Yesterday’s announcement from Prime Minister Boris Johnson that schools in England will not fully re-open until at least 8th March will come as another blow to many working parents. That 8th March target itself is also contingent on the successful rollout of vaccination.

So, for all those valued, ‘always-on’ working parents in our workforces, the daily triathlon continues: they must continue to be professional worker, caring parent and educator. The biggest challenge is that it’s all supposed to happen at once, in the same few hours. To say that many are exhausted is to put it far too mildly, as many employers are all too aware.

The employers we work with at Bright Horizons do really understand the need and are also committed to working parents and carers as part of their talented and diverse workforce.

So what can either party do? There is no magic wand, for either parents or employers but here are a few things to bear in mind among the options.

1. Extreme flexibility

It’s important to understand how the day to day looks in a couple household with two working parents at home, without primary or secondary schools. Our lockdown survey last June was full of comments like these:

“Alternating about two-hour shifts working and then childcare. Home-schooling during our childcare shifts. Mum waking early to put in 3 hours before 9. Dad working later after children have gone to bed.”

“We have been firefighting with the home-schooling and workload and often work until midnight to try keep on top of our workloads.”

“It’s really tough. I’m on calls from 7:30 to 9:00 am. I take care of my kid 9-12. We generally share 12-18 with my husband depending on our respective calls. Take care of my son until 20:30. Back to work at 21 until 23 or midnight.”

It is clearly harder again for single parents. Similar comments reach out from every social media platform and news site.

The first and central approach, then, is extreme flexibility, understanding, trust and empowerment. Identify the key priorities and deliverables and trust the individual to deliver it. Re-prioritise down to the essentials where needed. Encourage dialogue among teams as to how people can collaborate and support each other to get done what needs to be done while appreciating the many needs of team members (for example adult carers have extra worries and demands now too).

2. Time off

While stepping back from work temporarily can feel like a difficult career move, and not the first choice for most employees or employers, it can give breathing space too where there are no other options. Here are the options:

a. (Unpaid) Time off for dependants

This offers a chance to step back and make arrangements where possible. Usually taken to mean up to 2 days for establishing emergency plans. Of course, employers can choose to be flexible under the current circumstances as to what constitutes an emergency and what time off is needed.

b. Paid Leave for parents and carers

This is a real investment, among options that build loyalty and long-term engagement. Some employers will be in a position to offer paid leave for parents or carers during lockdown. It shows an appreciation that supporting employees through different life stages and understanding those needs is part of really nurturing a talent pipeline. Several employers have done this: one recently talked about example is Zurich.

c. Furlough

The TUC has urged employers to be proactive in offering this, rather than waiting to be asked. There is currently a right to request. The Women’s Budget Group’s latest recommendations include making furlough a right for parents.

Again, not everyone wishes to step back from work from the point of view of career ambitions, but it can be a lifeline for some and having 80 per cent pay (up to the fixed cap) makes it more attractive than unpaid leave. As furlough arrangements can be operated week by week, there are creative options about enabling staff to rotate; or indeed flexible furlough which can enable couple to cover childcare and home-schooling between them. The more that people can feel involved and empowered about how furlough arrangements operate, the more they will feel like a help rather than a side-lining.

d. (Unpaid) Parental Leave

This statutory right exists all the time for employed parents with a year’s service who have not already used up their 18 weeks per child. It’s not terribly popular as it needs booking ahead and being generally unpaid is not ideal for struggling families. Now, however, this may be an option when nothing else works.

3. Care options

a. Nurseries can open

Early years settings can still operate under the current guidance in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, and for children of key workers and vulnerable children in Scotland. So, as an employer or manager, avoid making assumptions that all parents are swamped and without care arrangements. The fundamental importance of supporting child development during the Early Years is well known (including the recent Royal Foundation research). All families’ circumstances vary but sensitively encouraging families who can use nursery facilities, to keep doing so, will help to support confidence all round.

In-home back-up care (nannies and elder/adult care) continues to remain available to all families in the United Kingdom – with nurseries still available in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and for children of key workers and vulnerable children in Scotland.

b. Back-up care and wraparound care

Many of our employer clients have increased the number of days’ subsidised back-up care available to employees during the pandemic. In more ‘normal’ times, back-up care enables workers to be present at work when their usual arrangements fall over (which tends to happen around 8 to 10 times a year). In these times when plans are pretty much flat on the floor, many employers have increased the availability or simply more widely promoted the booking process.

Bright Horizons in-home back-up care (nannies and elder/adult care) continues to remain available to all families in the United Kingdom, supporting home-learning as parents deliver their own work online in the next room. The safety guidelines are impressive and effective. Of course, nannies are primarily child carers, not tutors, however they can support school age children with the work and resources issued by schools and assist the child with accessing their online learning platforms. They can work with the family to implement a routine and schedule that suits the child and structure the day to include learning time, rest breaks, play activities and mealtimes. It’s been a sanity-saver for many.

Of course, it’s not only for really young children, many of our employer partners are extending access to subsidising virtual clubs, online tutoring and wraparound care including, for example, coding clubs.

c. Collaborating across households: Childcare Bubbles and Support Bubbles

Many working parents are feeling isolated and as if they are left to muddle through alone. With a strict lockdown, the options are of course limited but there are some possibilities, including a childcare bubble and a support bubble.

A childcare bubble can run in addition to a Support bubble (which you might have, for example, with a grandparent living alone). Situations vary in terms of what is possible, particularly in a support bubble where the individual may be vulnerable and not in a position to join in with childcare. However, in some cases, a relative or live-alone friend you are in a support bubble with, may also be able to watch over children sometimes and the guidance allows for this. Having an adult available to watch over and support a child can work alongside some of the many resources available such as the BBC online lessons.

Of course, with high transmission rates of the new variants of coronavirus, any bubbling arrangements have to be treated with great vigilance and the highest attention to safety and hygiene.

4. Encourage each other

The emphasis on communicating, supporting and empathising remains as high as it was during 2020. It might feel as though we’ve all had enough, but this time, there is light at the end of the tunnel. This time, the vaccination programme offers a timeline for this set of restrictions, even if it does have a habit of extending.

Somehow, taking all the lessons learned last year about simplicity and what really matters, it comes back to hanging on in there for the moment, being kind to ourselves and to each other while we get through this.

We all need to remember that we can’t expect perfection (or perhaps anything approaching it) at home or work right now, but we can keep sharing solutions and choices and talking together about what works for us.

To find out more, please visit Bright Horizons’ website.