Nothing about life is straightforward at the moment. That holy grail of work-life balance has seemed evermore unattainable, none more so than if you are a working parent or – even worse as the facts have borne out – a working mother.
The ONS reported last year that during the first weeks of lockdown, women were carrying out on average two-thirds more childcare duties per day than men.
School closures have also impacted mothers more than fathers, with twice as many having to take unpaid time off to care for their children. In May last year, Women in Property reported to the Women and Work All Party Parliamentary Group on the impact of these Covid-19-related issues.
Currently, we are in a waiting game as we listen out for news of our state-sanctioned return to the ‘old normal’ – but is that what we really want or need? Clearly, the reopening of schools is critical to the sanity of millions of working parents, but the past year has placed a great many ‘traditional’ working practices under the spotlight.
Before 23 March 2020, flexible working and, with it, the newly adopted acronym WFH (working from home), was more often than not an initiative that enlightened employers offered, rather than fundamental to how we all operate. Now, for many, the dual approach of WFH and WFO – perhaps on a team rota basis – might well be the perfect model.
Pre-pandemic, an ONS report in 2019 suggested that women are more likely than men to opt for jobs with shorter commutes, or to leave a job because of a lengthy commute, seeking flexible work because they provide the majority of childcare. And let’s not forget – the challenges faced by women, and mothers especially, are also faced by all with caring responsibilities.
With flexibility, geography is for the most part no longer an issue – we all know how much can be achieved with Zoom skills and a stable connection. However, it raises the question: what are core hours if the ‘nine-to-five’ no longer exists? I believe there is a silver lining around the Covid cloud but much will depend on employers and the working culture they champion in the years to come.
We all hope that flexibility remains part of the working equation, but only the migration back to the office – wherever that might be – will confirm this. Just think of the upside. The skills retained within the business because staff – women in particular – will not feel they have to leave in order to find work-life balance. The improvement in productivity and wellbeing because of less time spent on trains, in traffic jams and battling through fellow commuters, just to satisfy an outdated obsession with presenteeism. The sense of inclusion in a positive, equitable work culture, where everyone feels included and able to contribute.
Of course, it works both ways. Employers can do a huge amount to support their staff but both parties need to be upfront, realistic and honest about the issues they face. I believe we now have a great opportunity for individuals and businesses to build on the understanding, compassion and support evidenced over the past 12 tumultuous months.
In my role as national chair of Women in Property, I have been humbled by the courage and resilience shown by friends and colleagues, women and men from across our industry. I am conscious that this article will appear just ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, with its theme for 2021 being #ChooseToChallenge. It is absolutely time for us to challenge our working culture as the year unfolds. Is it equitable? Is it balanced? Is it courageous?
Rachel Bell is chair of Women in Property
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