IT'S a typically sedate Friday lunchtime in Albert Square until a mass of 260 Mancunian mums and dads – dressed in matching t-shirts and all manner of workout wear – clatter across the cobbles and break into an alternative version of Salt-n-Pepa’s Let’s Talk about Sex, complete with illustrative dance moves.
The truth is that conventional work patterns just aren’t compatible with raising a family
This may initially seem like pure silliness, but this barrage of LOLs and Lycra is actually a demonstration against the lack of work-day flexibility being offered by UK employers, particularly to parents desperately seeking a better work/life balance.
The lady at the head of the neon-clad pack is Anna Whitehouse, a.k.a. Mother Pukka, a hugely successful blogger and vlogger. Having already conquered Trafalgar Square with her flash mob posse, she’s now brought her ‘Flex Appeal’ campaign to Manchester.
“My very personal reason for starting all this came on a really, really sweaty Tube,” says Anna during a pre-event pep-talk. “Somebody got their briefcase caught in the Tube door and I started swearing blindly because, even though I’d rushed out of work to try and make it in time, that moment meant that I was going to be late to pick up my child. At which point I was then sat on one of those tiny, primary-hued chairs they have at Day Care and told that I shouldn’t be late anymore and I had to pay £1 a minute if I was. And I just kept saying ‘Sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry’ but then I thought ‘This isn’t my fault’ – this is a system that’s not working.”
Blogger 'Mother Pukka' brings Flex Appeal campaign to Manchester
Recent research has revealed that, although anyone in the UK who’s been in their job for more than six months has the right to request flexible working, 60%* of mums still don’t have access to it. This means that talented, valuable women are being forced out of the workplace because they don’t feel willing or able to return to standard office hours now they’ve got a toddler in tow, and simply don’t have any alternative.
And it’s not just mothers who are affected by employers’ dogged determination to keep bums on swivel chairs for a solid 7.5 hours a day – there are tons of hardworking, harried fathers who’d like to request a less traditional schedule so they can spend a bit more time with their kids, but worry that doing so would damage their career.
The truth is that conventional work patterns just aren’t compatible with raising a family. All over the country, parents who are tied into the ‘9 to 5.30’ are blighted by ever-rising childcare costs and/or forced to rely on grandparents and extended family to plug the gap between the time the school gates close and when they finally slog in from their commute.
The Flex Appeal flash mob
When mums and dads feel they’re in the constant, guilt-ridden battle between whether to put kids before their work (at the risk of looking like an uncommitted employee) or work before their kids (at the risk of being an uncommitted parent), nobody wins. But the stats say that giving them a bit more freedom by making flexible working the norm rather than the exception would actually benefit everyone.
According to a survey commissioned by Digital Mums, 68% of stay-at-home mothers with kids under the age of eighteen say they’d be up for getting a job again if they could build their work schedule around childcare. They’ve calculated that if all these women could return to the workforce in some capacity, it would equate to an additional 66 million hours worked each week, contributing a further £62.5 billion to the UK economy each year (and £6.2 billion in the North West alone).
And tired concerns about workers potentially ‘slacking off’ when away from the office environment simply don’t hold up anymore. A recent survey from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that, when employees were given the option to work from home and given greater autonomy over their working hours, they were actually significantly more productive. And 37% of those quizzed by Digital Mums said they’d by willing to increase the number of hours they worked each week if they could do so flexibly. Yet employers remain resistant.
“We’re here today because we believe in pushing this message forward in a positive way; in a way that some people have described as a little batshit crazy, but in a way that is getting people listening, getting people moving,” says Anna. “We need to keep the conversation going, getting bigger and bigger and louder and louder until they just can’t ignore us, really.”
Parents tied into 9-to-5.30 are blighted by ever-rising childcare costs
Anna will be visiting a handful of other cities over the course of the next few months to spread the message further. But she’s not alone in her mission: Digital Mums’ #workthatworks campaign, Working Families, and the Fatherhood Institute are also doing their bit to turn social media buzz and chatroom chatter into real-world action. And, since October, companies can demonstrate their commitment to accommodating flexible work requests by signing up to the Government’s Working Forward pledge.
Of course, there will always be job roles that just aren’t compatible with a more malleable schedule. But in a culture where it’s so easy to stay connected – where remote working’s not only possible but plausible – it seems totally counter-intuitive to cling on to the notion that employees must be tied to their desks for a universally designated period in order to do a good job (when in fact all the evidence points to the fact that they’d do a better job if they weren’t).
It’s time employers took a more open-minded, forward-thinking approach to flexible working. And since we’ve always done things differently here, why shouldn’t it be Manchester companies that lead the way? Come on: let’s talk about flex (baby).
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Photo credit: Eve Bell
*Digital Mums ‘#Workthatworks’ report, September 2016