Prompted by International Men’s Day (19 November 2020), I reflected on my time working from home during the Covid-19 lockdown, what it means to me being both a father and a busy professional, and what changes are needed in the workplace to make it easier for men to achieve the work-family balance they and their children need to stay happy and healthy.

Taking stock of the last extraordinary six months, my sense is that there have been as many positives as negatives, and my hope is that these might be collectively funnelled into a cultural shift: principally, to make it the norm (rather than the ‘unprecedented’ exception) that dads are not simply forced by extreme circumstances such as a global pandemic, but actively encouraged to prioritise a healthier work-family balance. For me, it has become not just a matter of choice between the convenience of home and the ‘buzz’ of the office, but a matter of safety.

What do I mean by safety? Let me explain. On a recent early morning dog walk with my teenage daughter – something that has become a cherished staple of our lockdown days – it hit home how much closer we have become over the last few months. Before the pandemic, work took me away from home for long hours, and the impact of this hit home to me when I asked my daughter how she was feeling about me returning to my previous commute into the office. ‘I don’t want you to go. I want you to be at home – it feels safer.’

This statement had a profound impact on me, leading me to ponder deeply on the word ‘safe’. It has a strong physical connotation, of course: the avoidance of danger, illness and injury. There is also a financial aspect, the sense of economic stability that the pandemic has rocked, just as it has brought home to us all that we can never take our health for granted. But beyond that, there is a psychological connotation – one that strikes at the heart of traditional male and female roles.

Traditionally, women are often assumed to be the ones with primary responsibility for children, and this is reflected in workplace culture. For instance, 2 in 5 working dads have had their requests for flexible working refused (survey by Working Dads and Working Mums), and while shared parental leave is slowly becoming more widely offered, so far only 2% of eligible couples have chosen to take it up. Significant numbers of men have requested changes to their working hours in order to accommodate family life, only for those requests to be either denied or seen as ‘career limiting’.

During the pandemic, fathers have, of necessity, been at home far more. There may have been mixed reactions to this, but now that a more widespread return to ‘the office’ is beginning, what next? Do we simply go back to the way things were before? This brings me back to my daughter’s word: ‘safe’. As I see it, it works two ways. My daughter expressed that she feels safer when our whole family unit is together, but I have come to realise that it is the same for me.

When both my children were born, I had two weeks’ parental leave. Work commitments have required me to miss sports days and assemblies, parents’ evenings and open days. Weekends have become precious – and pressured – time, but living for the weekend is not a healthy state of mind for anyone. It has taken a pandemic for me to realise the true impact on my mental health of work taking me so much away from my family, and if this is true for me, might it not be true for many other fathers? If so, this means that a huge percentage of the workforce is struggling with that age-old conflict between work and home.

This conflict is nothing new, I hear you cry, and indeed we are familiar with women lamenting the challenges it causes both in terms of career progression and the guilt of leaving their children. But the same applies equally to men, only this is not always recognised. It should be. Whether male or female, we are each far more than the job we do, and isn’t it time we started integrating those different parts of ourselves more seamlessly?

If the lockdown period has proved one thing, surely it is that we are all far more flexible and adaptive than we might previously have imagined – more capable of managing our time, and our workload, able to achieve strong results even when we’re not chained to a desk nine to five. After all, it’s about output and results, not simply perception of our time and presence ‘in the office’. I strongly believe that a shift towards a more blended approach is needed in terms of work culture: changes of policy and practice to ensure that men and women are equally supported and recognised as working parents. Specifically:

‘workplace cultures need to be supportive of the range of types of flexible working. Men should be equally supported to reduce their hours as women, and ideally these types of arrangement should not prove more detrimental to one’s career. Developing inclusive and supportive organisational cultures in this respect may involve changing some deep-rooted attitudes. Yet qualitative research has found that attitudes to male workers reducing their hours can be very negative. We need to challenge such limiting traditional stereotypes about the gender division of labour if flexible working is to genuinely further gender equality in the workplace.’ CIPD Job Quality Index 2019

So what do we, and employers, need to do differently?

  • Normalise flexible working for dads

It has become more commonplace for working mothers to request, and be granted, flexible working hours to accommodate family life. We need to encourage men to do the same, and companies need to more actively promote parental leave for both fathers and mothers. Let’s also encourage male leaders to share their experiences of how they juggle this ‘conflict’ by integrating the different parts of their life without guilt or stigma. This would set a really positive example and give fathers ‘permission’ to take a more rounded approach to balancing work and family life.

  • Real conversations

I believe we need to think about the language we use in business. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have real conversations in our performance reviews, catch-ups and one-to-one meetings? Rather than simply talking in terms of functionality, ticking off lists of jobs, let’s recognise the bigger picture: the whole of our selves. Listening is a vastly underrated leadership skill, and ‘How are you feeling?’ is an underused question in business. Yet by humanising managerial relationships and actively recognising that we are all people, not just employees, I believe we will begin to erode the stressful divisions between ‘work’ and ‘life’, and facilitate a more harmonious balance for all of us.

  • Coaching

OK, I’m biased: as a qualified Executive, Leadership & Wellbeing Coach, I have studied and experienced the huge benefits of coaching. During the pandemic crisis, my belief in the value of coaching has strengthened even further.

Coaching is about helping to unlock self-awareness: to help us look at ourselves, to question and challenge our behaviours, and to feel empowered to make changes, fulfil our potential and achieve our goals – dreams even!  Being a working parent, our priorities can often become jumbled, overladen by the needs of our children. A change in work culture, as above, would certainly help; so too can coaching. Giving staff the space to talk through and figure out how to harmonise ‘work’ and ‘home’ can help improve focus and clarify goals.

A family-friendly work culture is, I believe, the way forward for all successful businesses, but that has to consciously and actively include fathers. Covid-19 has proved that we all work better, and achieve more, when we feel understood, valued, heard … and safe. I want to be around more for my daughter, my son and my family; I want to achieve success in my work. I don’t believe these goals should be mutually exclusive, and I hope in future all employers will make it a lot easier for this to be the case. The health, happiness and success of us all depends on it.