In March 2017, Professor Robert Kelly was speaking on BBC News 24 about South Korean politics when his daughter stormed into the room interrupting the interview before being dragged out by Kelly’s wife. Seen as something of a novelty three years ago, children interrupting video calls have become the norm during the coronavirus lockdown. Parents nationwide have been juggling the pressures of work with the demand of keeping their kids entertained and educated. With schools now re-opening, businesses and working parents are entering a new phase of the pandemic. Childcare pressures are easing slightly, but businesses have a decision to make – do they decide to fall back into an outdated inflexible working arrangement or move towards a more flexible, inclusive and considerate working model?
Lockdown has completely changed the way companies run, with businesses and workers adapting to new flexible working arrangements. Businesses have noticed an increase in productivity, with The National Bureau of Economic Research finding employees were on average working four hours more work per week from home than in in the office. Employees have also seen benefits – the lack of commute has allowed workers more time for friends and family, while working parents have more flexibility to deliver their work and care for their children.
This five-month test case for flexible working has shown businesses that parents can work effectively if supported with flexible arrangements. Previously, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a parent leave their job after having a child – the pressures of a 9-5 role and parenthood were often too much. With kids returning to school, the value of continued flexibility will be necessary – working parents will be able to deliver the same level of output without their child’s distraction, while businesses will need to be flexible towards their employee and their family needs.
Although the new term comes around every year, this particular school year will require special adjustment for workers. They will be faced with a brand-new routine not experienced since March and they may also be concerned about their children returning to an environment that could increase the spread of coronavirus. It’s crucial for businesses, schools and the government to work with parents to allay any fears and provide support to ensure a smooth transition. It could be as simple as employers communicating with these workers regularly to understand their individual challenges or helping to fund childcare needs. The government can also help by encouraging parents into work by creating incentives for businesses to maintain flexible working arrangements or by financially supporting companies that offer part-time roles. And the economy could also benefit as a result – just this week, a new survey by the progressive thinktank Autonomy found that a four-day working week could create 500,000 new jobs in the UK.
The current economic situation puts working parents at particular risk, especially if they require flexibility from their employer. But this shouldn’t be the case. We should be retaining their services and creating jobs for them as valued workers with a vital role to play for the economy. They have shown throughout lockdown they are able to juggle huge and varied pressures, and with children returning to school, parents will have even more capacity to work.
We are entering a period where we no longer see or hear kids interrupt video calls, but although their children may be less visible to businesses, the problems faced by working parents have not disappeared. We must continue to support talented and valuable working parents through flexible working arrangements.