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*All images by Sarah Tobin
Last week, The bonnie mob founder Tracey Samuel met Anna Whitehouse (@mother_pukka) for lunch at the very Instagram-friendly restaurant Bronte. The talented Brighton-based photographer and mum Sarah Tobin also joined the pair.
Anna lives in East London with her husband Matt (@papa_pukka) and their daughter Mae. The couple are expecting their second baby this summer.
Anna ditched the 9-5 last year when she left her job as Senior Copywriter at L’Oréal. She’s since been taking on the inflexible world of working with her brilliant #FlexAppeal campaign – something that is close to Tracey’s heart as a mother and also as a small business owner. The bonnie mob has always employed parents and they all have the support to work flexibly.
From Tracey discovering that she was a bit of a pioneer for flexible working back in her days at Sonia Rykiel 15 years ago; to Anna telling us why we need to go out there and smash a few glass ceilings… find out what they chatted about over feta & butternut squash samosas, roasted rare beef and some delicious (and bump-friendly) mocktails below…
ON WHAT FLEX APPEAL IS ALL ABOUT…
ANNA WHITEHOUSE: Everybody has an experience of trying to put food on the table and keep humans alive, and you can’t really get away from that unless you are very, very lucky and that’s a really small percentage. Most of us have to work to live and survive.
But that archaic ‘bums on seats’ mentality actually doesn’t have a place - not just with parents in the workforce, but on a bigger level. It’s a people issue and what we actually do is champion what other people are doing, so while it’s very easy to say it’s our flexible campaign, it’s not, we’re just a voice and a channel for all the legislation and everything that’s going out there and trying to communicate that in a way in a way that’s a bit more accessible.
But really the focus is obviously personal - redefining how people see keeping a human alive in relation to work.
TRACEY SAMUEL: I did it, 15 years ago when I was at Sonia Rykiel. I lived [in Paris] full time for 5 years. Gareth [my husband] was here, so we were doing this long distance thing and I just got to the point where I was thinking ‘I can’t do this anymore’, so I put together a proper presentation (this was pre PowerPoint - it was all paper), I just went to them and said ‘I’ll be more productive, I’ll be happier, I’ll be able to nip up to London and check out all the new museums, (everyone in Paris was seeing the same stuff - so I could come in with a different aspect), you won’t know any different, I’ll give you the same level of support, but I’ll fly in on a Monday and I’ll leave on Thursday and if it’s show time I’ll stay for the weekend, whatever, but hopefully we can make this work’. I hadn’t really thought about it before, I just thought it was going freelance, but it wasn’t.
We’d do a review every season, and I’d ask the question ‘well how many jumpers did you sell when I was here full time, and how many did we sell this season, well I think we’re up 10%, I think that’s a good thing?’ I had the figures to support it. And I was much happier, I was much more productive.
SARAH TOBIN: I think by being given the opportunity to do it, you put more effort in. I’ve only got a limited amount of time a day to work, so I’m just like a powerhouse. You know you’ve got a lot to do, so you kind of crack on, whereas before, you sit in the office, people come over for tea, chat and everything - and you’re just like ‘I can’t’.
TS: Definitely, dealing with French bureaucracy, I was like ‘just get me out of there and let me do my job!’ [laughs] ‘I’m going to be way more productive’, but what it took was the courage to go to them with that, because I thought ‘I could present this and they’d be like be on your bike’ so it was a real big moment - but it took me 6 months to pluck up the courage to do it.
AW: That’s amazing!
ON MUMS RETURNING TO WORK AFTER HAVING KIDS…
TS: When I got pregnant with Alice, probably I could have fought harder to go back, but I’d got to the point in my career where I was thinking ‘I’ve kind of done this now and it’s wearing a bit thin’, the whole partying, the whole fashion thing. I think probably my brain was telling me something but I did a bit of ‘oh well its going to be too difficult to go back and they’re being a bit difficult about it, just give up’.
At the time my husband started a business and that took off, so it meant we could flip roles, I took a backseat and he took over and it worked naturally and we started what was back then Bonnie Baby, as a way to keep me busy, because I knew I’d go a bit bonkers if I didn’t do something. And it’s grown with that really because I suppose I’ve always been aware of being flexible.
AW: Have you heard of the Working Forward pledge? It was launched by the European Human Rights committee in September last year. Mae and I went to the House of Commons ages ago, that was the beginning of this and it was to meet with Caroline Dinenage, who is the MP for equality and gender issues and equality and also for childcare.
She pushed this really simple pledge which was under the Working Forward pledge, which I’ll explain a bit about - 86% of businesses across the UK (and this was a really intense study that they did), truly believe they offer flexible working and work flexibly. So already there’s an imbalance – the amount of friends I’m talking to - it just doesn’t stack up.
And in the same study 76% of women who were interviewed, either lost their job on maternity, were made redundant on maternity (because they’re not there - so they’re the easiest ones to go) and / or were discriminated against as mothers, so couldn’t work flexibly, flexibility wasn’t even considered or they literally had to leave.
