Think Tank with Bright Horizons:

What kind of flexibility really delivers work-family balance and productivity?

Held at FLEXPO LIVE, Business Design Centre, Islington

21st February, 2023 12.00 – 13.30

Review by Emma Willars, Coaching & Consultancy, Bright Horizons


This session, led by Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Thought Leadership with Bright Horizons, was attended by employers across a range of sectors including banking, technology, construction, education and more. The event began by looking at how our ways of working have fundamentally changed in the last few years with employers leaning in to consider personal lives and family life in new ways. On the political and policy front, we see childcare provision recognised under the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill and the right to request flexible working soon to be established as a day one right.

The Think Tank format allowed small groups to explore together the role employers play in facilitating flexibility and career success for working families, while achieving business targets in these changing times. Jennifer shared trends in employers’ policies and practice, reflecting on what kind of flexibility really delivers work-family balance and productivity.

Some prompt questions engaged participants in the first roundtable discussion: Do certain kinds of working arrangements work best for people with family responsibilities? Are we seeing gendered trends in who chooses what and should we do something about this? How do we achieve flexibility as well as productivity in our uncertain times? Is flexibility enough? What other practical supports are needed?

Developments in combining Flex with Career Progression

Bright Horizons’ Modern Families Index (MFI) 2023 found that two-thirds (67%) of the UK’s working parents are now optimistic they can combine flexible working with career progression, based on a random sample of 3,000. In particular, more women are assured that flexibility will not necessarily derail their careers, compared with previous years and there’s an increased appetite for career progression alongside family commitments among all genders.

The survey revealed 57% would prefer a hybrid working arrangement, where possible, with fewer than 1 in 5 wanting to be based fully at home or fully in a central workplace with a preference towards a bit more of the week at home. There was good discussion around the reality and expectations in the financial sector especially, and whether employers risk disengagement by going against employee preferences. The overall trend is three days mandatory in-office, despite awareness of how people’s wellbeing has been differently impacted by the pandemic, or indeed how roles can best be delivered productively. 

We had some discussion around early career talent missing out on development, progression and learning if not present with colleagues in-office, including in roles such as research, law, or tech where face-to-face engagement is seen as important.

The discussion also acknowledged how parents and carers do want shared office time with the opportunity to work away from the home environment and benefit from the “decompression time” of a commute; an antidote to zoom fatigue. The different work pattern needs across the various stages of family life was highlighted and participants were excited to hear about Bright Horizons’ introduction of Petcare as part of back-up care support.

Talking about Family at Work

By 2023, perception in the MFI that their organisation cares and their manager cares about work-home balance has increased to 66% and 69% respectively. Great progress has been seen in feeling confident and heard at work, especially for women. The challenge is now to ensure we help men feel heard too when talking about family and career, as their confidence on this was lower. (None of the 3,000 survey participants chose a gender other than male or female). Overall, a theme is that employers now have further to go to evidence their family-friendly credentials, since the overall population feels nearly as confident talking about family issues at work (71%) as they feel talking about work issues at work (75%). Participants engaged actively in live polling and roundtable discussions on identifying the new normal in organisations, understanding what working parents/carers ideally prefer, and noticing the productivity opportunity that could lie in bringing employer expectations closer to personal preferences.

Flight Risk

There is a growing understanding that individuals will leave if they if don’t get the flex they need. The MFI 2023 identified that the risk of leaving for another employer is higher in more senior roles. Carers of elderly parents, or of a disabled or unwell adult child or partner also reported a raised likelihood to look for a new job at 62%. Roundtable discussion highlighted the pervasive view of one partner potentially “working for free” and that childcare is not fully understood as a shared cost across partners’ incomes and a career investment.

Over half (54%) in the MFI say they have concerns for either themselves or their partner about the cost of living / household bills whilst 4 in 10 (41%) said benefits or services from their employer that help with the cost of living would make them more loyal and likely to stay. This scores above professional development / training (29%) and autonomy regarding hours of work (28%).

Back-Up Care

More employers are asking about how they can help their employees with childcare. MFI 2023 revealed 60% of men and 53% of women who find themselves caring for children at home while working say it has a negative impact on productivity with just 31% indicating they don’t ever look after children while working from home.

Jennifer shared findings from Bright Horizons’ Work+Family Snapshot Research with client employees, confirming back-up care as a retention tool: 79% are more committed to their employer after a positive experience of back-up care, 88% are more likely to recommend their employer, 87% would have missed work without it, 87% report a positive impact on wellbeing. Where parents find they are caring ad hoc when their usual arrangements break down, back-up care can also prevent the lost productivity highlighted in the MFI.

Virtual Tutoring

Bright Horizons' recent innovation to bring Virtual Tutoring into the back-up care programme as an option, which evolved in response to client conversations, was discussed. It was seen as a way of increasing the inclusivity of the service, ensuring it applies across further life stages. Jennifer highlighted how employers have also seen virtual tutoring as a valued aspect of their wellbeing provision: without virtual tutoring, 55% of parents would have ‘dedicated hours to tutoring my child directly’ and 32% would have experienced more stress at work (BH user feedback surveys 2022).

Virtual Tutoring has also formed part of employers’ cost of living support. 73% parents agreed that without access to virtual tutoring they would have used private tutoring with an impact on family finances (BH user feedback surveys 2022). Some employers also see tutoring as emergency cover for older children, so it can equally be an absence management tool. Discussion among participants underlined the need for wrap-around care for parents of school-age children and the challenges around the length of the school day and the long holidays. There was a shared sense that flexibility may not be enough, without other practical supports.

The Way Forward

The session closed with a call to action to harness change, as Think Tank participants reflected on what they will be taking forward from the conversation. A refresh of people policies was high on the agenda to support attraction and retention, including a construction industry example of grandparent leave enabling an older workforce not yet ready for retirement but keen to spend more time with family. The overall take away was confirmed as the desire to tune in and listen to the everyday experiences of working parents and carers.