Why Flexible Working Policies Fail to Support Working Parents

Working Mom and Child
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🤹”The juggle is real” as more parents than ever before must balance work and family life, according to recent figures from The Office for National Statistics.*

With working parents making up such a huge portion of the UK’s workforce, it’s quite shocking that organisations are still not hitting the mark when it comes to providing the support they need to perform at their best. 

💡”But what about flexible working policies!?” you’re probably objecting.

Alright. I’ll bite.

Flexible working policies are valued by employees across job roles and demographics, and are especially attractive to working parents. 

New research from workspace provider Regus positioned flexible working as ‘the most sought-after benefit’ for working parents, with 85% of British working parents said they would forfeit other benefits to take up flexible working. 

But, if flexible working is the end-all-be-all benefit, why are less than half of working parents working flexibly

👩‍⚖️ The verdict is in: your organisation’s culture is the culprit

Too many organisations tout flexible working policies as evidence of their commendable support for working parents—but the ugly truth is, these policies aren’t enough. 

Let’s get into why. 

Here are four hidden reasons flexible working policies fail to support working parents, with guidance on how organisations can better support them moving forward.

❎ Company Culture Overrides Policy

Even with formalised flexible working policies in place, there can be hidden blockers to flexible working. This is because company culture often overrides policy in communicating to employees what they should and should not do.

Said another way: 

Your company policy will tell employees if they can work flexibly, but your company culture will tell employees if they should.

Ask your employees and they will tell you that ‘real’ company policy is written in the behaviours of the people who work there—particularly those in management and leadership positions.

If flexible working is offered to employees, yet people opting to work flexibly rarely get promoted, then working flexibly will not feel like a live option to employees. 

If managers hold working flexibly against employees in performance appraisals as evidence they are less committed to their work, then working flexibly (again) will not feel like an option.

A long-hours culture remains prevalent in the UK, and well-documented connections still exist between ‘presenteeism’ and promotion. Throw managerial discrepancy into the mix and you’ve got one complicated set of factors that can discourage parents from working flexibly, and unfairly disadvantage them when it comes to career progression. But, what can you do about it?

Actionable Takeaway: Do a culture audit. Survey your employees to find out what flexible working means to them, and how they see it being embedded in organisational culture. Ask working parents questions that are unique to their experiences as working parents, and uncover what additional support mechanisms they need.

💻 It’s a Short Fall From ‘Working Flexibly’ to ‘Always Working’

Advancements in technology have made it possible for many employees to work from anywhere, but…

It’s a short fall from ‘working flexibly’ to ‘always working.’ ☝️

Depending on company culture, management styles, and the example set by an organisation’s leadership, working parents may fall victim to ‘flexibility traps’ and find themselves working more hours outside of their contracts—and not just because they can. 

A survey of more than 2,500 working parents revealed that 4 out of 5 working parents were working unpaid overtime; of those, 60% reported doing so was ‘necessary’ to manage their workloads, while over half (52%) said working extra hours was a part of their organisation’s culture.

Parents Working Beyond Contract Hours Graphic

Additional statistics from the charity Working Families indicate that 44% of parents dip into work (for example, by checking emails) after returning home from work; and 73% of those parents felt this wasn’t a positive choice. Instead, parents report feelings that – ‘they had to do it’ – either to stay on top of their job (41%) or to keep their manager happy (32%). 

Without asking employees, managers cannot know whether flexible working policies and technology are truly supporting parents’ work-life balance, or if they are merely enabling parents to carry on with unmanageable workloads.

What can you do?

Actionable Takeaway: Ask employees how technology use across the organisation is impacting their work-life balance. Learn about individual working parents’ preferences when it comes to working flexibly, and monitor how flexible working arrangements are impacting workloads. Pay attention to where behaviours reinforce the value of ‘presenteeism’ or a long-hours work culture—especially across senior leadership and managers.

📉 Shared Parental Leave Has Low Participation Rates

Research from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called attention to the small percentage of eligible parents taking up shared parental leave; it’s around—brace yourself—1% (not a typo)

That’s right. In 2018, only 9,200 new parents took up shared parental leave out of the 900,000+ who were eligible to. A number of explanations as to why may include:

  • Paternity leave pay is still not on par with minimum wage, and most fathers cannot afford to live off £145 per week.
  • There are also well-founded fears surrounding demotion, dismissal, and not being able to secure flexibility in a new role. 

