Small steps could be big for working parents

Cantillon: School is back but it’s not quite a normal life yet for working parents

Working parents of school-age children have had a stressful six months. The period kicked off with fears over Covid-19, proceeded with sudden hassles for many over working from home and moved on to the massively unreasonable task of trying to educate children at the same time as holding down a job.

This week and next bring a new dynamic to the party, with children back at school, and parents who are in a position to work from home continuing to do so. In theory, this should deliver relief for all involved, at least when continuing health worries are set aside. Children will get to socialise and be taught by professionals, parents will regain quiet work environments without interruptions and employers will be able to rely on full engagement. Back to normal? Well, not quite.

Schools and childcare providers are taking great care with how they minimise the health risks associated with this great return, putting in place many tailored arrangements. This means staggered drop-off and collection times for children, requests for no car-pooling and, in many cases, a hold on afterschool activities. Individually, these changes might not seem substantial, but for working parents, they could combine to cause big problems.

School runs are likely to take longer and the support of an extra hour provided by a homework club could be gone – suddenly the seams of the working day are coming apart again.


Release valves

There is no perfect solution here, in part because individual circumstances vary so much between households. It is a universal truth, however, that employers and managers, from the very top down, can often (clearly not always) do small things that can act as release valves. Where it’s doable, it’s a matter of considering an employee’s work in the round rather than within the confines of a strict timetable.

If staff have school runs, could bosses allow for that by scheduling no meetings until 9.30am at the earliest? Or could they take account of more children being in school during the mornings than in the late afternoons and arrange Zoom calls for then as a matter of course?

Such small steps would help to avoid the pre-emptive apologies that already dog many working parents’ lives, thus creating invaluable goodwill. And, on the other side, working parents already well used to squeezing in as much productivity as possible in the hours available to them, could end up being happier, and more effective, in their jobs.