Flexible working can boost economy by £55 billion: 'This isn't a problem for knackered mums to fix'

Watch: Ministers to give workers immediate right to request flexible working

In the five years since she began campaigning for more flexible working in the UK, Anna Whitehouse has heard thousands of stories from people about the elusive work/life balance.

One, in particular, stands out.

"It was from a young human resources assistant who had just joined a big city bank," recalls Anna, who runs the Flex Appeal campaign via her popular @mother_pukka Instagram account. "She found a list of names on a spreadsheet of all the women who had just got married. At first, she assumed that the bank was going to send these women flowers, so she questioned it and was told that: ‘No, these are the women who aren’t going to be put up for promotion.’

"That’s the kind of stuff I hear every day – women rejected for promotion or made redundant while on maternity leave, talented people refused flexible hours because they have children or elderly parents to care for. It shocks me that we can still be doing this in 2021."

Read more: Employers need to embrace the right to request flexible working

Anna Whitehouse, aka 'Mother Pukka' on Instagram, campaigns for flexible working rights in the UK. (Getty Images)
Anna Whitehouse, aka 'Mother Pukka' on Instagram, campaigns for flexible working rights in the UK. (Getty Images)

The issue of how, when and where people work has never been more hotly debated. As business leaders, office landlords and Government ministers urge employees to get back to the office in the wake of the pandemic, many workers are – understandably – reluctant to return to traditional nine-to-five routines.

Anna, 40 and a married mother-of-two young daughters says she has always known the system is broken and if employers gave their workers a little more flexibility, it would benefit everyone. Now she has proof.

A new landmark report – Flexonomics – sponsored by construction giant Sir Robert McAlpine, has found that flexible working could boost the economy by £55 billion. And refusals to accommodate flexible working cost business £2 billion a year.

Read more: UK employees gain the right to request flexible working from day one

"This report was to counter those arguments of employers who keep saying that ‘young employees love office culture,’ and that people missed those ‘watercooler moments’ with their colleagues," says Anna.

"Our campaign has never been about stopping people working in the office if that is what they want. My flexible work Utopia would be a world where employees ebb and flow between HQ and home in a way that works for them and the business. We know that productivity increases tenfold when you give employees flexible work. And now – with this report – we know that there is no economic reason for not giving people the choice. In cold hard cash terms, it’s good for all. Shoving everyone back in the office so you can have a chat over the watercooler with Barry in accounts is a ridiculous notion."

Anna Whitehouse's 'flex appeal' campaign conducted landmark research with sponsor Sir Robert McAlpine and found that flexible working will boost the economy by £55 billion. (Supplied)
Anna Whitehouse's 'flex appeal' campaign conducted landmark research with sponsor Sir Robert McAlpine and found that flexible working will boost the economy by £55 billion. (Supplied)

Although Anna’s original campaign was born out of her own personal struggle with juggling work and childcare, she has been frustrated at times that people have seen her campaign as something only to benefit mothers.

"I was getting increasingly tired of comments such as: ‘She’s just fighting for privileged mummies who want more time with their Weetabix smattered children’ and I thought no, it’s not for women or knackered mums to fix – it’s for people and employers to fix. When Robert McAlpine saw those comments, they said they needed to offer more flexible working because the rate of male suicide on construction sites is huge. There were 1400 men in the industry who took their own lives between 2011 and 2014 and so this is also a male mental health issue. They have shown that if you can have flexible working in the construction industry, you can have it anywhere."

Read more: 6 reasons why we're not returning to the office

She admits that some companies are still reluctant to let go of the leash they have on their employees and want them in the office, no matter what. But some are making an effort - and reaping the rewards.

"Before the pandemic. public and private sector companies were saying to us: ‘Thanks but flexible working isn’t right for us’ but 24 hours later when lockdown was announced they had to log on and Zoom in or else they would have had to shut down," she says. "It was interesting to see what was possible when cold hard cash was at stake – the impossible suddenly seemed possible.

"Companies like Pursuit Marketing in Glasgow asked their employees what they would like to feel a bit more connected to their families and they said we’d like to do a four-day week on the same pay. They tried it for three months and then continued and in the first year the company doubled its profits to £5m.

"BT reduced their carbon footprint and saved £100m just by reducing office space and allowing more people to work from home. So, companies can do it for varying reasons, but they’ll be making a saving by not chaining people to their desks 9-5."

The response to the report has been incredibly positive with one of Anna’s posts about the issue receiving over a one million views on Linked In.

"The floodgates haven’t only opened but they have been bulldozed," she says. "We have the opportunity now to rebuild this working world to be one where people can work for them and their family’s needs.

"This isn’t only for people with families either. I spoke to one lady who worked at Virgin Media who said that she loves to take every Friday off so she can go to places like the V&A when there are no crowds. She prefers to work on Saturdays instead. It can be for whatever reason but when Boris Johnson says we need to Build Back Better, we also need to Build Back Differently and it will benefit us all."

Watch: The 'motherhood penalty' is holding back women leaders