Hello Hybrid: designing success for working parents and carers

Author: Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Thought Leadership

Our recent 2021 Modern Families Index showed – among other interesting findings – a strong preference for hybrid or blended working among parents and carers going forward with two thirds wanting to work at least half their time from home in the post-pandemic future.

As this working pattern appears to be here to stay, let’s look at how to make it really work. It won’t happen well without being designed for success. This model shows four elements that will support effective hybrid working for working families. It draws on our experience of partnering with leading employers as well as recent research.

Blog-Hello Hybrid Infographic

1. Get Clear about Care

The Modern Families Index showed childcare and eldercare are top of mind in career decisions, and earlier than we might imagine:

  • 7 in 10 said they would need to carefully consider their childcare options before accepting a promotion or new job, rising to 8 in 10 of working parents in the 16-25 age group.
  • Of those with an adult care responsibility, three quarters would need to consider their eldercare options before progressing their career. This was highest among 35 – 44 year olds (84%), followed by 26-34 year olds (77%).

It’s clear care matters when we think about work. The pandemic lockdowns have made this even more visible, in every sense. There have been desperate calls for parents to have a right to request leave during school closures, given the overload, or overwhelm, involved in home-schooling coupled with delivering a day’s work. This has to be an option when, and if, there is no other choice.

But furlough is not the only fruit. We have seen employers become increasingly involved in providing in-home care for school-aged children as well as subsidised nursery places. During the lockdown from January 2021, with nurseries still operating in many regions and nannies and care providers permitted to enter homes, many of our employer partners rapidly expanded access to Back-up Care, enabling parents and carers to focus with a lot less stress. This has been a go-to solution for those with school-aged children. The back-up nanny is in one room supporting young people to complete their home-schooling, while the working parent is able to conduct virtual meetings next door. Other employers have supported access to online holiday clubs and virtual tutors, again responding to parents’ worries with a practical offer.

As we move into post-pandemic hybrid working, many employers will take the best of this support and apply it to the new world, where care will be less chaotic and yet still top of mind in parents’ career decisions.

As we create our new system, we must remember something about care and home-working. While lockdowns have thrown open the debate about how we work, they have also been periods of crisis working. Hybrid working in the future should not mean boisterous children zoom-bombing project meetings. Parents will want their children to be in school, or in care settings; they’ve missed the educational and social benefits as much as they’ve also torn their hair out with shouldering multiple roles.

So, hybrid working outside of lockdowns is a calmer prospect. Employers can and should go on helping with care, though. Workplace nurseries make coming in to collaborate in the office an attractive option. Recently, many employers have also recognised that subsidised community nursery places offer the flexibility to work from home, while the parent experiences the productivity and focus of remote working. Back-up care will continue as it has for decades before to provide the gel which keeps things going when usual arrangements fall through. Outside of extreme times, this is around 8 to 10 times a year for most.

2. Radically Manage Time and Space

We don’t need to be Einstein to recognise that 2020 created a bit of a rift in how we understand and use space and time in our work. We need to take the opportunity to re-think, to manage and re-design how we work and collaborate.

When we think about hybrid working in future, we fantasise about remote time with our heads down alternating with time in the office to share ideas in person with our teams. But they might not all be there, at the same time, except for some very well-planned team get-togethers. When we do ‘go in’, it might be a relief not to be scrambling for a hot desk in an emptier office, but between distanced workstations (for now) and dispersed teams (here to stay) we will need to find new ways of being together.

This might mean physically representing virtual participants around the table in a meeting room, or everyone in the physical meeting room using cameras too, so all show up similarly. Blended meetings also need a capable chair ensuring all are included and heard. Teams may want to develop a set of guidelines for how to make sure everyone is included in the after-chat, for example, by having that happen online through the same channel as the meeting.

Our relationship with time includes how we switch off, too. One of the recommendations of last year’s 2020 Modern Families Index was “Employers need to better manage technology to ensure it supports rather than inhibits work-life balance. This could include introducing robust policies around the use of technology to work flexibly, so that parents know they can and should disconnect without penalty, and senior managers role-modelling ‘switching off’.”

We’ve come so far in some ways, in implementing technology. We still have some way to go in terms of switching off. This could include clear etiquette about not expecting emails to be read out of hours, not setting meetings across lunchtime, and encouraging walking meetings where team members might stroll down their different local streets during a catch-up by phone.

