Options for Working Parents

By Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Thought Leadership for Bright Horizons Family Solutions

What can Working Parents, and their Employers, do now?

Lockdown 3.0 has hit many working parents and their employers hard with the closure of schools. The employers we work with do really understand the need and are also committed to working parents and carers as part of their talented, committed and diverse workforce. 

So what can either party do? It’s not going to be easy 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.

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. 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.

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 lifestages 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. It is currently a right to request. The Women’s Budget Group’s latest recommendations include making furlough a right for parents, not only a right to request Again, not everyone wishes to step back but it can be a lifeline for some and having 80% 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. 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 at least and of course more widely for key workers and vulnerable families, 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

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 has nannies in people’s homes all across the UK, Ireland, US and other countries as we speak, 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 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.

4. Encourage each other

The emphasis on communicating, supporting, 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.

Somehow, taking all the lessons learned 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.

(In this UK-facing article, I’ve drawn on the central UK Govt advice which might vary of course depending on different regulations in the other UK nations and of course further afield.)