2020 was the year a lot of companies and organisations moved to remote and flexible working. COVID-19 meant that kitchen tables became makeshift desks, video calls replaced team meetings and many people had to juggle working with childcare and homeschooling. And just as we thought we might moving back to pre-pandemic life with the announcement of not one, but two vaccines, we have started the new year back in lockdown. The future is still unknown but it is clear now more than ever, that enabling employees to work flexibly is no longer a workplace benefit, it is a workplace necessity.

Over the past year the pressure on parents, in particular mothers, has been enormous. A leading journal reported that there has been a significant drop in the number of academic research papers submitted by women in 2020 and our own report that surveyed 100 women working in STEM across Scotland, demonstrated that despite 70% of those surveyed with children co- parenting, women felt they were taking on a disproportionate amount of child care responsibilities.

One woman told us:

 ‘I think that for many women, the assumption has been that the woman would take the most responsibility for childcare and home schooling. This partly makes sense as my husband earns more than me, and works full time, whereas I am only part time . . . but I think his work could have been more flexible with regards to working hours. Many of my female friends feel the same. 

And another said:

‘[Equate can] Help employers understand that mums are taking on a lot more at home (even vs dads) and therefore working days are constantly interrupted and drag on – we are exhausted’

There are hundreds of studies showing that flexible working improves productivity, reduces stress, improves mental and physical health and helps to address gender equality in the workplace. But it is important for employers to understand that flexible working does not just mean working from home. While we find ourselves in an extended period of lockdown, consideration should be given to what flexible working really means, and how to foster a positive culture around flexible working so both employers and employees get what they need.

What is flexible working?

Working flexibly means altering the working pattern of an employee to meet the needs of that individual. This may look like compressing hours, adjusting start and finish times, working from home, job sharing, implementing a flexitime policy or any other alternative way of working. This may mean that employees with the same or similar roles have different working patterns depending on their individual needs or preferences. Every employee is legally entitled to request flexible working if they have been working for their employer for 26 weeks and they have not made any changes to their working pattern in the last 12 months.

With a significant shift to home working, COVID-19 may mean that employees have now adopted different working patterns and even those who physically have to attend their workplace may have found a change to their work pattern, due to the need to socially distance in workplaces such as labs and on construction sites.

But moving solely to home working does not guarantee flexibility. Workplace culture has a significant impact on the success of a flexible working policy, regardless of where an employee is carrying out their work.

How to create a positive culture around flexible working.

1. Make flexible working flexible.

Some organisations may implement a flexible working policy for employees only to find that it’s not that flexible. If flexible working is set, for example, employees are able to work from either 8am – 4pm or 9 am – 5pm this is not a flexible working policy, these are two optional start times. It may be that some workplace settings do require fixed shift patterns but open discussions on whether any flexibility is available if required should be encouraged by both employer and employee.

 2. Ensure flexible working is available to everyone.

There is an assumption that flexible working is for women with children, and for those with desk based roles but flexible working should be available for everyone. Flexible working should be used to support all parents fulfil child care responsibilities but it also helps individuals manage other aspects of their lives such as their mental or physical health. There are examples of flexible working being successful in hospitals, labs and in construction settings, so flexible working does not need to be limited to certain roles.

3. Let employees know flexible working is an option.

This is especially vital during COVID-19, when peoples’ lives are constantly changing. If your company hasn’t embraced flexible working before, employees may not see it as an option for them. And with stereotypes around flexibility only being for women this can prevent men from requesting flexibility to their work day or week.

4. Focus on outcomes rather than hours worked.

Flexible working has proven to improve productivity. A number of women who responded to our Women in STEM: Impact of COVID-19 Report told us that they were working longer hours than previously worked. This was due to a number of reasons which included not having to physically leave the work place and also compensating for breaks taken during the day.

Since lockdown I work more hours, job spread over the whole week, juggling between work, house work and childcare.’

Working longer hours in response to stressful situations can be counterproductive and if sustained over a long period of time can negatively impact the mental and physical health of employees. The limitations we are experiencing due to COVID – 19 are not going anywhere quickly, so moving to an outcomes focused approach to work rather than focusing on the number of hours worked can help alleviate stress, improve productivity and create a positive culture around flexible working. Reassure employees that they do not need to constantly be available and trust that employees will get the work done.

5. Remember that we are in a pandemic

A key theme through our Women in STEM: Impact of COVID -19 Report was that despite employers saying they were willing to support employees through the challenges brought about by COVID-19, their actions did not always convey this. Women said they were expected by their employer to meet (and often exceed) targets or deliver the roll out of new projects without consideration to the changes in their own circumstances. Some were worried this may have a long term impact on their career if they were unable to meet these expectations. While it is important for organisations to continue operating, ensuring that the long term impact on an individuals career, particularly women, is not defined by this period is essential to ensure we do not turn back the dial on gender equality in the workplace.

One woman responded to our survey saying:

‘[I would like my employer to] Acknowledge the loss in working hours necessitated by childcare and home schooling obligations. The loss in working hours is ignored, parents with caring responsibilities have fallen behind [productivity] childless colleagues and this will not be adequately taken into account when considering performance targets.’

These are just some of the ways’ employers can support their employees during COVID – 19 through flexible working. If you are a woman in STEM or an employer please get in touch to find out how we can support you with flexible working and creating inclusive workplace cultures to make your organisation an employer of choice for women in STEM.

It is worth noting that there are many positive examples of how employers have responded to COVID-19. You can find these in our Women in STEM: Impact of COVID – 19 Report.  These include furloughing parents who have requested it; offering additional paid leave; facilitating flexible working and providing equipment for employees to work safely and effectively from home.