In June I officially returned to work after nine months of maternity leave. Whilst I’ve always been an advocate of flexible working, and have appreciated the considerable autonomy over our working hours that we have at Miller Research, it is only since becoming a parent that I have really valued this flexibility. Over the course of my first three months back, I have agreed the number of hours I will do each month, but I have been able to work these hours according to when my husband is available, to minimise the amount of time my daughter spends in nursery and to enable me to continue breastfeeding.
Transition back into work after maternity leave is tough and it is well known that many women and, increasingly, men struggle to juggle family demands with work commitments. In the UK, we have seen notable progress on the flexible working agenda over recent years. Furthermore, whilst this has traditionally been seen as a policy area aimed at supporting women to juggle work and childcare responsibilities, it is increasing becoming an issue for men too. Since June 2014 every employee in the UK has had the right to request flexible working (until then, this right was only available for carers, or people who look after children, who were, typically, women). Nonetheless, despite this policy change, differences in attitude towards men and women’s ability to balance work and childcare pervade. Research conducted by the Fawcett Society in 2016 into Parents, Work and Care – with an overall sample of 8,165 respondents – found that whilst 46% of those surveyed believed that when a woman has a child she becomes less committed to her job, only 11% believed a man becomes less committed after becoming a father.
Later in the same year, Wales-based charity Chwarae Teg conducted research into perceptions of modern working practices (MWP) amongst employers and employees in Wales. Some of the benefits to businesses identified through the research included increased staff satisfaction, as they have greater autonomy over their choice of hours and consequently feel more trusted, respected and valued by their employers; increased productivity, given that an employer’s focus is on work being undertaken, rather than time spent at work, enabling employees to focus on meeting deadlines and producing quality outputs; and reduced absenteeism as employees are able to manage their work and other responsibilities without having to take time off work. Chwarae Teg cite research conducted by the British Chambers of Commerce back in 2007, in which 58% of SMEs reported improvements in productivity after offering employees flexible working patterns or leave arrangements.
Much more recently (2016), a survey of employees working in the Department of Transport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that 54% claimed to be more productive as a result of flexible working arrangements. The benefits to the employees of MWP identified by Chwarae Teg included a better work-life balance brought about by a more agile and flexible work environment, which in turn enables a better home life, improved personal relationships and better health; and an increased ability to meeting the demands of caring responsibilities.
None of these benefits seem surprising, and I have certainly found that I am more productive during the fewer and more varied hours that I now work when I can concentrate on the task in hand, knowing that in the event that my daughter needs me, I am able to re-schedule my work accordingly.
The Chwarae Teg research also explored the challenges to MWP, including the obvious barrier of resistant attitudes amongst managers who are reluctant to give up the traditional five day working week. Other challenges included communication difficulties – in terms of a lack of clarity over when employees are working and able to be contacted by their colleagues – the loss of team atmosphere when people work remotely, and the risk of overworking, given that the increasing use of technology to facilitate MWP can place a greater expectation on employees to work outside of office hours.
Research conducted in 2016 on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Equality and Human Rights Commission into the prevalence and nature of pregnancy discrimination and disadvantage in the workplace really emphasises the scale of some of these challenges for flexible working. Around half of the 3,254 mothers surveyed (51%) who had a request for flexible working approved said they felt it resulted in negative consequences. Such consequences cited by mothers surveyed included feeling uncomfortable about asking for time off or additional flexibility (32%), receiving fewer opportunities than other colleagues at the same level (29%), receiving negative comments from their employer or colleagues (16%), feeling that their opinion was less valued (16%), and being given more junior tasks than previously (15%).
I am lucky to have experienced none of the above; however it is clear that there is still some way to go in removing all the pitfalls that people face in returning to work after becoming a parent. Even the fact that so much of the research in this area focuses on ‘mothers’ rather than ‘parent’ points to a latent attitude that such discrimination remains gender-orientated.