There is working from home during normal times when it is a conscious choice. And then there is the requirement to work from home during a pandemic while children are schooled online. The two are worlds apart, separated by children and choice. It is unrealistic to hope that the gulf can be bridged, which is one reason why many are happy to see their children returning to their classrooms. Nonetheless, through quality online learning there is some hope that the gulf can be narrowed.
This is the second of two articles focused on online learning during the pandemic. The focus here is on the implications for parents’ capacities to work. The first, titled Never let a good crisis go to waste – improving equity in schooling, was on the equity implications.
The question addressed in each is: if school-aged children are learning online, then how can we make the best of things? This article considers the contrasting impacts on the productive capacities of parents when working from home during normal times versus pandemic times, before turning to consider the role quality programs of online learning could play in minimising the negatives.
Impact of working from home on parents’ productive capacities
When parents work from home, there are a number of capacity-enhancing upsides. There are productivity improvements arising from the integration of new technologies learned, such as Zoom or MS Teams. Without the daily commute, they can either wake up refreshed after sleeping in longer or start the day earlier. Alternatively, they may choose to start, stop, and restart their days, depending on when they are most productive, given other demands on their time. These upsides hold regardless of whether it is normal or pandemic times.
In normal times there are two additional enhancements. An increased ability to concentrate due to the quiet of the home environment compared to the often time distracting noises and workplace conversations. And an ability to stretch out and organise one’s own workspace to maximise efficiencies.
Productive capacity ledger of working from home
Reduced capacity if supporting children’s online learning
Reduced productivity due to increased cognitive load of switching between work tasks and children’s schoolwork
Reduced productivity due to stress
Increased cognitive load due to noise from parents and children working and learning from home
Inefficiencies due to cluttered and cramped workspaces for parents and children.
Productivity improvements arising from the integration of new technologies learned
No daily commute
Flexibility to work when most productive
Increased ability to concentrate due to the relative quiet of the home environment
Ability to organise own workspace to maximise efficiencies.
One study which asked ‘Does working from home work?’ concluded emphatically ‘yes’. It estimated that working from home led to a 13% increase in performance. It also found greater work satisfaction and reduced attrition.
However, one of the authors of that study Professor Nicolas Bloom from Stanford University is now actively warning of the ‘Productivity pitfalls of working from home in the age of COVID-19’. This is because when working from home is not a choice and when children are at home, not only do the last two capacity enhancements turn negative, but a swathe of other factors come on to the negative side of the productive capacity ledger.
That is, we are no longer talking about a quiet, distraction-free space. When both parents and their children are at home, it can become crowded, cluttered, and noisy. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
The big capacity-sapping negative that comes on to the ledger is the time parents have spent during lockdown supporting their children to learn online. According to a national study, which surveyed 608 parents of primary-aged children in April and May 2020, 85% of parents spent at least a couple of hours each day supporting their children’s home learning. Of that figure, 30% of parents said they were dedicating their ‘whole day’.
Whether it is a couple of hours or a full day will depend on a range of factors. Young children, particularly those who have not mastered reading, require more support. As will vulnerable children, particularly those with special learning needs or behavioural challenges. Further, the more children there are in families the greater the demands on their parents. The final determinant is the quality of the online learning experience.
For those parents not devoting their entire day and attempting to juggle their work while supporting their children’s learning, what they are not doing is ‘multitasking’. Studies show that it is simply not possible to do both simultaneously. What they are actually doing is rapid-fire ‘micro-tasking’ – switching between one task and the other. There is a cognitive cost to all this switching. We take longer to perform two tasks if they are interspersed than when given the time to do each sequentially. Which is why this makes an appearance on the negative side of the productive capacity ledger when parents are required to work from home with children.
Add to this the stress, as parents’ worry about the mental wellbeing of their families working and learning in an online environment. Parents may worry that their children are falling behind. Or that their children’s mental wellbeing is suffering given the disruption to their routines and the disconnection from their teachers and friends.
