilities. The pandemic has shown companies that flexible work does indeed work, and these policies will be a key advantage for businesses looking to attract top talent. As more and more companies embrace these new ways of working, in addition to adding to their family-friendly benefits, it will create additional opportunities for women’s workforce engagement, advancement, and success, while still allowing women to prioritize other areas of their lives, including their families. This shift will, in turn, strengthen our businesses, communities, and the state as a whole.

To learn more about flexible and family-friendly policies at Utah's "best places to work," read the full brief.

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