Fathers and flexible working post lockdown

United Kingdom

A great deal has been written about the impact that lockdown has had on women, particularly working mothers, and the longer term impact it is likely to have on gender equality. But how has lockdown affected men and working fathers? According to research undertaken during lockdown almost two thirds of fathers would like to work flexibly in the future to spend more time with their family. As the Fatherhood Institute explains  “Men’s childcare, rising since the 1960s, is at its highest since records began.” In this Law-Now we consider why the last five months of enforced homeworking for many fathers may prompt longer term change.

Lockdown and working from home

In March when lockdown measures were announced many employees who had never worked from home before, suddenly found themselves full-time homeworkers. For families that were also dealing with children at home this meant significant changes to their domestic arrangements, as parents divided work, childcare, housework and schooling. While there have been many reports highlighting the uneven split of domestic tasks and childcare between partners during lockdown, there is also data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in June 2020 which revealed that in those early months of lockdown men’s childcare hours increased by an average of 58%.

Research by Kent and Birmingham University in the report, Working from home during the Covid-19 lockdown: Changing Preferences and the Future of Work points to a link between homeworking and sharing of unpaid work at home. The report suggests “parents might have established new patterns of gendered care and unpaid work in the home during lockdown which could potentially influence behaviours and wider cultural norms around care and housework in the future.”

The Changing Preferences report found a link between fathers who had taken more than two weeks’ paternity leave and an increase in the amount of childcare on a longer term basis. “[F]rom our data, 50% of mothers whose partners have taken more than two weeks of leave responded that their partners were sharing or doing more of childcare during the lockdown period.” 

Could lockdown achieve what Shared Parental Leave (SPL) failed to deliver?

The benefits of parents sharing early years childcare was widely discussed prior to SPL coming into force in 2014. Promoted under the banner that “shared parenting matters”, the government consultation explained that encouraging fathers to share the care would benefit fathers by giving them a better relationship with their child and help their partners by reducing the “motherhood penalty” associated with taking long periods out of the workplace.

The difficulty of course is that the take up of SPL has been so low, that it’s been very difficult to see any broader social benefits. Last year a study showed that only 1% of eligible parents took SPL. Is it the case that the changes arising from lockdown have achieved something that SPL has not – a significant increase in fathers carrying out childcare?

Balance

The question now is whether fathers will want to continue working flexibly to allow them to continue to play a hands-on role on the childcare front. For some fathers (as with some mothers), working from home during lockdown felt too much like living in work or being overwhelmed by the strain of performing too many roles at once. For others it has proved to be a light bulb moment that a less traditional model offers genuine advantages on many levels; the loss of the daily commute and the flexibility to be at home and spend more time with their family has been life changing.

Gregor Scotland, Principal Policy Adviser, CBI shared his experience with us. “My wife is a key worker and as the dad of a two-year-old and a four-year-old, working from home while nurseries were closed meant I’ve spent more time with my kids over the last few months than at any other time in their lives. In many ways that was great and there are loads of moments I’ll look back on and not only laugh but be genuinely grateful for. But in truth, it has also been a huge challenge. Now the kids are back at nursery, I do appreciate the balance of having peace and quiet to work during the day, while at the same time having the flexibility to pick the kids up a bit earlier and give them their tea at home.  For me, I’ve certainly benefited from having a very understanding employer that continues to support flexible working and I think that will be a major consideration for employees going forward when determining what organisations they want to work for.”

Andrew McConnell, Head of Employment Law Practice at NatWest Group, told us “It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster but I’ve come out of it closer to my children. They grow up fast and being able to walk them to school is one of the highlights of the day. I’ve also been able to flex my working hours so I can see them after school – if I need to log on later to catch up, I don’t mind that. Whilst work has been extremely busy and sometimes it’s been difficult because home life and work life merge into one somewhat, I don’t see myself wanting to go back into the office 4 or 5 days a week when this situation evolves back to some sort of normality; I never thought I’d be saying that prior to lockdown!.... I would like to think that as remote working has allowed more men to spend more time with their kids this will encourage a more equal division of shared parenting going forward. That said, I know that in some households where the male partner hasn’t involved himself more in parenting during lockdown this has led to an increased stress on the female partner. I do worry that some men have missed the chance lockdown has presented to try and even up parenting responsibilities in the home.”

Rob Marrs, Head of Education at Law Society Scotland explained that the LSS, “ran a number of workshops this summer for people juggling the balls of home schooling, care, chores and work – and doing it in extremely stressful conditions. We’ve all been doing it to greater or lesser extents. What interested me was that the overwhelming majority of those who attended were working mums. Does that show even if there have been steps to greater male involvement throughout lockdown that this isn’t yet at 50/50? I have to say probably. But baby steps in the right direction are better than no steps. It is difficult to say whether extended working from home has been beneficial to work-life balance – they aren’t exactly great test conditions. That said, I do think that more people across the economy will be demanding more agility and flexibility and businesses will realise that this is likely to have a benefit to them. Not before time.”

Flexible working requests and discrimination

Following on from lockdown employers may well see an increase in flexible working requests, which could lead to discrimination claims if not granted.

A breach of the statutory right to request flexible working carries a low financial penalty. The real risk for failing to grant a flexible working request lies with a discrimination claim.

An indirect sex discrimination claim might arise where a woman submits a request to work part-time for childcare reasons, and the employer is not able to justify objectively why the role cannot be performed on that basis.

If employers routinely grant flexible working requests made by women but not men, then there is the potential that this amounts to less favourable treatment resulting in a direct discrimination claim. This scenario occurred in the case of Walkingshaw v John Martin Group where a father’s request to work part-time following his wife’s maternity leave was refused. The claimant in this case argued that his female colleagues had been granted their part-time working requests and the failure to grant his was discriminatory. His claim for direct sex discrimination was successful.

What can employers do where they wish to promote flexible working and homeworking?

Employers can play an important part in creating options for fathers. This is an often overlooked area but in truth it is an essential piece of the equality jigsaw. Here are some suggestions:

  • Challenge stigmas around flexible working and homeworking. This pandemic has shown us that remote working does not necessarily need to lead to a reduction in productivity. However, the Changing Preferences report referenced above acknowledged that fathers are still concerned about the potential negative consequences flexible working may have for their careers. Managers need to have conversations about visibility and what that means where a person is not in the office all the time. Is there a need for “virtual visibility”?
  • Identify senior male flexible working role models and get them to share their story. It is very powerful to hear first-hand from a leader that they have made a success out of remote working and they see this as a way forward.
  • Move away from a culture of presenteeism and focus on output. There can be many unconscious biases that exist around long hours office culture. The pandemic has to an extent changed that, as people moved to remote working, but how long this lasts may depend on whether a critical mass return to their workplace in the near future, and whether that return is on a full time basis or not.
  • Consider whether roles can be offered on a flexible basis. Invest in other paid leave policies to support working fathers. Enhanced Shared Parental Pay is an obvious choice and organisations should encourage take up of SPL within the workplace.