As the UK gradually emerges from lockdown, it can be tempting to think that we are on a smooth path ‘back to normality’. Having dealt with enormous disruption to almost every aspect of our lives, the reopening of society is a welcome sign. However, there could still be a rocky road ahead which will continue to put pressure on employees as the aftershocks of Covid play out.
With schools reopened, some of the pressure on working parents has reduced with regard to childcare. HR professionals could be forgiven for thinking that working parents’ wishes are now simply about flexibility and hybrid working. And while that is certainly an important conversation, we’re still not fully out of the woods when it comes to the practicalities of care and education. There are three phases to plan for, which I’ll look at in turn.
1. The remainder of the academic year
As we saw when schools last re-opened, there are likely to be selective closures and isolations. Just recently, my own son’s school had a couple of brief isolations through false positives showing up on lateral flow tests. They dealt with everything brilliantly, but it still meant a couple of days of uncertainty and lack of onsite schooling while PCR tests confirmed the pupils involved were clear. With these disruptions happening in smaller pockets, rather than a mass lockdown, it may be harder for parents to talk about, since they’d prefer to be seen as firing on all cylinders, workwise.
We need to see May to July as a transitional stage, and to encourage open conversations, with a focus on solutions. Parents have enough experience now to determine which work targets they can deliver when the education structure is not in place. With some support networks still at a ‘social’ distance, some of our client employers are continuing to increase their provision of back-up care as well as providing access to online tutors at a time when educational catch-up is also very much top of mind for many.
During this time, as managers and employers, we need to continue to build trust, with the expectation that people want to get things done and that, with the right resources (time, technology, hardware, care solutions and understanding), they have the ingenuity to figure it out.
This combination of the right environment at work, plus practical support when needed, can be a powerful one and is demonstrated in a comment from a client’s employee in our latest Work+Family snapshot research:
My line manager, and his line manager in turn, have consistently supported me in balancing work with my family responsibilities. They have created a culture in our team where people can be frank and open about their lives and the message is always ‘do what you need to do’. Without their attitude – and the back-up care provision – I think it probable that I would currently choose to be a stay-at-home parent.
2. The school summer holidays
Even without a pandemic the school holidays can be a challenge for working parents as they try to manage the mismatch between the school summer break and taking time away from work on a family holiday. Many couples alternate annual leave to cover as much time with the children as possible, rather than spending time together as a family. And single parents have even fewer options.
A company looking to provide tangible help to staff during this time can sponsor access to holiday clubs. Virtual holiday clubs emerged as an important support over the past year; giving parents some respite and ensuring that children and teenagers had something engaging and developmental when online school was ‘out’. The boxes of activities that arrived at their doors to go with the clubs were well-received and virtual holiday club bookings have tracked well alongside previous years’ onsite clubs. We also know of organisations that have hosted their own online holiday clubs with staff volunteers taking turns.
Now that onsite clubs are opening, subsidising these as well as virtual provision can be an immediate source of support and show recognition of the unrelenting schedule working parents have faced. Some parents’ summers will be overshadowed by the prospect of autumn exams, if families are unhappy with the summer’s teacher-assessed grades. We know of employers going above and beyond to support educational catch-up, knowing that reducing stress is a win-win all round.
3. The autumn return
With luck (plus science and compliance), autumn will offer a more level playing field for working parents, beyond the summer juggle. However, it might also bring a resurgence in Covid cases or new variants. If all goes well, this will be the phase to start seeing hybrid working work in earnest.
As this takes hold, we need to emphasise inclusion. We need to ensure that certain groups are not left behind when favouring remote over office, if they are given the choice as Kim Elsesser proposes in this Forbes article. We need to keep ensuring that wherever our dispersed teams are located, everyone is heard and seen and not left behind through lack of visibility.
Working parents – among other groups – have been incredibly resilient over the past year, juggling work and family demands in the face of huge odds. While in months to come there may be fewer impromptu visits from children into their parents’ videocalls, we should hold on to the lessons learned during this unique time in history. We must carry forward those insights into our employees’ home lives, as well as their commitment and determination and use this understanding to craft a workplace of the future for the benefit of all.