It seems a lifetime ago since we started life in lockdown, sharing our tips for keeping children entertained within four walls and working out how we were going to keep both work and home life on an even keel.
Now, 14 weeks on, lockdown is loosening and the UK is looking at a summer which hopefully can include holidays of some sort, though it is increasingly unlikely to feature all the normal camps, trips and childcare options that most parents of school-age children rely on – never mind any kind of formal catch-up provision for children who will not have been in the classroom for 50% of the academic year. In a recent poll of our Obelisk consultants, 70% of the working parents who replied felt worried that the current situation could lead to a lasting negative impact on their careers. What have we learnt about parenting in a pandemic and how can we protect working parents in the longer-term?
#1 Schools and affordable childcare need to become a priority
Whilst we’re all happy to have golf courses, candle shops and zoos open again, it’s a sad indictment of where education sits on our priority list that most school-age children in the UK are still not likely to get any meaningful time in school until September. Since 2009/10, spending per pupil in England has fallen by 8% (IFS) as successive administrations have made it less of a priority. Access to school and childcare has an essential role to play in the post-pandemic recovery, not just in terms of the economy, but also for the mental health and future success of an entire generation.
#2 Working at the same time as caring for your children is not true remote working
What many working parents have been doing during lockdown is not remote working – it is managing to work on top of delivering on a range of extraordinary responsibilities, unique to each household. For years, the legal industry has resisted calls for more remote working and prioritised facetime in the office.
The last 14 weeks have shown that great work can be delivered remotely, even in these most sub-optimal circumstances. That being the case, imagine the productivity gains that are possible once parents have childcare again and working remotely at full capacity. We see an opportunity for continued remote working to put an end to the presenteeism culture that has shut too many out of the world of work for too long.
#3 Those with caring responsibilities should be protected in the workplace
Whilst the shape of the UK’s economic recovery remains unclear, job security feels uncertain. For those conscious of the amount of attention they have had to give to childcare (or indeed elder care or looking after sick relatives) instead of work over the past months, this uncertainty is greater. Anecdotally, we are already hearing of women with school-age children being put onto furlough whilst those in a similar role without children are not. Similarly women are missing out financially due to the timing of their maternity leave.
No-one should be penalised for their family and care responsibilities.
Further enshrining protections for carers in legislation would help to increase economic confidence and protect the mental health of working parents and their children.
#4 Gender inequality in childcare is real
Research has shown women’s jobs are more likely to take a back seat to parenting, with 67% of women with work responsibilities also describing themselves as the “default parent” during lockdown. Whilst men’s share of the work at home has increased, women are still doing more across most areas and taking on the lion’s share of homeschooling. By the time schools are fully operational, there will have been almost six months of extra pressure on women, which is likely to lead to reduced earnings, reduced participation in promotions and increased pressure on their physical and mental health.
#5 Remote working can lead to a better quality of family life
Over 90% of respondents to our parenting poll felt positive about the rise in remote working. For many, lockdown has meant time that used to be spent on the commute can now be spent with the family, on cooking and eating better or on exercise. Similarly, there is currently less of a requirement to spend time on work outside working hours – the networking events and summer parties the legal profession is so fond of will not be going ahead this year – creating yet more time for family life.
As we move forward, Obelisk believes it’s essential that alongside the reopening of schools and childcare facilities, priority is given to protecting the rights of working parents. As a first step, companies and firms making redundancies should be required to report on the characteristics and responsibilities of those losing their jobs.
We have an opportunity in the post-pandemic recovery to build a fairer world of work that creates a better environment for families with working parents, let’s not squander that in a rush back to the office.