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Billions of dollars of child-care funding just expired after Congress failed to extend pandemic-era subsidies that have kept the industry afloat. The loss of funding could force as many as 70,000 child-care programs to close and 3.2 million children to lose care, exacerbating an already critical shortage of affordable care in the US and jeopardizing the recent historic labor-force gains made by working mothers with young children.

What should employers do to respond to this crisis? For answers, we spoke with Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab at New America and author of Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

What is the role of the private sector now in addressing the child-care crisis?

We have always been in a crisis. The pandemic opened a lot of people’s eyes, because we had this notion that somehow child care was always a family responsibility. We didn’t want to know about it. ‘You take care of that and then you bring your best self to work and oh, we don’t understand why women are leaving the workforce. Why are they not going on and advancing in their careers?’ The pandemic really helped people see that you can’t have your women’s leadership cohort without having adequate child care.

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Companies need to be thinking along two lines right now. The first is internal. There was a Harvard Business School report that came out called The Caring Company. What they said is companies really need to be aware of the caregiving responsibilities of their workers, and the first place to start is data. So many companies don’t even know who has caregiving responsibilities among their employees, so they don’t know what to do about it.

The first thing is to understand the care responsibilities that your workers have. Ask them, what kind of impact does that have on you? What kind of stress does that create? How hard is it to do your job? What do you need to be able to do your job effectively? What would help? Do that research. What are other industry leaders doing? Are there other bright spots out there that you could learn from and then get input internally on, maybe put together a task force or a group? What would work? Do some user-centered design thinking with your own workers as the centerpiece.

What does design thinking look like in this context?

Design thinking is all about putting the user at the center. If I’m a company and I have no idea what my employees are going through, you start with an anonymous survey. You get that data and you analyze it and you see certain trends. When it comes to what you do about it, get people together and present them with the problem and then ask the question, what’s not working? What would work? What would different solutions look like? You throw them all up on the screen or a board and you have little sticky notes and you vote. You keep funneling down. ‘There’s 10 ideas. Well, let’s work on these three. These seem to be the most where we got the most heat. Let’s workshop them some more.’

Once you come up with your plan, recognize that it’s an experiment. Pilot something with your data and analysis and then make tweaks and iterate. It’s like any good work redesign. Ask, plan, do, test, and then iterate and revise. And you listen. That’s the most important part of design thinking, is you listen and then you iterate and make tweaks from there.

People talk about creating onsite child care. That might be a good solution for you. It might not, especially if you’re moving into a more flexible or hybrid environment. But are there tuition reimbursements you could give? Is there a way that you could help people breathe more life into the systems that they already do use? There was a Ford Auto plant a couple decades ago, and they didn’t create onsite child care, but they did breathe life into the family cares that a lot of people used closer to their own homes that they actually preferred, and gave them more flexible hours.

You absolutely have to do this with long-term leadership buy-in. It can’t just be seen as the baby of one person, because as we know from work redesign, once that one person leaves, your work redesign fails. You need to make it not only have leadership buy-in, but culture buy-in that this is something for the long term that will make it a better place to work, that will make the work better, and that will make the company better.

You mentioned companies should be thinking along two lines. If the first is internal, what are the external considerations?

Even in the absence of federal response, there are a lot of really interesting and uplifting things with businesses involved in community-building efforts. I’m thinking of Build Up San Mateo County, which is a recognition that you can’t just give parents more money if there’s no place to take your kid. What they began doing is working with developers and the local community and advocates and local businesses to see if they could create more child-care infrastructure. It’s a community-wide effort where business plays a really important role. Then there are things like ReadyNation, a whole organization backed by former CEOs who recognize how critical this is.

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