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Work and families: let’s combine them better

24 July 2020: COVID has caused us to question many priorities, conventions and perceptions. As lockdowns ease, we find ourselves asking how much we want to return to pre-COVID lifestyles.

Weathering the storm’, a report from Working Families – the UK’s work-life balance charity –outlined the immediate impact of COVID on work and family life. It’s clear that the pandemic has amplified some of the long-term challenges in our labour market.

When the UK Government asked everyone to work from home where possible, we started to ask ourselves a raft of questions. Will our healthcare system cope? Do we have enough cash available as a country, business or household? Do we have back-up childcare when schools are closed? Are our frail members of society safe? Will our social security system collapse? Will technology let us down? Can our supply chains survive? Will food supplies get through? How will people behave? Will I be physically OK? Will I be mentally well?

Amidst all these questions, government support packages came on stream to support the economy, businesses, jobs, households and individuals. This has been hugely welcomed. Nevertheless, Working Families has collected evidence that some families have paid a heavy economic price for the pandemic.

We have all learned new words and phrases such as “furlough” and “social distancing”, and we have taken an interest in the forensic detail of government schemes to understand which scheme applies to our own situation. Many of us have learned to care about the detail of policy initiatives during lockdown.

Flexible working, reduced-hours working and other arrangements have also become more “normal”; and, sadly, we could well learn more about redundancy law as restructurings and insolvencies inevitably take place.

Working Families’ research has long identified that we have flexible working ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, whereby higher earners are the most likely to be able to work flexibly and have control over their working time. This was replicated in COVID employment support, which primarily benefitted those in the most stable jobs rather than people with no guaranteed hours or those working on casual contracts. And, of course, a record number of people have needed to claim benefits.

The gendered impact of COVID continues to be alarming. As women shoulder a higher proportion of caring responsibilities, the closure of schools and childcare settings has inevitably had a disproportionate impact on their employment. Women are more likely to have been furloughed, to have changed their working hours, and to be working in the sectors that are likely to be hardest hit in the downturn. This risks undoing the progress that the UK has made in closing the gender pay gap.

Jane Berney, ICAEW’s Manager, Business Law, comments: “The gender pay gap reports to date have exposed the ‘motherhood penalty’ and it would seem that enforced working from home and the lack of child care facilities (whether supplied by schools, nurseries, child-minders or grandparents) during lockdown has only served to highlight the fact that women still bear the brunt of caring responsibilities.”

She continues: “It is not enough for employers to offer flexible working if this is only offered to women or if caring for others is seen as a woman’s responsibility. Once the pandemic is over and most of us return to working outside of the home (at least some of the time ) it is to be hoped that attitudes will change.”

Finally, Working Families’ report calls for employers and government to harness the increases in productivity, talent attraction and diversity that flexible working brings to the UK economy, long after the coronavirus pandemic has run its course. The parents in touch with the charity have said that they want no return to ‘business as usual’, with half of them planning to make changes to their working pattern as a result of their experiences during the pandemic. The government signalled last December that it wanted to create a UK labour market that is ‘flexible by default’. There couldn’t be a more opportune time to make this happen.