Carol Juel


March 22, 2022


As a technology and operations leader, I have championed the value of Agile methodologies for years. In my experience, a team committed to listening, iterating, and adapting is more empowered and productive.

But Agile isn’t only used to rollout new technology and business products. At its heart, it is a problem-solving system that harnesses the best of human nature, helps teammates get the most out of their respective talents, and speeds decision-making. One area where it can make a difference is in addressing a challenge that has reached crisis levels: the exodus of women from the workforce.

It’s no secret that the pandemic disproportionately and adversely affected women. There are nearly 1.1 million fewer women in the labor force since February 2020, while men have fully regained the jobs they lost due to the pandemic. In February 2022, men’s participation in the labor force reached more than 70 percent, while women’s participation was lagging at 58 percent.

Women often bear the brunt of childcare and other home responsibilities. While this is not a new issue, the unstable school and childcare schedules of COVID-19 combined with the labor shortage have made things much worse.

Businesses will face a moment of reckoning if we don’t lean into creative solutions to keep women in the workforce. Leaders can better support women by applying the same innovative spirit that we use on the commercial side of the business. This was a topic of much discussion during a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation panel I moderated this month on the labor crisis and getting women back to work.

Here are ways leaders can use Agile principles to attract, retain, and support women:

Driving an Agile mindset starts at the top

Leaders’ actions have a major influence on the behavior of an organization. During the early days of the pandemic, we quickly mobilized to enable thousands of service associates to work from home while maintaining high customer service levels. Our executive leadership team recognized the need to operate differently, and we started operating in Agile stand-ups twice daily to inform, discuss, and take action. This sent a strong message to the overall organization. Clarity of purpose, faster decision-making, and empowering our people allowed the company to remain nimble and accelerate innovation.

Listen to employees carefully — their feedback is critical

From the beginning, Synchrony leaders prioritized listening to our employees through virtual roundtable meetings, “Ask Us Anything” sessions, pulse surveys, and Diversity Networks. Two of the key issues for women (which comprise almost 60 percent of our workforce) were childcare and flexibility. Responding quickly, we expanded our childcare benefits and provided backup childcare reimbursement.

We saw how effectively our people embraced remote work — surveys showed that 85 percent of employees wanted to work from home post-pandemic. Our new way of working gives employees the flexibility and choice, connecting in-person when they want or need to, enabling them to reap the benefits of greater work-life balance.

Test, Learn, and Adapt

As a mother of three elementary school-aged children, I was somewhat perplexed about how to handle summer camps being canceled during the height of the pandemic. We gathered a team of volunteers and our HR department to launch a virtual summer camp program using the Agile model. Within three weeks, we had developed interactive sessions for 3,700 younger children led by high school and college-age children of our employees. The success of the Synchrony virtual summer camp evolved into an after-school program — an example of how we tested, learned, and adapted along the way.

Our HR team also quickly rolled out our new sabbatical program in response to employee feedback and will continue to take an Agile approach to better meet our people’s needs. While the initiative is gender neutral, we believe it will be especially appreciated by women looking to take a break from work for education or family responsibilities.

Combine Agility with Empathy

Agile works at Synchrony because of our culture of inclusion: putting people first and supporting each other. Prioritizing a culture of caring — one of our company’s foundational values — means listening to our employees and responding to their needs. This approach has had a powerful effect on helping women thrive at Synchrony, especially moms.

Consider Elaine Thomley, a finance leader at Synchrony, who worked five days a week in our Stamford, Conn. office. During the pandemic, she began working from home full-time like the rest of our team. As the mother of two, she continues to thrive in this new model, participating more actively in family life such as afternoon snacks with her son and daughter or taking her son to soccer practice, all while excelling as a manager. Elaine was recognized for her excellent work and took on an expanded role as finance leader in our Growth organization.

Or take Marlena Brun, a leader at the company who works with several cross-functional teams to deliver essential initiatives across the business. When an unexpected life-altering health issue sparked a new outlook on health and wellness, she realized that others faced similar experiences. She created a forum at Synchrony to provide resources for caregivers and their families to navigate a range of challenges from stress management to supporting children with special learning needs. The “Wellness Wednesdays” program offered a form of healing for many caregivers who have tapped into this community of support as well as Synchrony’s diverse wellness coaches.

My company’s Agile journey has been tremendously rewarding. It made us more effective, responsive, and equitable while bringing us closer together as individuals.

It’s worth the effort. Businesses need women to thrive. At a time when increasing numbers of women are pausing their careers out of need, companies must have courage to act boldly and decisively. Adopting an Agile approach is a good place to start.

Carol Juel is the Executive Vice President and Chief Technology and Operating Officer of Synchrony. She recently spoke at our 12th Annual International Women's Day Forum on a panel focused on the labor crisis and women's participation in the workforce. You can watch the recording here.

About the authors

Carol Juel