The author of this article, Mary Clarke, shares her thoughts, along with some family vignettes, on working from home with kids during a pandemic.
Magnitude and distribution of impact
Of the 6 million families in Australia, 31% are couples with children under 15 and another 8% are single parent families with children under 15. In other words, almost two in every five families have young children. And, during the peak of lockdown, most of these will have found themselves thrust into a situation where they were working and learning together within the confines of their homes.
In a blog by the Grattan Institute focused on the situation in New South Wales, the authors pointed out that if one parent loses about half their normal working hours attending to the online schooling needs of their children, then paid work hours for the States’ couple families will contract by 25%. For single parent families, they would lose half a workday. The aggregate economy-wide estimated reduction in paid work hours sums to a large 6%.
Pre-crisis data that on average Australian women spend more time doing domestic activities and childcare than men, suggests the likelihood that this pattern was extended to the supervision of online schooling in couple families. Mid-crisis labour market data already hints at differential outcomes for men and women.
As the Australian economy continues to be impacted by the coronavirus, measured over a single month of lockdown, the 9.6% reduction in hours worked is more than double the 4.2% employment loss. The impact was greater for women than men. The total hours worked by women fell by 11.5%, with 5.3% exiting employment. While a whole host of factors will explain the falls and differentials and will form the focus of much future scholarly interrogation, the differential diversion of effort of mums and dads will likely be one. It risks undoing years of progress on gender equity in employment and business.
Minimising the impact through quality online learning
An important benefit of schools is that they free up parents’ time to work. When the school gates are shut, the alternative of online schooling is better than no schooling. The latter means either the full onus of educating our young falls on parents, or learning stops and parents have to find alternative ways to keep their children occupied. Either way, parents’ abilities to snatch an hour here and there throughout the day to work are seriously compromised. Their productive capacity ledgers are overweighted by the negatives.
While online schooling will never completely absolve parents of the responsibility to support their children’s learning, if done well it can minimise the top three negatives in their ledgers; it buys them back more time, cognitive capacity and peace of mind.
The reality was that when the school gates were shut the lived experiences of families of online learning were mixed. Some parents of children in elite schools glowed with the amount of synchronistic learning happening online, with how their engaged and happy children were performing, and at their own capacities to work while their children learn. While others found themselves distracted for much of the day by the tasks posted on their children’s schools’ online platforms, and worried about their children’s wellbeing as they are disconnected from teachers and friends.
The same national survey which found that most parents are spending at least a couple of hours a day supporting their children to learn at home also revealed that almost 70% of primary school aged children are largely being educated via asynchronous means. This is contrary to the view expressed that technology can and should bolster real-time interactions between students and teachers. To fuel students’ learning, it is of paramount importance that they have at least some direct interaction with their teachers and receive personalised input and feedback.
Teachers are the best teachers – a fact that many parents have rapidly come to appreciate. Teachers have deep content knowledge, possess the agility to adapt their pedagogical approaches to students and circumstances, provide feedback that continues learning, and know how to engage and motivate students, and facilitate their interactions with each other. In an online environment, the pedagogical, feedback, motivational and facilitated peer engagement roles of teachers are more, not less.
Parents should not feel compelled to take over the teaching. Not just because it keeps them from their work. But, to put it bluntly, because few are any good at it. The roles of parents are to provide space to learn and digital and other resources to support learning, have high expectations of their children’s ability to learn, talk to their children, support their emotional wellbeing during this difficult time, and, at most, act as a teacher’s aide.
If we get the balance right, then not only will students, teachers and parents be the better for it, so will the economy. Now is the time for schools and systems supported by governments to provide the infrastructure, training and support necessary to enable teachers to deliver quality online learning experiences.
About the author
Mary Clarke is the founder and principal of DXP Consulting, and the lead author of the 2020 Parents Report Card. She has headed the education policy function for a professional body, and executive and senior public service economic and policy roles. Mary holds an Executive Masters in Public Administration and an Honours degree in Economics.