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Return to office: CEO explains how employees are ‘much more outspoken’ about child care needs

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Bright Horizons CEO Stephen Kramer joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss how crucial child care has become in the process of getting employees back into the office.

Video transcript

RACHELLE AKUFFO: Well, if we didn't have enough to worry about, what needs to be on your return to office checklist if you're a working parent, especially with summer fast approaching? Well, to discuss that, I'm joined by Steven Kramer, the CEO of Bright Horizons. Thank you for joining me today.

So obviously, companies are grappling with what to do with this return to work, some of these hybrid work options as well. How should employers and employees really be preparing for this new normal?

STEPHEN KRAMER: It's really important for employees to get organized for this summer. Different from last summer or the summer before, where they were likely working from home if they had that type of role, this summer, employers really do expect that they are going to be productive and in the office. And so ultimately, both employers and employees need to be thinking about how they are going to make sure that their children have great arrangements over the summer. And so really starting early and making sure that they're leaning into the offerings that their employer offers is going to be really important.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: And obviously, managing expectations is key. Obviously, this isn't going to be the same workplace, necessarily, that you're coming back to from the one that you left. I want to talk about the Bright Horizons Modern Family Index, because in the midst of the great resignation, or as you call it, the great realization, what do the findings from that report tell us about what workers are prioritizing and any sort of shifts that you're seeing in trends?

STEPHEN KRAMER: We are certainly calling it the great realization. Employees are taking much more control of their life and how they want to integrate that life and their work. And I think the expectations that they have are far greater of their employers as they are coming out of this pandemic.

And they are prioritizing how their employer supports them, especially as it relates to their child care and school-age care arrangements. And so employees are becoming much more outspoken, looking for more from their employers, whether it be on-site childcare, whether it be backup care arrangements, whether it be opportunities for them to upskill and reskill. They are speaking out and saying, this is what we need.

And ultimately, employers are responding. And it's been really exciting to see employers stepping up and making sure that they are leaning into it, because I think they recognize what employees already know, which is employees are going to find employers that are thinking ahead and supporting them as whole people.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: And obviously, COVID really was a wake-up call for just how important childcare is when you're trying to work, you're trying to home school, you're trying to work from home as well. And we do know that some people had to rely on informal care-- friends and family, et cetera-- because a lot of these centers weren't open. And, you know, obviously, people wanted to limit that sort of exposure that their family got.

So how does that compare with what we're seeing now versus pre-pandemic levels? Are we seeing a sense of normalcy in terms of occupancy now for some of these centers?

STEPHEN KRAMER: No, I think that's a really important point. So if we think back to March and April of 2020, Bright Horizons as an organization, and we operate over 1,000 child care centers globally, we closed 80% of our centers back in March and April. And so that was really representative of what a lot of child care operators were doing in the face of the pandemic.

Now, we kept over 250 centers open throughout the pandemic to support the needs of essential workers, whether they be in the medical field, health care field, et cetera. On the other hand, over the last two years, we have reopened, as has many of the child care centers in the industry, reopened. But again, families are coming back really strongly to enroll their children in centers. And so, again, there is going to be this supply-demand imbalance that existed pre-COVID as we continue to see the reopening and the focus around coming back to the workplace and, ultimately, coming back into childcare.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: And as we see this tight labor market, in terms of the actual childcare center workers, how stiff is the competition there to try and recruit talent?

STEPHEN KRAMER: It is certainly challenging. We at Bright Horizons have always prided ourselves on being an employer of choice and making sure we are the place that child care practitioners want to be. On the other hand, in the current environment, finding high quality staff in all industries, and certainly child care being among those, is really challenging. And so, again, there are staffing shortages in the child care industry. We are fortunate in that we get more than our fair share of the top talent. But it's still a challenging environment.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: So then as you look at growth-- we've seen that you've had some acquisitions and partnerships, including Only About Children in Australia. How does that fit into where you see the opportunities for growth and, really, the future of childcare?

STEPHEN KRAMER: We are very, very excited about what the future brings for child care. I think through the pandemic, both families, as well as employers, have really gotten to see firsthand the critical nature of child care supports. And so when individuals, when working parents were trying to both work as well as via caregiver for their child, they gained an even greater appreciation for the heroes that are child care teachers.

And so ultimately, that is true of employers as well, government, and all of our society now realizes the essential work that is done by child care practitioners. And at the same time, the absence of that became incredibly challenging. And so the value has really been risen. We've known it for a long time, but now the world knows our secret, which is child care centers and the teachers within are truly the heroes in our society.

At the same time, as we look to grow, we recognize the necessity, the essential nature of the work that we do. And we know that continuing to expand, continuing to grow, including going to Australia to extend our impact, is absolutely in the best interest of our organization, but it is also in the best interest of working families.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: And I want to shift gears here and talk about something else that companies are facing. Obviously, a lot of them increasingly forced to take a political stand, as we saw with Disney and Governor DeSantis over the Don't Say Gay bill, now, obviously, with Roe v Wade potentially getting overturned. So what are your thoughts on having to take a stand on these issues?

STEPHEN KRAMER: Yeah. So the way we have always approached social type issues is we always start with the impact on children and family. And so, for example, our employees really worked hard to support children and families coming over the border. We didn't look at it as an immigration positive or negative, per se.

We just knew that there were children in need and families in need. And we always go where that need is-- the same as the support that we provided to families who were fleeing Ukraine. We knew that there were children and families in need and we made sure that we were supporting them. And so as we think about the different social challenges that exist, we are always first and foremost as an organization focused on what is best for children and families and try to support them in the best ways we can, uniquely as Bright Horizons.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: All right. Well I do appreciate your insights today. Steven Kramer there, Bright Horizons CEO-- thank you so much.

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