In the new world, we will all need to be thoughtful about how we join up physical and virtual space and how we put boundaries around time.

3. Link to Purpose

There are two things to say about purpose. One is that our employees have mostly done some pretty deep thinking in the last year. Accenture’s large-scale consumer research illustrates sustained trends towards more conscious consumption, environmental concerns and local buying. This rethink runs alongside calls for greater fairness and inclusion and together these translate into higher expectations of employers.

We will need to restate our organisation’s purpose in ways that employees can value, relate to, and feel proud of. In a hybrid working world, this includes visible and relatable statements from leadership. It also means consulting and hearing employee groups, especially under-represented groups and responding with practical actions that will be taken on the basis of what has been heard, relating it back always to the purpose of the organisation.

The other thing to say about purpose is similar, but different. When we adapt to new working styles and put in support systems, we need to remember what we are trying to achieve. This side of the purpose equation means being in touch with business aims and targets.

During the pandemic, it’s natural that mental health and social support have been top of mind for good employers. As we embed hybrid working, and families have care and education solutions in place again, the messages will need to change from ‘do what you can’ to ‘deliver these priorities, in whichever way works for you’. As teams collaborate differently, it will be helpful to have conversations about the purpose of different types of meeting (e.g. social catchup vs clear agenda, or both) and to question together whether the systems we’ve had before all need recreating in a hybrid world, or rather reinventing. For example, will some team reports be replaced by opening up access to better shared online data? Could this also mean fewer or shorter meetings on the basis that everyone has seen the dashboard in advance? Then more project meetings could shift to celebrating milestones and trouble-shooting blockages, instead of updates.

Whether inspiring and engaging a tired workforce or figuring out how best to get things done in a new world, it helps to keep remembering what we are actually doing and why it matters.

4. Think Talent

In recruitment group, Robert Walters’s Salary Survey 2021, around a third (32 per cent) cited job security as a valued ‘perk’: the first time in five years that this has appeared as a top motivating factor in the survey. Bright Horizons own Modern Families Index 2021, also highlights concerns about job security: 40% fear losing their job. In this climate, there is some degree of ‘hanging on’ and gratitude for having a job.

That said, the most highly rated motivating factors from the Robert Walters survey are nonetheless a working culture that encourages employees to do their best (45%), flexible work arrangements (38%) and excellent compensation and benefits (37%).

Whenever the job market begins to feel more fluid and optimistic, culture and flexibility will clearly be key tools to retain talent. When the Modern Families Index asked working parents about the support their employer had recently provided, less than a quarter (just 24%) of working parents said that their employers had “Given a clear message that flexible working is positively viewed”, and this was the top-rated answer around ‘measures to support you with your work life balance’!

In order to retain and attract the best, employers will need to ensure their people can have a new kind of balance. This includes offering flexibility as a day 1 option, not as a favour to be earned 6 months in. If we are clear about a role’s objectives and contingencies, we should be able to negotiate about a range of ways it can be delivered.

Bringing a talent focus to our conversations about flexibility also means not obliging individuals to ‘trade down’ in career terms as the only way to blend work and life healthily. The Timewise Flexible Jobs Index 2020 showed that part-time is common amongst the lowest paid jobs but is relatively rare in higher paid roles. Given the new lifestyle tasted during lockdown, it is possible that more couples will want to work part-time, alternating work and care. The Timewise Index suggest that people who want to work part-time, often get ‘stuck’ in their current roles, trade down, or even abandon their careers entirely. With growing concerns about the gendered impact of the pandemic, employers’ Gender Pay Gap action plans as well as Talent Strategies should pay attention to designing roles that can be worked in flexible ways (including part-time) while remaining strategically valued and visible.

It is not only women, of course. In the Modern Families Index, men were almost as concerned as women about childcare when accepting a promotion, and they were more concerned about eldercare (73% of female and 77% of male carers agreed they would carefully consider eldercare before accepting a new role). In the same study, 38% of men compared to 28% of women agreed with the statement “I feel resentful towards my employer about my work life balance”.

As we build back better, post-pandemic, paying attention to work-life blend and providing practical support for families will not only be the right thing to so but also an essential way to appeal to a workforce with a very different view now of what work means.