Research shows that employee wellbeing with a clear and visible area of focus is one of the top five most wished for supports, particularly for groups such as parents, who have been hit especially hard by the pandemic and its impact.
Have we paid enough attention yet to working parents as a group affected over the last year?
In order to keep your working parents on board as a committed, experienced group within your talent planning, there are five areas for action now as employers:
- Help with care solutions
- Demonstrate trust & autonomy
- Protect Time off
- Enable switch off
- Foster like-minded networks
Let’s look at each of these and weigh up what we need to do now, during the pandemic, and ongoing.
Currently, this tops the list, in the absence of schooling. Have you listened to your working parents recently? Are you in touch with their dawn til midnight schedule of work, parenting and home-schooling delivered simultaneously? It does not require a grasp of even year 7 maths to figure out that the schedule involved must be exhausting. For many employers, the last year has seen a huge step up in involvement in childcare, including for older age groups.
- Back-up Childcare – Even before the pandemic, most large employers understood the need to bridge the gap when usual care arrangements fall over (usually 8-10 times a year). Recently, back-up care has become a go-to way of supporting work continuity and mental health. Many organisations, particularly in sectors such as banking or tech have increased their subsidised sessions of back-up care or waived their consecutive day policy to provide ready support. In the current lockdown, nannies and other carers have been able to enter homes, with strict protocols. They can supervise home-schooling, while remote meetings take place in the next room.
- Wraparound Care: there has been a great deal of innovation in this area, particularly for older children, including virtual holiday clubs and subsidised access to tutors. The best virtual clubs come with boxes of equipment to the door creating engaging learning for young minds and bodies. Coding clubs and public speaking courses have been popular for parents of older children during school holidays when the absence of online learning leaves a locked-down teenager at a loose end.
- Care Advice: Well informed signposting is needed more than ever. Navigating the care maze for any parent, let alone those new to the UK can be time-consuming at the best of times. Right now, it feels like shifting sands. Any helplines you have should be strongly promoted. Our experts have been finding a significant rise in eldercare queries too, as more employees step up to caring at a distance for loved ones.
- Ongoing Childcare Provision: Looking at the longer term, many employers are waking up to the ongoing role of care provision in the infrastructure. In a hybrid-working future, an onsite nursery plays a part in supporting those who need or want to be back at a place of work, collaborating, providing hands-on work, managing security or supporting customers. There is now also a new model of near-site care: employers are branching into partnerships with community nurseries close to offices or to employees’ homes.
In the 2021 Modern Families Index, 7 in 10 (71%) overall reported they would need to carefully consider their childcare options before accepting or applying for either a promotion or a new job. This is applied to 73% of women and 69% of men, and was especially true for younger working parents. The pandemic has underlined more than ever the role childcare plays in talent attraction and retention.
Trust & autonomy
The Modern Families Index also showed the most wished-for supports participants would have liked from their employers over the past year include, as the top five:
- More autonomy and control over how I manage my work time – 24%
- Clear message that flexible working is positively viewed – 22%
- Employee wellbeing as a clear and visible area of focus – 22%
- Ensure my line manager had the knowledge / tools to support me in managing my work life balance – 19%
- Provide access to employer-subsidised childcare – 17%
The same study, showed radically changed expectations of how work can be delivered. Of the 1,000 working parents surveyed, 57% would like some form of hybrid working arrangement. Just 16% would like to work 100% in an office and 17% would like to work fully from home.
Trust is vital to making things work in this new world, focusing on clearly-defined deliverables, as well as recognising the ‘above and beyond’ efforts of recent months.
For some working parents, taking time off has been one solution to the simultaneous equation of working, parenting and home-schooling. While stepping back temporarily can feel like a difficult career move, and not the first choice for most employees or employers, it can give breathing space when there are no other choices. Employers should be aware of the options:
- Time off for dependants
This UK statutory right offers a chance to step back and make arrangements. This is generally taken to mean up to 2 days, usually unpaid, 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. https://www.gov.uk/time-off-for-dependants
- Paid Leave for parents and carers
Having generous family leave policies is seen as a real investment in working parents and carers, among options that build loyalty and long-term engagement. Sometimes, well-supported policies are necessary to compete for talent for example in sectors with valuable knowledge workers. Some employers have offered additional paid leave for parents or carers during lockdown. It shows an appreciation that supporting employees through different life stages and understanding those needs is part of really nurturing a talent pipeline.
The TUC has urged employers to be proactive in offering furlough, rather than waiting to be asked. There is currently a right to request, rather than an automatic right to furlough leave for working parents. The Women’s Budget Group’s recent recommendations include making furlough a right for parents.
Again, not everyone wishes to step back from work from the point of view of career ambitions, 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; or indeed flexible furlough which can enable couple to cover childcare and home-schooling between them. 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.
- (Unpaid) Parental Leave
This UK 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 does need booking ahead and being generally unpaid is not ideal for struggling families. Now, however, this may be an option when nothing else works. https://www.gov.uk/parental-leave
For those who are working from home, there can be a lack of separation between working hours and personal time. Whether or not our employees and colleagues have families at home, we need more than ever to show considerate behaviour that allows colleagues to switch off outside work hours. The lack of boundaries can wear especially thin for working parents who have spent the day sending children away with snacks to curb their zoom-bombing habits and want to be fully present after work. Making a difference can mean simple steps: it might suit one person to write emails during the evening, but they can schedule that message to send during working hours instead of generating an always-on sense of urgency. It can also mean setting meetings during agreed core hours only, and ideally not across lunchtimes. During the shorter daylight months, a walk at lunchtime can be a key part of a wellbeing plan, and it might also allow a quick mental health-boosting family mealtime in a crowded house of home-workers, home-schoolers and home-based university students.
Now and in a post-pandemic future, networks normalise concerns, share positive advice and make the culture inclusive. Working parents, especially recent returners from parental leave, can feel less visible at the best of times, and especially now when dispersed networks can be harder to build alone. Here are a few options:
- An easy way to generate a network is through providing virtual topic-based events, online. We’ve seen a huge demand for webinars with expert advice. Current topic trends range from Managing Anxiety, to Tips for Remote Working, to Helping with Homework, as well as the perennial professional development topics for working parents around managing career and personal brand. Many of our clients have also been encouraging internal networks to have self-facilitated meetings or virtual drop-ins on different specific parenting, or caring, or work-related themes.
- An online forum or chat channel can also create a sense of community. Volunteers will usually step forward to encourage and moderate discussions, including simple competitions, sharing quick healthy recipes or sharing pictures drawn by children, for example. Groups that form this way go on to offer a great deal of mutual support.
- Internal buddy or mentor schemes (for example for new parents) can deliver huge engagement and ROI. The best schemes do need a bit of setting up: guidelines, light touch training and an online, moderated, matching process. But not only do they repay in terms of value for the mentee but the mentors themselves usually feel hugely encouraged by the experience.
Both now and in a hybrid, blended working future, we as employers have to put in the work to sustain office culture and engagement with dispersed teams. Covering the five areas above will empower working parents and carers for the present and the future. With all these initiatives, it should go without saying, but make sure your programmes are accessible and that they are communicated inclusively. For example, make sure to reach out to LGBT+ parents, and all genders when forming networks and ensure your policies are inclusive to all.
By Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Thought Leadership, Bright Horizons Work+Family Solutions Bright Horizons Work+Family Solutions. Bright Horizons provides a wide range of work and family solutions to over 1,200 leading employers globally.