Louise Deverell-Smith, Founder of Daisy Chain
Typically during Summer, working parents and their employers prepare for a transition towards the holidays when schools break up and children are at home for several weeks. The transition can be difficult with many parents suddenly having to keep their children entertained while managing responsibilities at work.
And it can be expensive as well as exhausting. Last year, the Coram Family and Childcare children’s charity annual survey, found that the average cost of a week’s childcare now stands at £138, rising 3% year-on-year. This can be a challenging dilemma to manage for any working parent, but the ritual of managing it every year means some planning can at least be done by both the employer and employee to alleviate the stress of the situation.
But suddenly, this year the pandemic has turned the situation on its head and unsuspecting families are instead having to tackle the difficulties of a return to school and a new routine they haven’t experienced since March.
After several challenging months of juggling the dual responsibilities of working from home and essentially operating as a daycare centre and home school, many parents may be looking forward to their child finally returning to school. But despite some relief for working parents, potentially allowing them more time to focus on their job, there will nevertheless be a difficult readjustment period. Parents will need to transition towards a new way of life filled with anxiety as a strict new schooling system gets underway for the COVID-era.
Needless to say, this can be disruptive to the UK labour market, not least for working parents and their employers, and working mums in particular who are often most severely affected by an economic downturn. A report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) showed that British mothers were 23% more likely than fathers to have temporarily or permanently become unemployed during the pandemic. And recently there were concerns reported in Wales that a lack of childcare may even be preventing parents from returning to work or could even stop their children going back to school. The consequences of unemployment can be even more devastating for working parents who have dependents to care for and potentially less disposable income. This could have an additional knock-on effect for the economy too! It’s in everyone’s interests to ensure the smoothest possible transition back to school and back to work and to keep as many parents in work as possible, especially at such a critical time for the economy.
How businesses and working parents can adapt for the return to school
The pandemic has undoubtedly changed our perspectives on working lives. Overnight, businesses and workers across the country had to adapt to new flexible working arrangements. Before COVID-19, research showed only 6% of the UK workforce worked from home, compared with 43% at the height of the outbreak in April. But despite businesses previously being reluctant to embrace working from home, further findings from The National Bureau of Economic Research have shown that productivity has actually increased. Employees have on average been working an extra 48.5 minutes more per day from home than in in the office. In addition to the productivity benefits for businesses, employees have also been able to reclaim time for friends and family, which has been especially important for working parents with childcare duties. This is reflected in the research results as well: 90% of staff say they would like to continue working from home in some form or another.
Unexpectedly, lockdown has become a five-month test case for flexible working, and the results are fairly substantial and conclusive. We now have a blueprint for how businesses can and should operate in the future, with flexible working and remote working opportunities becoming highly desirable. And this can also help working parents find their feet again as their children return to school.
As well as offering flexible working, employers can ensure open and regular lines communication with staff to understand their individual challenges, and can offer financial support for working parents for example funding for childcare through existing salary sacrifice schemes or a more bespoke package.
It’s crucial that schools and the government also work closely with parents to provide the support and reassurance they need to ensure a smooth transition. The government can play its part by encouraging and incentivising more part-time work. This will help to create and retain job opportunities for parents. Just recently, a new survey by the progressive thinktank Autonomy, found that a four-day working week could create 500,000 new jobs in the UK. The flexible furlough scheme was a great example of how this can work in practice, but it must be rolled out more widely and in other iterations beyond the scheme’s end in October.
The current economic situation puts working parents at heightened risk, especially if they require flexibility from their employer. But this shouldn’t be the case. Now more than ever, we must be seeking to retain their services and create jobs for them as valued workers with a vital role to play for the economy’s recovery.