COVID-19 has spurred Utah companies to offer flexibility, other support to workers, report says

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kat Judd, vice president of people and culture at Lucid Software, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. Lucid offers employees a variety of flexibility and family-friendly policies, including an extra day of paid time off each month for employees with children younger than 2 years old.

Employees at 97th Floor don’t have strict work hours. As long as they finish what they need to, they can take a break on a weekday to go to their child’s soccer game or a doctor’s appointment.

“Obviously, they need to do their job,” said Paxton Gray, CEO of the marketing agency based in Lehi. “But as long as that’s happening and the work is being done, why does it matter when or where they’re doing it?”

Flexibility is key to helping women — who often face the greatest share of unpaid caregiving responsibilities — stay in their careers and advance to leadership roles, according to researcher Robbyn Scribner, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, as hundreds of thousands of women in the U.S. leave the workforce during the economic downturn.

In a new report, Scribner and researchers with the Utah Women and Leadership Project at Utah State University examined the flexibility and family-friendly policies at 100 businesses in the Beehive State that regularly make “best places to work” lists.

By highlighting the “best of the best,” Scribner said, their hope is to show companies across the state what can be done to better support their employees, especially women.

“Even [for] smaller companies, there are a lot of ways to incorporate flexibility and family-friendly policies into your organization that do not cost a lot of money,” Scribner said. “They just need a little bit of courage. They need a little bit of creativity and innovation and actually listening to your employees and finding out what they need the very most.”

There are ways even Utah’s top-rated companies can still improve, which the report outlines. State leaders should find ways to incentivize businesses in Utah’s growing economy, such as through tax credits, to provide child care support, paid family leave and flexible work arrangements, according to Susan Madsen, founder and director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project.

Such policies “will benefit Utah and families during COVID, but if they’re put into place, they’ll really make a difference even after the pandemic ends,” Madsen said.

COVID-19 speeds up change

Most of Utah’s top companies (92%) allow employees to work remotely, and 86% offered staff flexibility in their hours, according to the report. This was not surprising, researchers wrote, since many businesses made this switch during the coronavirus pandemic. Scribner said she doesn’t think those numbers would have been as high even a year ago, though, if COVID-19 hadn’t accelerated the need.

“We had a number of companies say, ‘This wasn’t what we ever planned to do. It was not on our road map, but this is the way we’re going to be working moving forward,’” she said.

Employees at Lucid Software, which is based in South Jordan, had flexibility before the pandemic, but COVID-19 public health guidelines and students learning remotely sped up the switch to remote work, said Kat Judd, vice president of people and culture. The company also provided an allowance to help staff set up their office space.

“We recognized early on the emotional and mental toll the pandemic was taking on families,” Judd said, so the company began offering on-demand mental health care and therapy for employees, their spouses and children. Lucid pays for the first 12 sessions for each person, she said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Most businesses offered some form of paid maternity (75%), paternity (64%), and general family (59%) leave. “Nearly half of the companies also report some type of transitional back-to-work support for new mothers,” according to the study. Fewer than one-fifth of the companies, however, provided some kind of child care support.

“This relatively low percentage underscores the reality that child care is one of the most complex challenges for working parents in Utah — and one that will require commitment form numerous stakeholders to address successfully,” researchers wrote.

At Lucid, employees with children younger than 2 years old receive an extra day of paid time off each month, according to Judd, and the company also offers a dependent care reimbursement account to help with child care expenses and up to 20 weeks of family leave for primary caregivers.

Most companies (72%) offered part-time roles for entry-level workers, “but such roles are much less common at higher levels (44%),” the report shows. This poses a problem, researchers wrote, because 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.”

“Having part-time professional roles for women is a huge step in keeping women in the pipeline toward higher levels of leadership later on in their career,” Scribner said.

‘An office that supports your needs’

The benefits from these policies, the companies’ leaders said in a survey, include higher employee satisfaction (94.4%), increased retention (79.8%), higher employee engagement (71.9%), and increased productivity (65.2%), according to the report.

Leaders at 97th Floor made the switch roughly five years ago from having their staff clock in and out for their eight-hour shifts at the office to what they call a “results-only work environment.”

“It’s been a great payoff in COVID because the transition to having everyone work remote, it was easy,” said CEO Gray.

Ashton Stanworth, a content marketer at 97th Floor, has worked from home while raising her three kids, all under the age of 2. When they were newborns, she worked mostly at night and called clients during the day.

“I don’t have to pay for day care. I’m with them ... and get the best of both worlds,” Stanworth said.

After Annalee Jarrett, who works on the internal marketing team, started at the company in 2014, she left for a while for medical reasons. She decided to return to 97th Floor, she said, because it allowed her the flexibility she needed for doctor’s visits. Years later, she now finds it helpful during her pregnancy.

Men at the company can go with their spouse to ultrasound appointments or take their kids to the doctor, she said. One person on Jarrett’s team “had a dream of doing homesteading,” and since he can work from home, he now also takes care of sheep on his property, she said.

“If you can find an office that supports your needs as a person, it allows you to take care of your life and have your career and support your family,” Jarrett said.

There are some issues that can come with these policies, according to the businesses surveyed for the report, such as a loss of culture and employees feeling disconnected (60.3%), logistical challenges (59%) and communication challenges (51.3%).

Researchers noted, though, that since “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.”

(Photo courtesy of 97th Floor) Annalee Jarrett, left, said the flexibility to set her own work hours at 97th Floor, where she works on the internal marketing team, has helped her during her pregnancy.

Policies during COVID-19 and beyond

Companies plan to continue many of the policies outlined in the report, which “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,” researchers wrote.

While it might not be feasible for every role, leaders should offer flexibility at all levels of a business, the report states. And although child care support was one of least common benefits in the survey, “likely because of complexity and high costs,” it is “consistently recognized as the most significant barrier to working mothers’ professional progress,” according to researchers.

“The pandemic has exacerbated this challenge, and the necessity for good child care will continue long after the crisis is over,” the report said. Companies can turn to organizations including Care About Childcare and Utah Child Care Cooperative to learn more, they said.

“Back-up support and offering emergency child care, or even giving references and referrals to good child care providers or small level subsidies, those are things that a lot of companies could find a way to do. You don’t need to be a big, rich company to do that,” Scribner said.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.