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The new 'normal' of employment rights and childcare

17 August: Employment rights around childcare are in the spotlight since the lockdown. A recent ICAEW webinar demystifies the issue.

The COVID-19 lockdown brought issues around work and childcare into sharp relief as parents tried to balance the two once schools had closed. Organisations had to make radical changes to working practices to facilitate a practical work-life balance.

ICAEW's recent webinar, 'Employment rights and childcare-related concerns for parents', looked at how to demystify the topic for both workers and their employers.

Claire McCartney, Senior Policy Advisor, Resourcing and Inclusion at the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD) said that around one in seven workers across the UK has had to make significant changes to their work pattern to balance work, childcare and home-schooling.

Recent research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows that since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, gender inequality has become more pronounced.

Mothers are far more likely than fathers to have left paid work since February 2020, while those still employed are more likely than fathers to spend their working hours looking after their children.

New data from Carers Week reveals that the pandemic has led to 4.5 million more unpaid carers of either elderly or vulnerable family members since lockdown began. Many working mothers also fill this role, added McCartney.

Employer response?

Employers can help ease this strain by offering "flexible and creative responses", something line managers are uniquely well-placed to enable. Flexible hours as well as splitting reduced hours over a more extended period and a temporarily changed list of duties, can all help support parents with childcare responsibilities.

Organisations should ensure they follow the Equality and Human Rights Commission's (EHRC) 's guidance when making COVID-19 related staffing decisions.

Talent pool

When it comes to supporting new and prospective parents, it is imperative to have clear and transparent pay and leave policies in place, says McCartney. Doing so will help retain and attract the right talent.

Supporting an effective return to work is another crucial area worthy of a company's attention.

This should include adopting and implementing flexible and agile working practices, as well as employee support and networking groups while ensuring relevant tailored up-skilling or onboarding sessions are in place to ease returnees back into the working environment.

Interim positions can be a good option for long-term absentees to transition back into the workplace effectively, says McCartney, especially for more senior returnees who can "test drive" roles to see how they fit back in.

Future perfect?

Looking to the future, McCartney says it is essential to build open cultures around flexible working, especially given that the proportion of employees working from home is tipped to double from its pre-pandemic levels, according to CIPD findings.

Almost 40% of employees will be working from home regularly once the crisis is over, it discovered, compared to just a fifth (18%) pre-lockdown.

The CIPD is now calling for flexible working to become a day-one right, instead of a privilege currently only earnt after 26 weeks of working for an employer.

Building a culture of long-term flexibility is key to the successful nurturing of this trend, says McCartney. It means regularly communicating about flexible working, gaining manager buy-in, and designing jobs to with inbuilt flexibility.

Getting the balance right

Coming at the issue from a slightly different angle, is Sybille Raphael, head of legal advice at Working Families, a work-life balance charity advising working parents, carers - and their employers – on ways to find a more harmonious equilibrium between the responsibilities at home and in the workplace.

The lawyer ran through several examples of recent calls to their telephone helpline to highlight grey areas in what is, and what is not legal, in terms of discriminatory behaviours around working and parenting.

Raphael also flagged up some of the fundamental rights that impact parents and those caring for dependents.

Pregnancy rights, maternity leave and adoption entitlements were also covered alongside the critical tenets of flexible working as outlined in the Flexible Working Regulations Act of 2014.

The full webinar can be viewed here.