The following article is supplied by Jeanette Ward of Texas Mutual.
When I first started my career in insurance just out of college at 23, I was a single mother to a young daughter. I recall that one of the most stressful times for me every year was figuring out childcare for my daughter during summer break from school. This was before the internet, so I would spend weeks pouring through advertisements for summer camps in the paper or calling around to different childcare centers piecing together schedules, hoping it wouldn’t break the budget, and tracking the miles to the camps to ensure I could drop her off and pick her up without being late for work or having to ask to leave early. Arriving late or leaving early to take care of my daughter was a non-negotiable back then.
Now, my daughter is grown, and I find myself leading an organization during one of the most disruptive periods working parents have experienced in their lifetimes. While working remotely, parents also became teachers, after school care givers, coaches, tutors, and more. Before the pandemic, access to affordable and quality childcare was becoming difficult to find in Austin, where Texas Mutual is headquartered, and in most cities around the country. Even worse, during the pandemic, a significant number of childcare centers shuttered their doors and the price for this scarce resource increased even more.
While it was stressful to be a working parent 30 years ago, the issues that today’s families face are far more significant. That may explain why so many women have left the workforce with no plans to return. According to an article in Fortune magazine in early 2021, 80% of the 1.1 million people who had exited the workplace in 2020 were women. I serve on Early Matters Greater Austin, a business coalition focused on the importance of childcare and early childhood education for healthy and productive workplaces. It was through that work that I became aware of a recent study by the Best Place for Working Parents that found that 80% of employees surveyed would leave their current job for another job with better family-friendly workplace policies. The study also found that number one ranked family friendly policy was employers offering flexible hours and/or days.
The success of remote work during the pandemic shed light on a new way of working, where business needs and employee work-life balance can both be achieved. This, I believe, is key to attracting and retaining great talent, now and into the future. Remote work creates balance in employee lives. As long as employees are accountable to their jobs, not having the commute every day allows parents to step away to pick their kids up from school or summer camp on their break or be present for family dinners versus sitting in a car in traffic for hours.
That kind of flexibility is incredibly desirable to employees. And it’s not just women; a new father at Texas Mutual told me recently that not having to commute every day has created time for him to bond more with his newborn and still be productive and meet our business needs. That’s a win-win in my book.
However, if you ask most company leaders, you will likely learn that they are struggling with this new reality. I can tell you we have struggled with the right approach to return to in-office work at Texas Mutual. The world of office work was static for decades, and for the most part, not known for flexibility. Now, we see that work can be done differently and business needs can still be successfully met. Still, as a leader of a company responsible for its ongoing success, you must ask yourself: What do we lose with remote work and what if, over time, our company culture and our business results suffer? Texas Mutual is a business first and foremost. We must fulfill our mission of providing a competitive source of workers’ compensation insurance, we must be there for our agent partners, our policyholders, and the workers who are hurt on the job and depend on us to help get them back to a productive life.
I also think about how young professionals can gain the skills, knowledge, relationships, and exposure they need to grow in their careers. Take my story. I was a young, single mother who started at Texas Mutual as an entry-level receptionist, got to learn and move around to all areas of the company, and am now a C-suite executive. I know from my experience that there is abundant opportunity for career growth in our industry. However, in a fully virtual environment, how do you develop deep relationships with your co-workers and company leaders who can influence your career, especially beyond your team? How do high potential employees get the broad exposure needed to learn and grow into higher level roles?
Additionally, I worry about our ability to drive innovation and strategy in a remote environment. How do you ensure the company doesn’t begin operating in silos, which can create a less than desirable customer experience? These are just some of the benefits of in-person work, collaboration, and exposure that can be difficult to replicate fully with remote work.
So, while I believe that the benefits of in-person collaboration cannot be totally replicated in a virtual environment, I also strongly believe that we have an opportunity to take what we’ve learned the past two years and evolve our culture to embrace a best of both worlds (on-site and remote) approach. That’s what we are trying to do at Texas Mutual, work in the office when it makes sense for team collaboration, meetings, strategy development, innovation, training and development, or other company events and continue to allow employees the flexibility to work remotely when it makes sense.
Our employees have proven they can be trusted to help Texas Mutual fulfill its mission, but with less commute time, more time with their family and an overall better quality of life. Looking back, I can’t help but think that this kind of flexibility would have alleviated the significant stress I felt during those summer months long ago as I diligently strove to be both a good employee and a good parent.