Before the pandemic, Persimmon Coffee founders Kai Talim, Chaereen Pak, and Sawyer Beckley never imagined they would start their own business. But when the Philadelphia coffee shop that Kai and Chaereen were working at shut down in March 2020, they found themselves performing small acts of kindness in their free time—buying groceries and cooking dinner for neighbors. They decided to extend that kindness through their coffee business, Persimmon Coffee, a small business founded on community, connection, and inclusion.
“We’re pandemic babies. We started [our business] during and as a direct result of a global pandemic,” Kai said. “At the time, and still now, there was a really deep reckoning with racial injustice. We were seeing a lot of anxiety and anger in the air that we breathed, but even through that pain, there were special moments of connection. We want to create a safe space, both literally and figuratively, that asks for everyone to come as they are.”
The COVID-19 pandemic posed incredible challenges for small businesses, but at the same time, it also prompted a wider, systemic shift toward more equitable workplaces. Many businesses, like Persimmon Coffee, were born out of this hardship and now strive to set an example with inclusive hiring practices. Others have begun investing in their employees to prepare for the world ahead. Wherever you are in your journey, understanding what job seekers want and how you can support them can help you build a better business—not just for customers, but for your team as well.
This is an important moment for all employers, big or small, to think about the employee experience and to reevaluate what it means to be an employee and what the future of a job looks like.Abbey carlton, vice president of social impact, Indeed
A workplace reckoning: understanding the employee experience in the pandemic and beyond
As small businesses continue to grow through and past the pandemic, creating an atmosphere where employees feel safe and supported is essential. “This is an important moment for all employers, big or small, to think about the employee experience and what they are hearing from current employees, what they’re hearing from people who left, and to reevaluate what it means to be an employee and what the future of a job looks like,” said Abbey Carlton, vice president of social impact at the global employment site Indeed.
As the head of Indeed’s global efforts to break down bias and barriers in hiring, Abbey helps job seekers facing extra challenges—low-income workers, families, and women of color—find the right fit. And according to Indeed’s research, employers have a long way to go: More than 2 million women in the United States left the workforce during the pandemic, and one in three have not returned to full-time work—with Black women facing the largest impact. Even today, the platform sees more men actively searching for jobs than women.
What exactly explains this disparity? Many of the women who left their jobs at the start of the pandemic were working in low-paying, hard-hit industries they could no longer return to, such as leisure and hospitality. They also faced ongoing threats to their and their family’s safety—54% of women Indeed surveyed in 2022 said their anxiety, burnout, and fatigue were too overwhelming to justify continuing to work under the same conditions, and 30% pointed to child care as a major obstacle to returning to work full-time.
“The pandemic exposed and exacerbated challenges that working people and working women in particular have faced for a long time: lack of paid time off, paid medical leave, affordable childcare, and health care,” Abbey said. “For many women, it just became impossible to balance caregiving responsibilities and work during the pandemic, especially in light of these challenges that already existed.”
Meet your team’s needs with flexibility and empathy
Corporations have more flexibility to satisfy workers’ changing expectations, whether that’s providing a stipend for childcare or health care with robust mental health coverage. But small businesses also have an opportunity to lead the charge in diversifying workplaces—starting by listening intentionally to their team and making meaningful changes.
“A lot of women are really taking a step back to think about: What do we need and what do we want from work?” Abbey said. “What we hear when we ask those questions to our job seekers is flexibility over stability, location, ease of commute, and pay and opportunities for growth.”
Unfortunately, while these initiatives might be possible for large employers, they’re less realistic for small businesses. Perhaps you own an on-call plumbing business with irregular hours or a family-run restaurant where all your employees work in person. You’re not likely able to provide remote work, health care, or other benefits that workers are calling for. However, there are other ways to meet employees halfway and address their core needs.
For example, Indeed found in a 2022 survey of women in the workforce that flexibility and empathy made a significant difference in retention during the pandemic. Those who stayed in full-time roles cited the impact of supportive and empathetic direct managers, while those who left said they felt forced to make a choice between their jobs and their mental health.
“My advice for small businesses is to take a close look at how they can incorporate more flexibility and more empathy into their workplaces, since we know that those two factors play such a big role,” Abbey said. “When we think about empathy, that might not be a big flashy program along the lines of what an enterprise employer might be able to do, but working to build more trust and a greater sense of belonging can make folks feel appreciated and that they have an even greater sense of purpose in the work that they’re doing.”
Other ways to provide flexibility and empathy at your small business include:
- A burnout treatment plan: Workers who are experiencing burnout and fatigue often require a combination of paid time off and small acts of kindness to revive their passion and interest in work. Learn more about helping treat workplace burnout.
- Hybrid remote work: While you may not be able to provide remote work for every employee, you can try to find a middle ground, such as a hybrid schedule for days when your team is focused on scheduling, ordering, or marketing.
- Monthly “You” days: Once a month, pick a day to go email- and meeting-free. “For me as a working mom, that’s a day when my kids are at school and yet I have the day to do whatever I need to do,” Abbey said during Yelp’s 2022 Women in Business Summit.
- Predictable work schedules: Having a predictable schedule at work makes it easier for employees to juggle other parts of their lives. If you can’t keep hours consistent, try to set the schedule ahead of time so employees with children can plan childcare around shifts.
Look beyond your business
Breaking down barriers doesn’t stop with the hiring process. Every small business has a part to play in the ongoing reckoning in U.S. workplaces—from advocating for policies such as affordable health care and abortion rights, to partnering with organizations that mentor people with barriers to employment.
“The pandemic has not impacted all workers equally. Women have been disproportionately impacted compared to men, and women of color have seen a more significant impact than white women,” Abbey said. “A lot of the solutions that are needed in this moment are not just solutions that small businesses are going to be able to put in place—or [with] a company like Indeed, it’s gonna require policy solutions, it’s gonna require a holistic set of solutions—but it’s exciting to think about the role that we can play.”
One way for small business owners to reevaluate their sourcing strategies and reach talent pools that they might be overlooking is partnering with local organizations that are already doing this work. Many communities have non-profit or governmental organizations that serve job seekers with additional challenges, such as people with disabilities or people impacted by the criminal justice system.
For example, the Illinois nonprofit Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse provides that extra support through its 20-week training program, where mentees learn a variety of skills in the building trades and the construction industry to find what’s right for them.
“A person can come in, find their niche, find their interest, and then get the training that they need to grow in it. But they can also find support where they can talk to their peers, mentors, supervisors, our HR reps—really any of our staff—about what’s going on with them in their lives,” said Annette Stewart, Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse’s marketing and ecommerce manager. “They leave feeling that they have what they need to go on to that next step or that they’re ready to move on to something bigger.”
Ultimately, equipping your workplace for a post-pandemic future will require systemic change—but every step matters. And as a business owner, you have a network of customers, advocates, and community partners with the knowledge and interest to help. “Small businesses don’t have to do this alone,” Abbey said. “There are resources for them in their communities and organizations that are eager to be a talent pipeline for them.”
Resources for business owners
- Toolkit on hiring individuals with disabilities from the U.S. Small Business Administration
- Indeed’s study on for women’s current needs in the workforce: Women and Gig Work During COVID-19
- Yelp’s list of pandemic-born, women-owned businesses in Seattle to support
- Tips and benefits of leading with empathy from Indeed’s career experts
- Using customer reviews to promote your business and inspire your staff
- A New Era of Working Motherhood: a panel discussion on how companies can support employees and maintaining work/life balance as a working mother
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