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By: Tiina Bruno, Parentsmart Employers, Sweden

The rapid transition of so many employees to working at home with their children due to the COVID-19 pandemic has brought issues of balancing work and family to the top of the agenda like never before. For employers, the challenge of how to create engagement and a sense of belonging among employees who are not in the same physical location has become all the more pressing.

Even before this global crisis, an increasing number of private and public employers had recognized that offering employer support to working parents was a way to increase inclusion, create more sustainable work-life balance and attract top talent, with benefits for all their employees. Despite the serious difficulties of this current period, there is also an opportunity for companies and organisations to develop both their workplace culture and the broader societies to which they belong in a positive way, one that will create changes that endure after we are all on the other side of this crisis.

Encouraging the equitable engagement of men and women in unpaid care work is one of the most crucial changes we can make, one that can lead to more gender-equal workplaces, families and societies. This is why I believe that UNFPA’s new Expanding Choices initiative is more important now than ever. And it is why I and my Parentsmart Employers team of experts are honoured to collaborate with UNFPA in developing a “Family Friendly Workplace” concept and helping private sector companies evaluate and implement best practices that will yield long-term benefits.

Over the past ten years, I have been following the growth of interest in family support and gender equality in an increasing number of countries, and the economic and legislative initiatives introduced by many governments to facilitate the combining of work and family. However, many still don’t see the desired development accelerating as planned. Even if governments invest in parental leave for both mothers and fathers, men in some countries will still risk losing their jobs if they use this benefit. Government support is essential for change to happen, but it can’t fix everything on its own.

National policies will not have the desired impact without local employers supporting the same goal. Governments and companies must make creative efforts side by side to enable the combining of work with family in order to have sustainable impact: to move towards gender-equal families and workplaces as well as the higher birth rates that are demographically desirable in many countries. However, this will not be prioritized by top management in the private sector if they don’t truly understand the benefits.

Effective, sustainable employer support to working parents involves both concrete changes and shifts in social norms, and must be carried out with full awareness of differences in local culture, traditions and norms, in families, companies and societies. Experiences and best practices from other countries can certainly inspire – but only local examples can truly affect change in local attitudes. It is thus key to cultivate leaders among high-level management at local companies to be role models. And this effort must be supported by clear, certain and concrete connections to their short- and long-term business priorities and goals as well as the vision and values of their companies.

The Return on Investment (ROI) for companies from supporting working parents includes higher attractiveness to potential employees, lower recruitment costs, increased employee health, lower spending on sick leave, increased competitiveness, a stronger corporate brand and market position – and the new competencies that employees develop from becoming parents, a ROI value often not taken into consideration.

Private-sector companies thus have great and important potential to create strong long-term social impact for their employees, in line with government goals for all citizens. Some actions that can be taken by businesses, politicians and civil society are easier to do in places like the Nordic countries, but it is possible to apply many of them everywhere.

An increasing number of countries are now showing interest in exchanging experiences, perspectives and best practices with colleagues in other companies and countries in a more hands-on way than before. The timing is right for important and concrete co-creation across borders, so all employers and countries can develop faster together.

My team and I at Parentsmart Employers look forward to meeting and supporting the companies involved in UNFPA’s Expanding Choices project in creating added value for their businesses and contributing to more sustainable societies. Working parents are worth investing in for both societies and companies, everywhere. More companies promoting the combination of work and parenthood for both men and women as a value, not primarily a challenge or a cost, will develop increased inclusion, gender equity and social sustainability that has value for not only parents, but for all employees.

Tiina Bruno is a Swedish mother of three, economist, management consultant, author and international lecturer. She is the founder of the Parentsmart Employers model and CEO of Föräldrasmart Sverige AB.