Legal

How might lockdown improve flexibility for working fathers?

14 Sep 2020 By Gary Henderson and Val Dougan

Gary Henderson and Val Dougan explore whether the coronavirus pandemic could deliver where SPL failed and offer improved work-life balance for parents

Much has been written about the impact of lockdown on women, particularly working mothers, 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.

When lockdown measures were announced in March, many employees who had never worked from home found themselves full-time home workers. 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. Data from the Office for National Statistics revealed that in early lockdown, men’s childcare hours increased by an average of 58 per cent.

Shared parental leave

The benefits of parents sharing early years childcare was widely discussed before the introduction of shared parental leave (SPL). 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.

The difficulty is that the take up of SPL has been so low that it has been very difficult to see any broader social benefits. Last year a study showed that only 1 per cent 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?

The question 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 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.

Flexible working requests and discrimination

Following lockdown, employers may 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.

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. 

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

Employers can play an important part in creating options for fathers, including:

  • Challenging stigmas around flexible working and home working. This pandemic has shown us that remote working does not necessarily need to lead to a reduction in productivity. 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’?
  • Identifying senior male flexible working role models and getting them to share their story. It is 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.
  • Moving away from a culture of presenteeism and focusing on output. There can be many unconscious biases that exist around long-hours office culture. The pandemic has to an extent changed those views as people moved to remote working, but how long this lasts may depend on whether a critical mass return to their workplace in the future.
  • Considering whether roles can be offered on a flexible basis, and investing 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

Gary Henderson is a partner and Val Dougan a professional support lawyer at CMS

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