Since the Covid-19 crisis the working practices of many have shifted dramatically, with one of the most profound changes being the mass shift to working from home. In January/February 2020, just 5.7% of workers worked from home. This rose to 43.1% in April 2020 and now stands at around 30%. This looks set to be a permanent change: 88% of those who worked at home during the first lockdown want to retain some capacity for doing so.
Though there are downsides and while it is not ideal for everyone, the increased flexibility afforded by working from home is obvious, with many reflecting that it has given them more time to balance working and domestic responsibilities, without any substantial loss of productivity. Many parents in particular have reflected on the positives and how this period has shown them a different way to manage life as a working family. Despite doing less childcare than mothers, fathers – many of whom have been working from home – nearly doubled the time they spend on childcare during the first lockdown.
Yet in all the focus on WFH, it is easy to forget that flexible working involves more than a shift in location – it can involve a shift in scheduling and hours too. While part-time is the most common option, it is also possible to use flexi-time, annualised hours, term-time-only working and job shares. There is little evidence that the flexibility of scheduling and work hours has increased to the same extent as WFH during the pandemic. Indeed, many parents have seen their time come under even more intense pressure during lockdown, with added childcare and home-schooling responsibilities alongside full-time working hours.
Our research, just published and based on survey data pre-Covid, suggests one reason for the lack of change in this area. While it is relatively normal for mothers to work reduced hours, very few fathers work part-time. Our research showed that relatively few fathers feel that reducing their hours in any way is an option. We found that while fathers feel that some forms of flexibility – such as working from home – are available to them, flexible options involving reducing hours were far less likely to be perceived as available.
This difference in perception between mothers and fathers was not explained by them working in different types of jobs, and thus is likely to be related to gendered norms and expectations regarding working hours. The perception that a reduction in hours or schedule change was not an option was even more pronounced among fathers working in non-professional occupations, those with lower levels of education and with a lack of trade union presence in their workplaces. This is despite the fact that the right to request flexible working is a universal legal entitlement.
This reminds us that in the discussion about flexibility and all the benefits it can afford to family life post-Covid, we should not neglect working hours and schedules. Indeed, the #FlexTheUK campaign by the charity Working Families is pushing for a permanent shift towards flexible working as the default, with flexible scheduling and reduced hours a key part of this. As we move through an economic crisis, reducing working hours has broader benefits, allowing more people to retain their jobs. It can also form part of wider changes, such as the shift towards a four-day week.
Evidence suggests that many men and fathers support this flexible shift and want to do more care work, but feel constrained by existing structures including their long and rigid working hours. Flexible hours and schedules would allow them to fulfil these preferences and in principle could be made available to a greater cross-section of workers, including those who can’t work from home and thus can’t informally create flexible scheduling for themselves. Our research suggests that campaigns should focus on changing perceptions among employers about what working hours and scheduling patterns are normal and acceptable for fathers, as well as on boosting awareness of the entitlement to request a broad range of flexible working options among fathers themselves.
Arguably, if reduced hours were normalised for everyone, this would also go some way to ending the stigma against part-time work and the career penalties faced by mothers who work. The Covid-19 crisis has shown us it is possible to make huge changes to working practices rapidly and at scale – let’s make hours reduction and flexible scheduling for fathers part of this conversation.
Dr Rose Cook is a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Institute for Women's Leadership, King's College London.