How to avoid the homeworking-parenting clash

Blog posts

6 Apr 2020

Stephen BevanStephen Bevan, Head of HR Research Development

At the start of week three of the ‘New Normal’, thousands of UK workers will be reflecting on whether working from home is quite the liberating experience they had always imagined. Trying to scrutinise the bookshelves or the interior design of your colleague’s houses while on a Zoom call might be mildly diverting, but for many the challenges of remaining productive at work while managing parenting or caring responsibilities can be daunting. This can be exacerbated if your boss is unsympathetic or if you are worried that your colleagues might think you are not pulling your weight. So how can organisations help working parents to adjust to working life during the lockdown?

At IES we’ve been looking at the ways that flexible working, work-life balance and work scheduling have been managed by UK business since the late 1960’s. It’s fair to say that the current COVID-19 crisis has prompted the biggest and most widespread shift in working patterns across the whole workforce in living memory. For the time being at least, the days are gone where advocates of flexible working had to implore employers to adopt ‘enlightened’ and inclusive practices. Homeworking has become a public health necessity. Now we have to make it work.

It’s fair to say that this is a widespread phenomenon. Recent analysis by some of my IES colleagues shows that there are 7.2m working parents who are not ‘key workers’ and are likely to have children at home with them while they are working. They estimate that there are 5.3m working families (almost a quarter of the total) who have children under the age of 11 years old. In addition, there are likely to be at least 700,000 lone working parents with children at home. So what have we learned about making this enforced change to working life work for both employers and working parents? I think there are four lessons.

First, we must accept that parenting is not a discretionary task. Despite valiant attempts to timetable the day and to erect boundaries between working time and parenting time, some children are no respecters of such boundaries while others see them as an edifice to be brought crashing down. An exasperated colleague of mine on a Zoom call this week held her head in her hands and said, ‘we’re two minutes into the call and they’ve already stolen the popcorn’. Bosses without kids (or empathy) need to know that this is normal.

Second, one of the overwhelming emotions felt by working parents right now is guilt. If you’re familiar with the HSE Stress Management Standards you might remember the concept of ‘role conflict’ and the part it plays in elevating stress at work. Being a working parent in ‘lockdown’ is almost a textbook example of role conflict. The guilt associated with not feeling that you are doing either job well needs to be recognised by bosses and colleagues and taken into account when performance targets and working time are being agreed.

Third, lone working parents are under even more pressure. Working couples with children at home at least have the chance to form a homeworking ‘tag team’ which might allow them to juggle work and parenting in a civilised way. Lone parents are far less likely to have the logistical, financial or emotional support to balance work and parenting. A good boss will spot this early on and be reassuringly proactive in helping a lone parent to come up with a work schedule which is humane, practical and which removes guilt. ‘Lockdown’ will very much flush out how many of these good bosses we have. Those who think that a random act of kindness in these times is a sign of weakness probably have no place in a managerial role.

Fourth, now is a good time for bosses and their direct reports to have a grown-up conversation about priorities and targets. For too many organisations being ‘busy’ is valued as much as the outputs you deliver. Tricks like walking around the office with a pile of papers, not taking lunch breaks and staying late until the boss goes home don’t work in the online world. With homeworking it is essential to be clear that the quality and timeliness of what an employee produces are usually more important than how long they spend producing it. If homeworkers feel that they are always under pressure to be online, to answer emails at 7am and 7pm, productivity will slip rather than surge. It really is time to trust people to do their jobs.

It’s also worth reminding employers that, even when their employees are working at home, they retain a legal duty of care for both their physical and emotional wellbeing and should be alert to the risks to both of these as these new working arrangements are established. Homeworking is also blurring the boundaries between work and home in spatial terms. There is some comfort to be had in the routine of getting dressed in work clothes and travelling to a place of work. Even children get this. But seeing Mum or Dad in ‘home clothes’ but still trying to work can be hard for kids to get used to. 

This early in the ‘lockdown’ parents, children, colleagues, clients and bosses are all having to go through a period of adjustment and not everyone will do so at the same pace. Hopefully, everyone will find an equilibrium which means that the needs of employers, bosses, parents and children can be accommodated. It may even be the case that, when we emerge from the current crisis, some of the flexibility in both working practices and attitudes will be sustained. This remains to be seen, of course, but my hope is that there will be no shortage of converts to more enlightened approaches.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.