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How companies are helping parents and caregivers with ‘work-life integration’

With the pandemic revealing the needs of employees who care for children or other family more clearly than ever, companies are stepping up.

Kate Booth of Vertex Pharmaceuticals watches over daughter Lila’s online art class, paid for by her employer.Webb Chappell/for The Boston Globe

Pre-pandemic, Vertex Pharmaceuticals senior director of US marketing Kate Booth wrung out every drop of child care she could from the Melrose school system for her daughter, Lila. “I was that mom who dropped her at the library at 7 a.m. before school and picked her up as close to 6 p.m. as I could in the evening, making full use of the pre- and post-care that Melrose offered,” says Booth, a five-year veteran at the Boston-based biotech company. “With the pandemic, all of that went away.”

With after-school care unavailable, Booth’s mother baby-sat Lila, then 8, Mondays through Wednesdays. On Thursdays and Fridays, though, Lila would watch Netflix on her iPad while Booth worked in the next room, feeling torn all the while. “There are so many things you feel guilty about as a mom, and that was definitely one of them,” she says.

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Then her company introduced SitterStream, an on-demand virtual baby-sitting and tutoring service that employees can access free of charge six times a month, even now that school’s back in session. Got a meeting and a sick kid? Baby sitter falls through? No problem.

Booth enrolled Lila in a crafts class — to get a Netflix break twice a week — with an on-screen tutor named Amy, and now artwork festoons her bedroom. The service is online only, so an adult does indeed need to be home, but it offered Lila and her mom a welcome respite. “They did cool, amazing, creative things,” Booth says.

Vertex chief human resources officer Stephanie Franklin explained that employees have become used to fluidity and flexibility, and they’ll expect it going forward. Even as the pandemic wanes, SitterStream will still be available for parents. The goal is to meet employees where they are, she says. Post-pandemic, “the organizations that are going to get this right are the ones who listen, who really seek to understand, who experiment and see what’s going to work best for their workforce, and then who really adapt.”

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Savvy companies are focusing on work-life integration, realizing that the line between being at home and on the job for office workers has grown as blurry as a Zoom screen after 10 hours of meetings. But company attitudes are a mixed bag, says Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, director of corporate partnerships at the Boston College Center for Work & Family.

Some companies are recognizing that “the impacts of the pandemic are not over by any means for working parents: Child-care situations are unstable if there are outbreaks in schools; so many child-care centers are at either low capacity or some didn’t even open up; and then the concerns about the social transition back to school.” At the same time, she says, “[Other companies] want to get back to normal: ‘We have vaccines now, and let’s go back to the way things used to be.’”

It’s the companies not making changes that do so at their own risk. More than half of employed parents with kids ages 3-17 in the United States are considering leaving their jobs because they feel their concerns during the pandemic haven’t been heard, according to an October Catalyst-CNBC survey.

Seismic, a software company with an office in Boston, has added expert-led parental coaching and stress management sessions to its suite of benefits, which increased a sense of transparency — and catharsis — among colleagues. “I think the bright side of COVID, if there is one, is that it allowed us to be a little bit more true to ourselves,” says Tara Bauer, a senior director of customer success with two young children.

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At one virtual parenting session, “there was just this relief and awareness of, ‘OK, I hear you, and we get it,’ " Bauer says. “As a parent, the camaraderie is huge — just seeing and hearing that there are other people in that same situation.”

These are issues that didn’t get brought up much in pre-pandemic meetings, but a fresh sense of vulnerability has united her colleagues as they continue to work primarily from home. Instead of strictly sticking to business, her team now asks about Halloween costumes and comments about pets. On video calls, “My team really got to see who I was and who my family is,” she says. “I was able to kind of bring down those barriers, and I hope that sticks.”

These offerings aren’t just a nicety; they make good business sense in a world where the United States lags far behind other developing nations in terms of providing quality-of-life measures such as free child care and health care coverage, while Americans have been quitting their jobs at a record pace. “If you want to be an employer of choice, you are going to focus on the whole person,” says Seismic chief people officer Linda Ho. “[People] want to be in a workplace where they see their needs fully, not just as an employee working on one part of the business but fully, as a person, as a human.” She adds, “The role of the employer is filling in some of the needs that maybe other countries already have.”

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Kate Booth looks at art her daughter, Lila, created in her online class.Webb Chappell/for The Boston Globe

And, in some cases, companies are going even further to address employee satisfaction in other realms. During the pandemic — when 69 percent of working parents reported that helping their kids with remote learning negatively impacted their work performance, according to the employment website Indeed — Mahesh Ganesan needed to help his then-high-school senior with college applications. Ganesan, director of mergers and acquisitions integration at UKG, a Lowell technology company, worried that his son wasn’t receiving enough support remotely from his English teacher during a critical period at school. Simply getting kids to log onto Google classroom was a feat, so helping a student with a college essay wasn’t a top priority.

Then UKG partnered with Tutor.com at the outset of the pandemic, leading 1,000 employees to enroll during the first 13 months. Ganesan signed up his son for writing sessions, where he worked with a young high school English teacher. Now, he’s a freshman at the University of Michigan, enjoying a more traditional school year.

For UKG, the free benefit is about employee satisfaction, even if college essays don’t directly affect employee output. The company is keeping it on, thanks to strong positive feedback.

“We had one comment from an employee who basically said that their child had never received an A,” says Rita Reslow, UKG senior director of benefits. “Thanks to this program . . . they’re getting so close to that A, and they’re just so thrilled with it.”

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At consulting firm Slalom in Boston, senior delivery principal Chris Patten used a new Care.com benefit to vet skilled nursing services for his wife’s 84-year-old grandmother on Cape Cod. Slalom subsidizes a portion of these services and also maintains a “generations” team that supports caregiving initiatives across the company, from mentorship for new parents to eldercare. Last fall, Patten served as a “return to work buddy” for an employee who was coming back from parental leave.

“I was able to do some coaching about rebalancing priorities and navigating work and a new baby, and supporting his wife as she also was returning to work, and share my own experiences of not doing a great job when I did it,” he says. “The most important thing was just making sure he knew I was there as someone who’d gone through it before and who he could reach out to.”

As for Booth, her daughter still takes art and yoga classes through SitterStream. And thanks to increased flexibility, Booth is able to work from home when she needs to. In a pandemic silver lining moment, Booth is driving Lila to dodgeball as she speaks. “I was never a mom who did that before. I was picking her up at 6 p.m. on Fridays. For me, as a person, [the pandemic] allowed me to be a more present mom for my daughter,” she says.

And she hopes more companies empower workers to do the same. “I’m speaking from a position of privilege [to be at] a company that offers me these services that enable me to support my child the way that I do,” she says, while Lila chatters in the background.

Bauer, at Seismic, agrees. “It’s not work-life balance; it’s work-life integration,” she says. “What I would love to come out of this is for people to realize that we can do both, and for our children to see us being strong leaders, being amazing parents, and demonstrating that harmony.”


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her @kcbaskin.