Uber is solidifying guidelines it instituted in the spring, guaranteeing parents and caregivers more flexibility while working from home as the pandemic continues to spread, forcing schools and daycares to remain closed. Uber's new policy, called the Global Caregiver Enhanced Flexibility Policy, is meant to set official protections for employees managing family and work.
The new policy, announced internally Tuesday, will allow Uber employees to skip low-priority meetings as needed and modify their work hours throughout the week. Uber also said people who need to shift their workday, for example if they're managing homeschooling for their children, will be able to do that too.
"This allows us to set very clear expectations across not just our manager population but also our entire workforce that we recognize exactly how difficult the situation is for anyone with a caregiving responsibility, whether it's children or any other responsibility,"said Bo Young Lee, Uber's chief diversity and inclusion officer.
Uber's move marks the latest effort by a tech giant to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Parents and caregivers have especially been affected, juggling normal work days while also taking care of children or family at home. Uber said a quarter of self-identified caregivers in the company who responded to an anonymous survey in the spring said they were struggling to manage their work and home lives.
That's likely gone up, Lee said, as many schools and care centers remain closed out of fear for the health of families and staff, despite government-mandated lockdowns loosening throughout the summer. Additionally, many parents are choosing to keep their kids home in places where schools have reopened, citing fears over the pandemic's continued spread.
Tech companies, often known for their employee perks like free food and commute transportation, are beginning to shift toward allowing work and life flexibility instead. Companies including Google, Facebook and Uber told employees last month they'll be able to work from home. Many companies are also making return to work voluntary, and capping their office capacity to respect social distancing. Some of them have also told employees they'll institute work-from-home policies after the pandemic passes, allowing more flexibility where people live and how often they come into the office.
"I think for a while, people thought, 'Oh, this will pass and we'll return back to normal,'" Lee said. Now, Uber's management is acknowledging, "there is no return to that. We have fundamentally entered into a new phase of work. And we don't know what that looks like."
Shortly after the coronavirus spread took hold in March and detected infection rates in the US spiked, tech giants including Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Uber began telling managers to allow their employees flexibility. Uber in particular sent notes to its managers asking them to shift thinking as the virus upended people's lives.
"Please lead with empathy as you help balance work and at-home needs, and be flexible where you can if they need to reschedule, be offline at certain times, or need some variable time off," Andrew Macdonald, Uber's senior vice president of global rides and platform, wrote in a March 17 email to managers.
Apple, meanwhile, said it increased communications with managers and employees, encouraging its 137,000 employees to ask for help or accommodation and telling managers to proactively help employees too. That's meant offering flexibility, whether it's for parents working reduced schedules, or caregivers who have to take time off to take care of elderly family members.
Despite all those efforts, 28% of US adults from a variety of industries said their employer "has done nothing in response to concerns of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak," according to a survey by the Harris Poll for employer review site Glassdoor in March. And only 16% of respondents said companies offered additional paid or unpaid sick leave.
Company cultures also struggled. In the spring, a tech worker from LinkedIn shared concerns on the anonymous employee social app Blind that they might be punished if they requested reduced hours. Most responding co-workers were supportive and some shared similar feelings. But others told the author to "stop whining like an entitled baby" and that "having kids is not an excuse to work less."
Glassdoor has since added a new way to highlight any employee review that discusses how companies handled treatment of employees during the pandemic. "This feature was built specifically to address a desire by our users to see company reviews based on their actions during COVID-19," Glassdoor said when unveiling the feature in June.
For its part, Uber said it's solidifying these rules to provide official protections to employees and make expectations clear for everyone in the company, even employees who aren't parents or caregivers and who are uncomfortable with the shift from the typical tech industry hard-charging always-in-the-office culture.
To help, Lee said the company's encouraged leaders and managers to share and introduce colleagues to people they're at home with, and to set the expectation that family barging in on a call is welcomed, not a frustrating distraction.
"It's a far more existential conversation than people realize, and it challenges a lot of the basic principles Silicon Valley was built on," Lee said.
Like many employers, Uber offered assistance programs for employees before the pandemic. Among them, the company offered mental health and other forms of support for employees and their families. Now, with the pandemic upending so many people's lives, Lee said the company's reevaluating its benefits packages to help caregivers and parents more.
"The thing that COVID has done really well is it has exposed every inequality and every weak point in any given society," Lee said. "I think over time, there will be additional expansion of what we offer and how we support caregivers."