Thought Leadership

‘Think of it as inclusive working not flexible working.’

Creativebrief’s Editorial Director, Nicola Kemp sits down with Anna Whitehouse, Founder at Mother Pukka at the UK Creative Festival to discuss the future of flexible working.

Georgie Moreton

Assistant Editor, BITE

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The world has an equality issue. The gender pay gap is not a well-kept secret, yet, a 2022 report from the World Economic Forum revealed that at the current rate of progress we would have to wait 132 years until we reach true gender parity. This pace of change is simply not good enough. When you consider that flexible working is the number one tool to close that gap; progressive brands cannot afford to ignore the opportunity to reshape the workplace for the better.

At this year’s UK Creative Festival, Creativebrief’s Editorial Director, Nicola Kemp sat down with Anna Whitehouse, Founder at Mother Pukka and #FlexAppeal campaigner,  to discuss how to accelerate this pace and make strides toward equality in a session named; ‘Don’t mind the gap, close it.’

Whitehouse successfully runs the #FlexAppeal campaign which rallied for flexible working for everyone; she is relentless in the pursuit of progress and spurred on by the simple fact that she refuses to let her daughters fall victim to the system and suffer the same fall and inflexibility which she faced in her own career.

Culturally what I’m breaking down, not single-handedly but with many others, is that the 9-5 was set up in the industrial revolution when men went out and got the bacon and women cooked it. Culturally that is not relevant anymore

Anna Whitehouse, Founder at Mother Pukka and #FlexAppeal campaigner

Beyond her own personal story, Whitehouse is passionate about championing the next generation. Where the pandemic provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reflect, she believes that we must now reshape the workplace in a way that enables the next generation to thrive. “Pre-pandemic I was speaking to a lot of brands who said they love what you do but it won’t work for us. When that lockdown happened it was interesting to see what was indeed possible when cold hard cash was at stake.” explained Whitehouse. The pandemic proved that companies could no longer take the head-in-the-sand approach to flexibility. 

Yet, the post-pandemic approach to flexibility still has its flaws, Anna explains that people are often split into two camps. She says:  “It’s either back to the water cooler or strapped to your workstation at home. But those two extremes aren’t where people sit. People sit in the middle.”

“We have a government that says they want to build back better. But all we want is to build back differently,” she adds. When speaking with a range of organisations from working families to trades union congress, the common thread is that the workplace needs to be built differently and in a way that works for individuals from all walks of life.

“Culturally what I’m breaking down, not single-handedly but with many others is that the 9-5 was set up in the industrial revolution when men went out and got the bacon and women cooked it. Culturally that is not relevant anymore,” explains Whitehouse. The old ways of working no longer suit what society is today and many of the barriers we thought existed around flexibility exist only in our heads.

Engaging the unengaged

Conversations around building a more flexible workplace are often predominantly attended by women, yet women are already subject to enough external existing pressures and creating a more flexible workplace is in everybody’s best interest. Whitehouse explains that often those most resistant to creating a new, more flexible workplace are those with traditional vested interests in that they have office space to fill. “Eradicate that kind of white noise,” she says.

Whitehouse shares the practical advice that “If you’re in that pivotal junction seeking justified flexibility, suggest to your HR department to join the Equality and Human Rights Commissions Working Forward Pledge; this states a belief in equality in the workplace, in flexibility being the key and a genuine belief and transparency that your brand logo is on a manifesto for change.” 

Holding your company to account and ensuring wider involvement is what enables change. Anna points to the example of HSBC which launched an internal podcast on flexible working so that managers could listen to the voices of employees and external speakers. The podcast encourages discourse and brings in the company to help create a more productive way of working that suits its employees.

Building an inclusive future

In the search to retain and attract the best talent, Whitehouse says that: “The key word is inclusion. Think of it as inclusive working not flexible working.” She explains that this isn’t just about talent, it's also about money. She says: “The biggest report of its kind front the Peterson Institute 92 countries, 2842 businesses if you have 30% or more women at the top, you make more money.”

“Do you want to include at the table a variety of individuals from all walks of life who can understand the nuances and needs of your consumer?” she asks businesses. From accessible offices to parental leave for all and flexible work for everyone, not just some. Creating an inclusive and flexible working environment is not just a nice to have, its business crucial.

Managers can’t have a blanket approach for everyone. Looking at individual needs is not a pandering or snowflake conversation

Anna Whitehouse, Founder at Mother Pukka and #FlexAppeal campaigner

Closing the gap

“Pleasure gap, the gender pay gap, the pensions gap. There’s a lot of gaps and allyship is the only way through.” Says Anna on how to push forward and progress. “You say that and there’s a sigh, the weight of responsibility but I piped up not for me but for my daughters. Think beyond your own needs.”

The need for emotional intelligence in the workplace is crucial. “Managers can’t have a blanket approach for everyone. Looking at individual needs is not a pandering or snowflake conversation. These are words often used to dismiss the real need to recognise mother nature's biggest task is having, raising a child or losing child and losing ability to have a child.”

There are key biological differences that lead to women being impacted in the workplace. “Hormonally going through pregnancy does have a huge impact, growing a human is an extraordinary task,” she explains.  

Beyond that women who may suffer from miscarriage or infertility are forced to suffer in silence in the workplace often for fear that when an employer knows they are trying to get pregnant they may stifle progression.”

She continues; “Managers need EQ, they can lead on a case-by-case basis. No one person's experience is the same as the next. Often hear ‘we can't give flexibility to you because it will open the floodgates to everyone’ but this is not the case.”

There may not be a one size fits all solution to closing the gap but when people work together and actively listen to one another, the gap gets smaller. Managers need to start conversations and get to know their teams to create a workplace that works, which will ultimately lead to better productivity, better balance and happier people. Creating space to talk, understanding one another better, active listening and holding people to account is what will close the gap and push progression forward.