England and Scotland have entered their third national lockdown this week after a new variant of the coronavirus accelerated the number of cases. The regions join Wales and Northern Ireland, which were already subject to increased lockdown restrictions.
As part of the various lockdown restrictions, the government announced that all primary and secondary schools would close to pupils apart from vulnerable students and the children of key workers this week. Speaking on Monday, prime minister Boris Johnson said he had “no choice” but to plunge England into its third national lockdown. He stressed that children would still be safe at school, but that schools were being closed because they could "act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households".
But with many parents once again forced to try and balance working from home with childcare responsibilities, what can employers do to make the situation easier?
Consider offering more flexibility or extra leave
In response to the closures, Swiss insurance firm Zurich has said it would offer its UK staff two weeks’ paid ‘lockdown leave’ for parents and carers facing childcare emergencies. The company estimated that more than one in five of its 4,500 UK-based employees who have children will benefit from this leave.
Steve Collinson, Zurich's head of HR, told the Guardian that the firm already offered flexible working arrangements for staff, but this might not be enough for parents trying to balance work, childcare and home schooling. He added: “We’re helping our employees get through this crisis by offering mums and dads paid time off so they can look after their health and their family.”
It’s vital for employers to recognise many parents could be struggling to work alongside increased childcare responsibilities, said Claire McCartney, senior resourcing and inclusion adviser at the CIPD, and HR teams need to have plans in place to support them during this demanding time.
“This could include a range of flexible working arrangements, altered role responsibilities or for part-timers to split their hours over more days,” McCartney said. “If these solutions don’t work, then employers should discuss if taking furlough, parental leave or some unpaid leave or holiday would be helpful.”
York-based PowerON Platforms has encouraged parents to inform them if they need extra support in this lockdown. “We’re focusing more on output than hours worked,” Anna Edmondson, head of HR, told People Management. “Employees can flex their working times to help manage home schooling pressures. The important thing is the work gets done, rather than micromanaging when that happens.”
McCartney added that HR professionals needed to encourage line managers to have regular catch-ups with staff to discuss the options that could help them.
Don’t make parents pretend everything is normal
PowerON Platforms also has a relaxed approach to children being seen and heard on calls, said Edmondson, meaning “parents have reduced stress relating to interruptions”, and there are informal chat channels for parents to swap ideas and resources for home activities. “I have a new starter in my team, and we both have children in the background doing their home learning,” Edmondson said. “She has seen from day one that it is absolutely fine to have interruptions or to need to pause a call to sort a child out.
“The important thing is that parents don’t feel they have to pretend everything is normal, as this piles unnecessary stress on to an already challenging situation,” said Edmondson.
Make use of furlough
Employers can also use the job retention scheme to support working parents. The TUC has called for more employers to consider putting working parents on furlough while schools are closed, saying employers may not be aware they can use the scheme to support parents, and implored businesses to “do the right thing and furlough mums and dads”. Research from the union published last year showed that in March – when schools were closed during the first lockdown – one in six (16 per cent) mothers reduced their working hours because of school and nursery closures.
Jane van Zyl, chief executive of charity Working Families, encouraged employers to proactively offer partial or full furlough to their employees with school-aged children, particularly employees who are sole carers or whose partners work outside the home. She added: “Managers should have open and honest conversations with their teams about what is possible in terms of work, assist their teams with prioritisation of tasks, and ensure that performance is measured by output as opposed to set hours spent at a laptop,” she said.
Don’t forget about parents’ wellbeing
While businesses are better prepared for a lockdown this time around, Sarah Morris, group chief people officer at Compass Group, warned there was an increased level of fatigue among employees and parents alike compared to when schools closed in March.
“Nobody's disagreeing with why [the lockdown is in place], but the intensity in which they feel [fatigued] seems to be stronger this time," Morris said. “During the first lockdown, I had friends and colleagues who would say that it was OK if a kid misses a few lessons – it's not going to affect them in the long term. But we are almost a year in and people can't feel like that any more.”
As a profession, HR teams needed to be able to do “a few basic things well”, said Morris, describing how her team does welfare calls to check in on staff and what challenges they could be facing. “Critics might say welfare calls are old-fashioned and not strategic… but I would not cover up the fact that my people function globally is spending time every day doing welfare calls,” she said. “This is a strategic choice on how we, as a profession, spend our time in a completely unprecedented moment in time.”
While schools have been told to move most pupils to remote learning, many parents of younger children can still – for now – access early years childcare. However, the government is facing calls to shut nurseries as more than 55,000 people have so far signed a petition to protect early years staff.
Joeli Brearley, CEO and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, said it is in employers’ best interests to look after their staff and to put their wellbeing first during this crisis. But, she said, the reality is there is no ‘one size fits all’ response.
“Every parent has a different role and a different set of circumstances to manage when it comes to childcare, and failing to support parents now will have devastating consequences for equality in the workplace in the long term and will impact productivity,” Brearley said.