So Caroline launched into the discussion with that and she said ‘even 10 years go when I had my children, it was better than it is now’. We’re regressing, which I think was the most shocking thing - that we’re really going backwards.
TS: When Alice started school, going into the playground and chatting to mums who I’d assumed were all trudging away and you’d get chatting and hear ‘oh yeah I used to be the head of advertising at Saatchi’ or I did this or I did that. And I thought ‘for god’s sake! There’s such a pool of talent on one little square of tarmac, I need to tap into that!’.
I’d meet a mum and ask ‘what did you do before? Do you fancy coming in a couple of hours a week for a change of scenery?’, ‘I can’t offer you massive wages, but we could grow this into something that works for both of us’.
We’ve got a nice team of people now. We have Nina who runs the all the customer care and website orders, we’ve gone from seeing her have 2 toddlers to her second child going off to school, we’ve been waiting for that day where she comes and says ‘I want to do a bit more’ – so it’s been naturally happening, we grow and she grows!
It means that you get happier people and you get people that invest in you as well as the business. I’m not naive, I know there will be that winter bug that goes round and everybody calls in sick because their kids are sick, but then they then come in and cover some extra hours later as they know it’s a struggle.
AW: You guys understand each other’s mentality - they’re not just bunking off work. And when you give that flexibility even when the chips are down, it comes back in abundance in other ways. It manifests itself in loyalty and in further trust and it comes back in ways that are seemingly unquantifiable.
TS: You get more commitment - when they are there, they’re on it, there’s no chatting, there’s no messing about.
AW: There’s no Facebook stalking!
TS: No, there’s no shopping going on.
TS: The people who are working flexibly, I get above and beyond what I should get from them. It’s about treating people a bit more like family rather than a number.
ON MAKING FLEXIBLE WORKING BENEFIT BOTH THE BUSINESS AND THE EMPLOYEE…
AW: I speak to a lot of companies, not just individuals, and it’s a business issue, you’ve got to have the business in mind whenever you’re going through this, it’s not just something where you can just go ‘yeah I want flexible working, give it to me’, it’s got to benefit the business.
ST: Yeah - you have to deliver.
AW: While it’s obviously going to benefit you, but that’s the bit that gets missed out a lot, there’s a lot of ‘have minge will whinge’ as Matt [@papa_pukka] says [laughs], but there’s a lot of people feeling that it’s an entitlement and it’s actually not. It actually comes down to both of you creating a relationship where you’re actually trusted enough and are confident enough to go ‘I’m working from home on a Friday so you can get more out of me because of these reasons’ and if they really need to push you to do it, you could create a little presentation to say ‘these are the reasons why, this is what you’ll get from me, I’ll be happier and more productive’.
TS: I think that’s maybe the difference as well, the people that haven’t done flexible working any favours and are seeing it as taking the piss a bit. Whoever does it has to realise that they’re setting a precedent and it’s really all eyes on them to make it work, to set the standards for their colleagues.
AW: It’s huge and that’s why we’re in a really tricky place, because actually employers can abuse that as well, by saying ‘you’ve got to make this work Anna’.
ST: And that can lead to stress and sick leave. It shouldn’t come with that added pressure.
AW: It has to work within the hours. That person shouldn’t be expected to then log on again in the evening for 4 hours. What the Dutch do so well is that they draw the line in the sand. When I was working at Tommy Hilfiger, a massive company, we’d get an email saying we need that conference call at 7pm, our manager would then say ‘no, no the Dutch are going home, we’ll talk to you in the morning’. How simple is it, who’s going to die? No one. And that’s the mentality – having someone who has your back. It’s about putting the human over the business for the benefit of the business.
ON FLEXIBLE WORKING FOR BOTH MUMS AND DADS AND HAVING THE CONFIDENCE TO ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT…
AW: You have to own it and that’s quite hard with certain companies actually.
TS: This is Women’s March level, isn’t it, let’s keep the women under confident, and then we don’t have an issue!
AW: [Laughs], and then men as well. The word that nobody can really say without feeling uncomfortable is ‘confidence’ and that’s actually the key to absolutely all of this.
It’s about pushing. The stat that Matt and I found most interesting was that 70% of female requests for reduced hours (any form of flexible working request) does actually go through. But it’s not how they wanted it, so it’s seen as being declined maybe. But companies are open to compressed hours - ‘ok come in half and hour later’ - we’re not talking about drastic flexibility. But they are being accepted for women, but they absolutely categorically aren’t for men. So the number, I think it was 6/10 were accepted for women and 2/10 were accepted for men.
Women should be as comfortable at the lectern as they are in the kitchen - so should men. It’s a confidence issue. And I underestimate my own husband and the other men in my life, I think that they are these boulders who carry so much and have an ability to break through so much, but actually deep down there are similar confidence parallels, we just articulate it more.
With men it has to be a bit more tangible, with us it’s actually a bit more internal, like ‘I’ve had a good conversation with somebody I’ve got a bit more confidence, I feel a bit uplifted’ we boost our confidence via communicating and talking.
