Caroline Gatrell: Does flexible working in the time of Covid-19 create a sense of entitlement?

Flexible working has perhaps never been more important than it is now. For employed parents of school age and pre-school age children seeking to manage their commitments to both work and family, whether they are working from home or out at work due to being designated essential workers, employer support for family friendly working is key.

For mothers this issue has long been characterised by balancing access to opportunities for flexible working, which might be more difficult for men to obtain, with the prospect of career barriers which are known to affect mothers more than other groups.

Yet for fathers, the reverse is true: fatherhood is known often to increase workplace advancement and to bring with it a wage premium. But this is off-set by men feeling a lack of entitlement to ask for flexible working. Even if family-friendly policies are advertised as being available to ‘parents’, line managers and fathers themselves tend to assume that such policies are in practice usually aimed at women. Fathers who do ask to work flexibly might be sometimes disappointed if requests are turned down by line managers who do not associate flexible hours with male work patterns.

If men are discouraged from working flexibly this is disadvantageous to parents and children. Where men are in single-sex relationships, the notion that men do not feel entitled to seek family-friendly support is especially difficult in these challenging times. In heterosexual relationships, if fathers are not able to access flexible working, then mothers face a double burden of trying to manage work and family commitments. And in blended or post-separation families, the opportunity for both parents to work flexibly may be imperative.

It will be important that employers check out and revise their policies, and that they also work to communicate with line managers, aiming to support both mothers and fathers in accessing flexible working, yet without detriment to career advancement for either.

It is also key for employers to offer such opportunities to other groups of workers, beyond those with pre-school and school age dependents; making opportunities fair for other employees who might need flexibility for other reasons, for example, elder care, or personal issues.

Covid-19 and its consequences may be with us for the long haul and the need to be creative and fast-moving in terms of flexible working opportunities for all is key.

Caroline Gatrell is professor of organisation studies at the University of Liverpool Management School.