Daddy day care: new-look flexible work options, thanks to pandemic

By Annabel Mansfield

Father and Daughter

The COVID-19 pandemic is putting flexible work on the table for thousands of fathers as they prove that working from home can be just as viable as working in a traditional office environment.

It’s a welcome move for many fathers, who despite wanting to be more involved in caring for their children, continue to face barriers when it comes to arranging flexible work.

UniSA researcher with the Centre for Workplace ExcellenceDr Ashlee Borgkvist, says the working from home phenomenon is providing significant benefits for dads to play and engage with their families, while also delivering clear evidence for employers that it can work.

“In Australia, most dads tend to work full-time, limiting the time they can spend with their families. Now, as so many businesses have shifted to work-from-home scenarios, the current norm is changing, with everyone – children, families and workplaces – realising the benefits,” Dr Borgkvist says.

“Until now, most Australian fathers have not used flexible or part-time work arrangements, despite these options being available to them through their employer.

“The reasons why are multifaceted, often linked to men’s perceptions of the ideal worker, workplace cultures, and long-held constructions of masculinity.

“But ideas of what comprises an ideal worker or good workplace culture will inevitably be challenged because of COVID-19, as all tiers of workers – managers and executives alike – embrace social isolation measures.

“It’s now that fathers will be able to show how working from home can be as productive, if not more so, than working in an office. And in turn, boost their confidence that working at home is an acceptable and possible workplace construct.”

While family employment patterns have shifted over the past 40 years, from models of the ‘breadwinning’ father and the stay-at-home mother, the shift has seen an increase in mothers’ employment (generally part-time) while remaining the primary caregiver, but little change in fathers’ employment.  

Gender imbalances occur in working hours and working arrangements, with fathers of children under 12 years of age working an average of 40-46 hours a week, in comparison to mothers who work around 28 hours a week.

Similarly, most fathers are in full-time work, with less than a third taking advantage of any available flexible work arrangements, and fewer than 10 per cent on part-time work arrangements.

“Broader societal ideas that mothers should be responsible for caregiving in families, continue to seep into the organisational context and can influence cultural support for men’s use of flexibility, as well as how policies are discussed, offered, and implemented by supervisors and the organisation as a whole,” Dr Borgkvist says.

“In my research, many fathers said that they weren’t sure of workplace policies or options and entitlements for flexible work … so there’s certainly a need for transparency within organisations because this can be a real barrier to requesting flexible work in the first place.

“Concerningly, we’ve also seen very little movement among Australian fathers to work more flexibly, with statistics showing barely any growth over the past 10 years.

“As a society, we need to change this; not only because it will help balance work and family responsibilities, but it will also enable men and women to contribute more equally.

“As research has shown time and time again, a good work-life balance delivers a more productive and efficient workforce.

“We need to see more organisations model and support flexible working arrangements for dads which will help build a positive and supportive culture for men who might want to use flexibility. We need open communications and transparent workplace policies about flexible work for all; and we need dads to step up and challenge organisational and societal norms.

“COVID-19 might have been the catalyst for forced workplace flexibility, but the lessons we take from this unprecedented time could be extraordinarily positive.”

Dr Borgkvist’s work on fathers and flexibility is based on her doctoral research undertaken at the University of Adelaide and published in Gender, Work and Organisation.