Friday 19 July 2019 5:52 am

School's out for summer: Time for working parents to grapple with the childcare conundrum

Louisa Symington-Mills is founder and chief executive of Cityparents, the network of 16,000 professionals in London.

For many working parents, the lead-up to the summer school holidays can present some conflicting emotions.

Do you feel relief that the school routine, with its varying demands of homework, library books, and after-school clubs, can pause for a few weeks? 

For many parents, it’s a mix of joy at the thought of family time together on holiday, and anxiety about how they will cover six weeks or more of childcare-less time.

Even for the most organised among us, with the largest holiday quota, the most hands-on of grandparents, and the most sophisticated of scheduling spreadsheets, planning for the summer holidays can be a real headache. For everybody else, it’s pure panic. 

We know that working culture in the City is improving, and employers are becoming more flexible and accommodating for working parents trying to fit home responsibilities around their professional careers. 

But progress remains slow and unevenly distributed. And so – for the majority of City parents – there remains a real disconnect between the structure of their working weeks and annual leave quota, and school term dates and holidays. 

With dual-career couples becoming increasingly common, this mismatch presents a huge challenge in finding temporary childcare to fill the gaps. 

The kind of flexibility that workers really need extends to much more than fixed part-time hours or the occasional day working from home. 

Employees want real, elastic, flexibility – an approach that allows for fluid periods of hard work and time out. 

The real question is: can the City deliver this, while allowing for the high levels of productivity that businesses and clients expect?  

The ubiquitous use of mobile technology has certainly enabled the flexible revolution and is helping to combat cultural barriers, such as presenteeism, that were endemic in previous generations. Being able to leave the office early to pick up and spend time with children, and then finish the day’s work at a later, more convenient time, is common in many workplaces. 

But this total amalgamation of work and home life can easily verge on the unhealthy, and doesn’t fix the overriding problem that school and office schedules do not match.

We’re optimistic, though. While we often hear from City workers about their frustrations of rigid working hours and fixed locations, we also hear of forward-thinking companies. These employers allow staff to work more hours in busy periods and less in the quieter times, while others agree to workers “banking” their days off and using them in school holidays.

A flexible resourcing model like this has real benefits for employers, who can meet additional client demands when there is lots to do, and avoid unused capacity when work slows down. And of course, it allows employees to better address childcare needs or recharge after an intensive period of work.

Whatever the approach, our advice is to keep an open and honest, two-way dialogue about your needs and expectations. Progressive companies will get the best out of staff, while employees can focus on the joys of the school holidays, rather than the panic-driven childcare conundrum.