Author: Jennifer Liston Smith, Head of Thought Leadership
It seems there is no problem too big or too small for human ingenuity, and the human spirit, to rise to solving. Over the last year, we’ve made a sustained, global effort to overcome enormous challenges presented by something very small (physically), the novel coronavirus.
Towards the end of March 2021, it was a physically huge object, the 400-metre long, 200K tonne Evergreen vessel, Ever Given, grounded across the Suez Canal that threatened our lifestyle and required focused work and thought. Pictures showed how the ship made excavators look like ineffectual toys. Panic quickly played out across stock markets. Those with vessels queuing, had to weigh up whether to wait for passage or go the long way round, via riskier waters around the horn of Africa and the old Cape route, adding perhaps two weeks to their voyage.
The point here about our response to crises is two-fold. Firstly, we seem to be pretty good at not giving up. It isn’t really an option. Secondly, crises can have a long tail. Even though the Ever Given was freed in seven days, some ships had re-routed anyway and hundreds were stacked up, waiting, delayed. There are knock-on effects. In the inter-connected complexity of the 21st century – there is never one time when we’ve really got things sorted and we can relax.
It’s been a bit like that for working parents recently, as well as their managers and employers, through phases of multiple, sustained efforts and experiments. In March, we heard the familiar voices of 1,200 parents captured in a study conducted by The Lawyer. Referencing the recent ‘marathon run as a sprint’ there is a huge display of resilience among these parents working in and around legal firms. When the usual care and education infrastructure fell away, these lawyers’ commitment to children and to profession meant both shows must – somehow – be kept on the road. When asked what helped, working parents wanted time, above all, during the phase when schools were barely there. And that meant something more than flexibility, though that too was welcomed. It meant either specific time out, or help with care. They also greatly valued employers showing genuine support and understanding, along with access to advice and networks.
Now that schools are returning, there’s a temptation to assume that working parents’ wishes are all about flexibility and hybrid working. Yes, that’s a really important conversation and a valued shift in thinking. But we’re not out of the woods with regard to the practicalities of care and education either. There are three distinct phases to plan for:
As we saw when schools last re-opened, there are likely to be selective closures and isolations. These will happen in more discrete bursts (unlike the mass lockdown) and might be harder for parents to talk about since they may feel they should be ‘back to normal’. With an abundance of Lateral Flow Tests for school students, some working parents themselves will be required to isolate if an LFT turns up positive.
We need to see April to June 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. Their support networks (such as grandparents) may still be at a ‘social’ distance (unless they are part of a support bubble or childcare bubble). Some of our client employers are 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, tech, hardware, care solutions and understanding), they have the ingenuity to figure it out.
Let’s not pretend it’s ever easy, even without a pandemic, for working parents to manage the mis-match between the school summer break and the reasonable family holiday time away from work. Many couples end up alternating annual leave to be there for children, instead of chilling out together as a whole family. Single parents have fewer options.
One of the sanity-savers is to provide access to holiday clubs. Virtual holiday clubs have stood out over the last year as a very tangible support. Many of our clients have extended their Back-Up Care provision to include holiday clubs, in order to give parents some respite and to ensure 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 holiday clubs with staff volunteers taking turns.
Now that onsite clubs are opening, subsidising these as well as virtual provision can be a very immediate source of support and show recognition of the exhausting schedule working parents have faced.
With luck (plus science and compliance), the Autumn will offer a more level playing field for working parents, beyond the summer juggle. It might however, see a resurgence of 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, given choice as Kim Elsesser proposes in this Forbes article.
Perhaps what we also need to avoid is constantly talking about ‘support’ for working parents in a way that can imply weakness. Yes, we should be providing resources and services, especially when the care and education infrastructure are so challenged. But if we take a more collective view of the task of raising the next generation then working parents’ triple duties (working, parenting, educating) have amounted to a kind of national service in the last year. The same could be said for many providing eldercare. Society needs these things to be done, and in recent times they could no longer be fully outsourced.
As managers, if we feel our window of patience is stretching thin, we might picture the Suez Canal. We might remind ourselves that sometimes we need to wait, or if the usual route is blocked, we simply have to take the long way round. Either way, the lessons about human ingenuity and perseverance are the points to hang on to.