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Avoiding the parenting penalty

Flexible working

Avoiding the parenting penalty – take a flexible approach to ensure working parents and carers can be at their best.

Charity and non-profit managers know that supporting working parents and carers makes sense. The majority of people working in the voluntary sector are women[1] and being a working parent or carer is on the rise too[2]. Therefore, a large portion of the people in your organisation are likely to need to balance work with family life and other responsibilities. Where there is no provision made for this, managing your workload alongside caring for your loved ones can be a real headache. Yet flexible working and homeworking has remained relatively low. Why is this? Are we still tied to the 9-5 pattern because it actually works? Are we more productive with restrictive working hours? Or are we just stuck with a concept that we inherited decades ago? It’s likely to be the latter, given the numerous global studies that show how flexible working reduces sick leave, increases motivation and productivity[3].

2020 changed things dramatically

Parenting while working

Since March 2020, parents in the UK had the new conundrum of juggling home-working with home-schooling. Managers had to find new ways to organise work so their teams could ‘get through this’ as lockdown set in. For some managers this was a great opportunity to finally get home-working and flexible hours off the ground. For others, reviewing work patterns, redeployment and re-training has been essential to create more flexible ways to deliver services. But for some, this was a painful transition. ‘This must be super tough for all those micro-managers out there being forced to let go’ was one of a number of tweets on the topic we saw in mid-March.

Now things are changing again

Open for Business

Offices are opening, and so are schools. Those micro-managers might be delighted and thinking it’s time to get everyone ‘back’ and ‘being normal’ again. Sadly for them, it’s likely they will be disappointed. Many people have become used to working at home, and want to keep some element of flexiblity in their working arrangements. For others, coming back to an office will be essential for wellbeing as well as productivity. For managers and leaders this means there is a need for a longer-term view to planning work. Full-time on-site working will always be a challenge for parents and carers. In turn, this flies in the face of equality and inclusion: working parents and carers who are not supported will face career clashes and pay a penalty in terms of their career, their development and even their wages.

Here are five actions managers can take to avoid this conundrum:

1. Results not hours, impact not place

Productivity is not a measure of how many things get ticked off the list or where you sit when you do them. Rather productivity should be about the impact the work has. Focus your performance management practices on the results you expect people to achieve, and the ways in which you see them developing. Do not measure people simply on being present and the hours you expect them to put in. Of course, flexible hours can help – allowing people to work at different times of day, part time working, and even annualised hours can be hugely beneficial to provide structure to work and manage expectations on all sides. But whatever pattern someone works and where they are located, ask what would success look like? How can we measure impact? What is a realistic achievement?

2. Listen, don’t assume

Don’t make the mistake of lumping all parents and carers into one category. Everyone has different needs and different motivations – just as they have different skills and abilities. Take time to listen to what would work for each person and what support they actually want. Ask questions to help shape planning: what works with your childcare / caring provision? How does this vary over the year? How can we spot problems before they become an issue? 

3. Redefine professionalism

Distractions at home

Leaving home at the door is simply not an option now. Home is the door, and kids can open doors. You may have to accept interruptions in zoom meetings, all manner of background noises and moments of distraction. None of this makes anyone less professional – it’s just that life is life and we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. People will need to leave your video call if there is a problem in another room just as they would need to leave the office in the case of a home emergency. Professionalism is about how you get the job done, and that includes how you manage the unexpected and support others to manage the unexpected. Try asking do you need a break, shall we come back to this later? Is there a better time of day for you? What other support can I or the team give you?

4. Review, test, review

Supporting the needs of everyone in your team is going to take some creative thinking. And whenever we try new things, it’s a good idea to keep them under review. Things change, and whatever arrangements you put in place today, they are likely going to need to change again in the future. Keep asking: is this still working for you? What is going well? What is not going so well and how can we change that?

5. Recognise and celebrate value

Parents and carers can often face negative assumptions and perceptions from others in their team or organisation – for example assuming part-time working means part-time commitment to doing a great job. The assumption here is that putting in hours equates to delivering outcomes. Which is not realistic – as the converse can also be true: people put in long hours and have little to show for it. These kinds of biases and assumptions can lead to a long-term tax on careers, with lack of opportunities for development and promotion. As a manager you can combat negative assumptions and perceptions that others may hold. Ensure you are recognising and promoting the successes people achieve. Highlight the positive impacts their work is having so they and the rest of the team see the value they bring to the table. Look to create a culture of understanding and support where the whole team comes together to celebrate one another. Address negative behaviours from team meetings, and challenge assumptions when you see or hear them. Ask the team; How can we support each other better? What value does each person bring to the team? Ask yourself: What am I doing to ensure that successes are being recognised?

There is no one way to help people to do well in their work. But ignoring their personal circumstances or expecting everyone to be able to commit the same time and energy to work is just not realistic. With a bit of creativity and well-placed trust you can make flexibility work for your team, and in turn your team will do great work.

Find out more

If you need further ideas on how to support your teams now working at a distance, take a look at our Managing at a Distance programme or contact us online.


[1] The majority of the voluntary sector workforce are women, with men making up a third of the total workforce in June 2018. Data taken from this NCVO report on workforce demographics.

[2] ONS figures show that in April to June 2019, 3 in 4 mothers with dependent children (75.1%) were in work in the UK –

[3] BBC article – Why Finland leads the world in flexible work. Contains links to reports on recent studies around flexible working.

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Laura Slater

About Laura Slater

Laura specialises in project governance and management, as well as leadership and management development. Laura has 8 years’ experience in the charity sector, in particular developing and delivering regional...