A 2019 report from PowWowNow revealed that half of UK fathers have experienced discrimination after taking parental leave—including verbal abuse, mockery, and demotion (which affected nearly 20% of returning fathers).

Social norms and communication strategies within organisations can influence fathers’ willingness to access flexible working or parental leave provisions, with 8 out of 10 fathers feeling affected by cultural stigma around taking time off to look after children, and 1 out of 2 fathers feeling pressured to return to work quickly after taking parental leave.

Fathers Affected By Cultural Stigma Graphic

What can you do?

Actionable Takeaway: Communicate with employees about their rights around family-friendly working. Research shows telling fathers that Shared Parental Leave is a legal right has positive effects on intentions to use it. Additionally, parents say that seeing senior leaders access these support inclines them to too.

⚖️ Promotion & Pay Still Aren’t Gender-Balanced

Gaps in earnings and promotion across working parents are strongly evidenced—particularly for mothers—who more frequently opt for flexible working (especially part-time) arrangements.

The impact this can have on career progression is clear as studies show parents working part-time have a mere 21% chance of receiving a promotion within the next three years, compared to full-time counterparts who boast a 45% chance of promotion. 

Additionally, the average mother waits two years longer for a promotion than the average father.

Mothers Waiting For Promotion Graphic

This is usually a consequence of choosing to work part-time, which more mothers choose to do than fathers—yet, a sizable percentage of working parents are putting in enough overtime to be considered full-time

Of parents contracted to work 35-36 hours per week, roughly one third are putting in an extra 7 hours per week—or the equivalent to a complete extra working day. 

Of parents contracted to work 25 hours per week, 30% are putting in enough extra hours to qualify as full time workers, clocking up around 35 hours per week, so why are part-time employees really being held back from promotion?

Parents Working Enough Overtime to Be Fulltime Graphic

Beyond gender discrimination, the second biggest driver of gender pay and promotion gaps are career interruptions, which can come in many forms, but commonly includes becoming a parent. 

Workplaces need to ensure that women and men have equal access to parental leave, flexible working options, and that neither are discouraged nor penalised for accessing them.

Challenging assumptions that full-time working is more valuable than part-time working is critical to creating a workplace culture where parents will not be unfairly disadvantaged. 

If your organisational culture values ‘present’ over ‘productive’ employees, or ‘full-time’ over ‘flexible’ working arrangements, then you are contributing (intentionally, or not) to the ever-widening gaps in pay and promotion for working parents.

To become aware of blind spots or discrepancies in how working mothers and fathers are being managed, how they experience work, or what additional support they might need, you have to ask the questions. 

And you have to ask questions in a way that parents feel safe providing honest answers.

Actionable Takeaway: Monitor uptake in shared parental leave and flexible working benefits across genders. Run targeted campaigns to communicate equal access and encourage uptake of parental leave policies. Give working parents the ability to share their honest experiences in confidence and provide managers training to combat gender bias and stereotypes in the workplace.

🗣️ Conclusion: Why Employee Feedback & Insight are Crucial

Flexible working policies are important, but they cannot support working parents on their own.   If you want to better support working parents, you must first ask them what support they need. 

Remember also that you cannot improve what you do not measure. Using data to understand whether or not flexible working policies are being exercised, encouraged, or discouraged by your people and your culture is absolutely crucial to creating a truly family-friendly workplace. 

Organisations need to consider how flexible working presents in their culture beyond sheer policy, and ensure that action is being taken to balance issues that are unique to working parents—such as children’s sickness, cost and practicality of child care, and more. 

Actively seeking feedback from working parents can help organisations to create a workplace culture where they can flourish both—as professionals—and as caregivers. 

So. . .

How can organisations best support working parents? Ask them. They’ll tell you.

Mikaila is the Marketing Exec. for Hive HR, handling all-things events, social media, and awards. In spare time, she enjoys reading and writing; mostly in the subjects of philosophy and spirituality. She’s also a massive social justice advocate in the workplace and beyond. (More amusingly, she once walked 9km to an airport in order to save on cab fare—securing the informal office title of “The Cheapest Woman Alive.”) Connect with Mikaila on LinkedIn

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