“Death of hybrid work” could force working mums out of the workforce

Economic inactivity rates are consistently higher for women, causing concerns about how the return-to-office debate might exacerbate gender inequality in the workplace.

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Helena Young

As a growing number of employers force employees to return to the office and say goodbye to flexible work arrangements, concerns are being raised about how the policy change might impact working mothers.

Flexible working is known to positively impact work-life balance. For working parents struggling to balance caregiving alongside work commitments, it has been a godsend post-COVID – particularly for mums, who tend to take on more childcare duties than dads.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows that the average employment rate for mothers between the ages of 16 and 49 stands at only 67%, a clear discrepancy compared to the 74% employment rate among women without dependents.

Now, in light of findings from the Talent Index that a staggering 58% of UK workers have returned to full-time office work, experts are warning that the loss of the popular employee benefit could impact levels of economic activity amongst working mothers.

Official data highlights gender disparity amongst working parents

According to the most recent data from the UK’s labour market statistics, economic inactivity rates are consistently much higher for working mothers than they are for working fathers.

From March to May 2023, the percentage of women aged 16-64 who were not in work due to family or household commitments was 26.6%. In comparison, the number of men not working for this reason was 6.4%.

These findings underline the challenges faced by women in accessing flexible employment opportunities that align with their family responsibilities, emphasising the urgent need to address gender inequality in the workforce.

Exacerbating the problem has been the ongoing childcare crisis. The sector has been drastically underfunded, causing the number of providers in the UK to drop by 4,000 between 2021 and 2022. Naturally, nursery and childminder fees have skyrocketed.

As a result, many women with dependents have been relying on flexible working, such as part-time work or flexitime, to fit time in for caregiving.

In Startups’ exclusive survey on employee attitudes to the four-day week, we asked 500 company employees as part of a representative sample what they would do with their extra day off if their company offered a four-day week.

12% more women than men at director-level said they would use a four-day working week to save money on childcare costs.

Return to office could scupper progress on gender equality

Despite remaining higher than men’s, ONS data shows that the economic inactivity rate amongst working mothers has been steadily diminishing over time.

When records began in 1971, 44.5% of women were stay-at-home mothers. Twenty years ago, the figure had dropped to 30%. Today, it has fallen further still, hovering at an average of 25%.

Ideally, the percentage will continue improving as the number of men and women who are off work due to childcare falls to an equal level. However, there is a genuine threat that the shift back to in-office work and subsequent reduction in flexibility could stall progress.

Hybrid and homeworking gave working parents increased autonomy in managing work and family responsibilities – particularly for new mothers returning from maternity leave.

An enforced return to traditional office environments could limit their ability to effectively balance these responsibilities.

With childcare costs all but unaffordable, it’s likely that mothers will be most impacted. According to an AIG study, women are nearly three times more likely to have to reduce their hours to be able to stay home and look after children.

How flexible working policies support a diverse workforce

It’s not just mums who want flexible working to stay. Workers across the UK have already signalled their discontent with the reported ‘death’ of hybrid and remote working policies.

Startups recently reported that, of the company employees who are currently looking for a new role, 64% are doing so after being told to return to full-time office work. In fact, policies on flexible working topped salary in a list of the most sought-after workplace benefits.

Managers shouldn’t be surprised by the hold that flexible working has over their workforce. This is a policy with something for everyone – designing a flexible environment means you allow individuals to find the work pattern that best meets their needs.

This kind of adaptability can do wonders to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, as the company won’t be taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to supporting staff.

Flexible working can also support employees to manage disability and long-term health conditions, preventing them from leaving the workforce. Specific perks, like a phased retirement, can also help older workers by helping them gradually reduce their hours.

And of course, it can ensure working mothers won’t have to choose between their personal and professional commitments.

Melissa Gauge, founder of virtual assistant SpareMyTime which analysed the data, says: “It’s about time that we recognise that motherhood is not a hindrance to professional growth, but rather an asset that brings unique skills and perspectives to the table.

“By embracing and supporting working parents, we not only tap into a vast pool of talent but promote a more inclusive and diverse work environment.”

SMEs shouldn’t say goodbye to flexible work just yet, as the government’s Flexible Working Bill will become law later this year. Find out what it means for your business.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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