Image: Children's artwork from Synchrony's virtual art exhibition - part of the company's online summer camp experience created to support both their working parents and their kids.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the challenges of working parents. Many parents, unable to work remotely or struggling to balance their jobs with caregiving duties and virtual schooling, have had to stop working completely.
Mothers, in particular, are bearing the brunt. With no childcare or camps available this past summer, many women have been edged out of the workforce, setting them back a decade in the job market.
Nearly 2.2 million women dropped out of the workforce between February and October, according to a study by the National Women’s Law Center.
Meanwhile, 23.5 million working parents do not have access to any caregivers among their family and friends, so their ability to work depends on daycare programs and schools remaining open.
After conducting an employee pulse survey in May, consumer financial services company Synchrony found this issue was front of mind for its employees. Supporting employees at work means also supporting employees at home.
“Family used to be out of scope but the current reality brings a need for employers to think through issues of public education and childcare availability. These are areas we’ve never talked about,” says Liz Heitner, senior vice president, talent and transformation at Synchrony.
“Typically, there would be nannies, babysitters, daycare, and school where parents could send their kids. And over the summer, when school was out, the realization that camp, traveling, and many summertime traditions were not going to happen had parents panicking.”
In response, Synchrony created a virtual summer camp for employees’ children, to keep them engaged, entertained and educated, while also easing the burden for exhausted working parents.
Here’s how they did it — and how other employers can, too.
Engage employees by soliciting ideas internally
Rather than recruiting a third party to ideate its camp program, Synchrony turned to its own employees to execute the vision -- taking suggestions from its parent community, as well as employees who had raised parenting questions during the company’s weekly Ask Us Anything video calls.
Using an agile system, Synchrony then set up a team with clear roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities, and held daily stand-up meetings. It took about three and a half weeks to pull the fundamentals together – developing guiding principles and actions.
“We worked in a rapid feedback loop to really refine our ideas and programs as we went,” explains Liz. “After launch, we got feedback and further adapted the program. We realized there was a demand for more sessions, and sessions at different times. We worked to make sure we were meeting parents’ needs and thinking through the types of sessions they wanted.”
The camp was led by a cross-functional project team with 130 mentors. Mentors were Synchrony employees, who helped with core project support and oversaw a team of Summer Leadership Externs.
These externs were high school– and college-aged children of Synchrony employees (many of whom couldn’t find jobs during the summer because of COVID-19). Externs received training on how to give effective presentations, which they then used to lead the camp sessions.
By building internally, Synchrony created something families felt they owned and could be proud of.
“Those employees who raised their hand with great ideas and passion was a key ingredient for success. We needed that energy and momentum to get this initiative over the line,” says Liz.
Use socialization and gamification to build connection
The camp’s program was highly interactive, with activities such as American Sign Language lessons, dance lessons, a virtual talent show, a virtual art exhibit, and more, all led by Synchrony staff or their family. One family’s au pair led Italian cooking sessions and taught Italian culture and phrases.
“In so many ways, this brought our Synchrony family closer together, because we were interacting with each other’s children,” says Liz.
The size of the sessions varied as well, from 30 to 200 participants. But the focus always remained on interactivity — with child safety also front of mind.
“We leveraged polling capability, as well as live chat functionality to do pop quizzes. The kids would say silly things and laugh with each other and established a familiarity,” says Liz.
“We didn't know how the interactive piece was going to work. Do we let the kids have their cameras on? You want to mitigate risks and ensure kids are safe and there’s no reason for parent concern.”
Synchrony also used a patch system as rewards, similar to Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Kids would collect patches for each activity they completed. They would then receive a Synchrony stuffed animal in the mail with stickers for all the patches they had obtained.
Create a community by supporting all family members
Parents are not just concerned with how their little ones are handling the pandemic. Older children are struggling to prepare for the future amid COVID-19. Teenagers and college students lost out on summer jobs and internships.
This feedback from parents led to the extern piece of the program.
“We gave them an experience they can put on their resume and a channel to do the community service needed for college applications,” says Liz. “They were able to share their talents and have young people look up to them. Giving people a purpose in that regard is huge.”
Synchrony also recognized that not all family living situations are the same.
“Some of our Synchrony employees have kids in their house that may not be their children,” says Liz. “They may be living with a sibling, or a friend who has children. Ensuring that those children have access to this content is equally important.”
Address inclusivity in program design, rather than as an afterthought
With locations in India and the Philippines, Synchrony had to ensure their programming reflected the diversity of their employees. Using global feedback from their employee survey, Synchrony created local teams to ensure the content was appropriate for the local culture.
“We had different branding: it was Monsoon Magic in India and Camp Kalahari in the Philippines. It was important that we have programs that would translate and connect with kids, while ensuring the programming was at times that would be most helpful to parents locally,” explains Liz. “We didn’t assume we had something that would just be plug-and-play.”
One of the patches kids could obtain was a multicultural patch. “Showcasing kids from across our Synchrony global footprint was something that was fun and exciting and brought everyone together,” says Liz.
There was also a strong community service focus, including age-appropriate anti-racism training. While this may be a challenging topic to address with kids, Synchrony didn’t shy away. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, “social injustice and police brutality were coming front and center and impacting our children,” says Liz.
“We led a number of leadership sessions. One session was focused on unconscious bias and being anti-racist in the face of social injustice. Kids have no problem articulating sophisticated opinions on complicated topics. They’re very knowledgeable, and they’re not apathetic.”
Adapt your program to changing circumstances
Once the school year began, the summer camp program needed to adjust, and Synchrony After School was born.
“We’re reframing and rebranding sessions to have more of a school year feel,” explains Liz. “Music, art, home economics, shop, and diversity and inclusion are going to be themes. We’ll have live virtual sessions in the afterschool hours to support kids and give them that social connection.”
In addition to their camp program, Synchrony continues to support parents juggling childcare, education and work by:
- Extending work-from-home indefinitely
- Expanding their emergency backup childcare benefit to 60 days
- Implementing flexible work shift options, including a Flexible Friday program
- Bringing in experts for webinar Q&As on topics such as hybrid schooling, virtual learning and supporting children with special needs
- Providing “Ask the Medical Experts” calls with mental health professionals and family psychologists
- Ensuring EAP resources are accessible for all family members
While the pandemic may be one of the most challenging periods for working parents in our lifetime, companies like Synchrony are seeking ways to support and engage employees and their families.
“During a pandemic, the weight of the world can feel like it’s on top of your shoulders,” says Liz. “But even amidst such turmoil, the ability to focus on something as positive as summer camp gives people a bit of comfort.”
Synchrony has since scaled the summer camp to an after-school program for children with tutoring session and extra-curricular activities.
Give working parents the support they need right now
Companies that invest in employees and their families see 5.5 times more revenue growth, thanks to greater innovation, higher talent retention and increased productivity. For more research findings on supporting parents in the workplace, read our full report on Parents at the Best Workplaces™.
For the list of award-winning companies making work great for parents this year, check out our list of Best Workplaces for Parents 2020.