Matt’s complete confidence is tied to that monetary fact and figure at the end of every month - which is where it needs to be broken down, because the more that I’m starting to earn, the more our confidence together is growing and the more we’re literally paving over the cracks naturally, without actually having to say anything and I never thought it would be possible.
It’s changed our whole relationship, and not something that I ever intended with this, but we are side-by-side, we’re writing a book together, where he writes one chapter, I write the next, and that isn’t just equality, that’s just being with a mate and fielding things. I think we need to talk more and boost confidence with the men in own homes and lives.
And women, we know what we need to do. We know the issues, we’re out marching, shouting, hollering. You know, we’ve got the signs, we’ve gone with that. Actually if a guy steps up and says something, there’s a feeling that it’s not right, it’s like there’s such a surge of feminist chanting going on, that it’s like ‘will I be hit over the head with a sock?’ or something, I just don’t know, and I think that it’s confidence in men and women.
ST: We need a men’s march now, to ease this ‘rock façade’!
AW: The structure in Amsterdam that works is that most women go back 3-4 days, but now they’re saying more ‘people’ go back 3-4 days, the actual dialogue around it is changing completely so men and women are choosing, they can’t both afford to go back 3 days a week, so they’re choosing which one it is. When Matt and I worked there, I would do a 4 day week and he would do a 4 day week, so we would both have one dedicated day with our daughter, on our own (which is also a different psychology) and those companies are not losing out from us and we’ve just literally gone down to a 4 day week and made it work.
ON WHAT ANNA WOULD SAY IF SHE GOT ALL THE BIG COMPANY BOSSES IN ONE ROOM…
AW: It would be to see this as a people focus. A positive HR drive, and that humans are individuals and that each individual needs to be seen in that way with individual circumstances, individual passions, individual frustrations and individual needs. Ultimately if they start seeing people as people as humans that mess up (it’s not always going to be perfect - they’re not just a cog in a machine), they’ll get so much more back in terms of things that are seemingly unquantifiable like trust and loyalty.
The issues I focus on are obviously female, because that’s where I think the biggest cull of talent is happening at the moment, it’s not just because I’m a woman and I’m a mother, because I’ve said it a number of times, we can’t smash through those glass ceilings if we’re not there. Whether I have a boy this time or not, I want my children to feel there is literally no bookend to their career.
So I think it would be a very honest to pitch to them, using that kind of language, that individuals need to be seen as individuals and that a salary isn’t determined as a blanket approach across a company, so why should the way somebody works be seen as a blanket approach? And that’s the bit that we’re trying to break through.
ST: It’s a real top-down message, it needs to be board level, they need to say ‘right the company approach to working is changing’. If there’s a shift from the top down, the atmosphere and approach would be different.
AW: We championed Deloitte recently after doing a lot of work with them and research into them, they’re not perfect, but it’s exactly that, they don’t call it flexible working, they call it agile working, because they think it’s more of a positive spin. Because it’s actually agility that you’re looking for from an employee, not just flexibility, because that makes them feel like they have to flex around your needs, it’s about ’no, no, no I can work better like this, I can be more productive, I’ll be healthier, I’ll be happier, also I’m going to produce better work for you’.
But ironically that comes back to your previous point. That was all driven by the CEO who’s a woman, who was at the point of giving up her career at Deloitte and went ‘no this isn’t happening, I’m going to make this work for the rest of the company’. And we spoke to 25 mums and dads at Deloitte UK (I can’t speak on behalf of Deloitte internationally). They have 75 thousand employees globally and this agile working is accessible to all of them and it’s genuinely working.
If you’re seen as a pioneering employer, it counts for so much. The biggest thing is trying to get people to speak and cut through the guff. There are so many companies that are like ‘we’re so flexible’ and they’re not. But it’s a great buzzword and that’s what’s really difficult at the moment.
ON WHAT’S NEXT FOR FLEX APPEAL…
AW: 2017 is our year of pushing really hard. 2016 was all about highlighting that issue to as many people as we could, and the comments were so diverse and obviously they were very personal (so you can’t really create any facts and figures from that), it’s anecdotal and it’s a spectrum from all across the board.
That was the beginning of starting the conversation and now it’s going into 2017 and ‘how can you actually work flexibly or be agile’ and ‘let’s look to the light’ and ‘here’s case studies from Deloitte and this is how it works for them’.
2017 is the year to look towards solutions – for both employers, employees and those who have ditched their 9-5 in favour of going it alone.
(all photos by Sarah Tobin)
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
(there have recently been ones in London and Manchester and it’s coming to Glasgow soon) follow Anna at @mother_pukka to stay up to date
Share the hell out of Mother Pukka’s great work and spread the word.
The flash mob in Manchester happened on the 27th Jan!
Watch is here ...
Anna Whitehouse did it again with a fun-loving but poignant flash mob outside Manchester's city hall with her Flex-Appeal campaign. We are all behind it! Many of the lovely ladies behind the team at The bonnie mob are working flexible hours and we champion the idea that happy employees are way more productive. Keep up the good work Anna and spread the Flex Appeal!