With a global turnover of £200m and a staff of just 43, Frances Dickens’ company, AstusUK has conquered the UK media barter market – while creating a culture that encourages mothers (and fathers) back to work.
Dickens maintains that businesses need to recognise the wealth of life experience and transferable skills that returning mothers bring. She is convinced small companies need to help mothers set their own hours, making it easier for them to return to work or they will “miss out on a massive piece of the talent pool.”
Can you explain what media barter is?
Our business allows clients to pay for advertising with their own goods and services, which therefore lowers the cost of advertising. For example, a car manufacturer can use their cars to pay for a portion of their advertising costs which is cheaper than paying 100% in cash.
When did you start the business and how has it grown?
We started in 2003 and we are now the UK’s biggest media barter specialist with around 50% of the market. Our philosophy has always been to focus on doing a good job, and growth will naturally follow – which it has.
You support flexible working – can you tell us why?
It makes good business sense. If you invest in people, you are investing in the future of a happy team, and a happy team means you have a more productive business.
Imagine if you had an inflexible approach with clients – you wouldn’t last long!
How has it contributed to the success of your business?
We’ve found that people working for us appreciate that we are prepared to listen to their needs and our loyalty inspires loyalty.
We get far more out of people because we are flexible. In fact I think that everyone ends up doing the same amount of work – but in less time.
Women here know they can have a baby and expect to come back. And it is the same for fathers too. Many of our dads want to be at the school gates for drop off and pick up and we are really happy for them to do so. It’s not just parents who want flexibility – someone might want to go to the gym at 10am instead of lunchtime and that is okay too.
50% of our staff are women however we recruit based on who is best for the job not on gender – I don’t like diversity quotas.
You’re a mother to an 18-year-old boy – how was it for you to go back into the workplace after he was born?
It was so difficult. I had to be bloody-minded in order to make it work. I left at 5:30 to pick him up from nursery but this was usually ignored, so I often had to walk out of client meetings and of course I dreaded that.
I would not want to put anyone under that kind of pressure. I want people to be happy to say they have children and that is the open culture I have tried to create in my own business.
As a back-to-work mother what skills do you acquire at home that are important for the workplace?
There are numerous transferable skills: organisation; dedication; keeping calm; multi-tasking, forecasting and forward planning – to name just a few.
Mothers often return to work with more determination and professionalism. There is a real maturity in becoming a parent – you certainly don’t have the problem of being tired at your desk from a big night out!
How are companies missing out if they don’t encourage mothers back to work?
They’re missing out on a large part of the talent pool and that is just crazy. Investing in people and then walking away from that investment is simply not a good business decision.
Some people have said we need to refocus maternity leave as if it were a gap year – do you agree?
That’s a very good point – going sailing and lying on a beach in a gap year is accepted and yet returning to work from maternity leave is seen very differently. We need to reframe the positive aspects of becoming a parent.
How do you encourage mothers back into the workplace?
It’s about sitting down, listening and working out individual needs. You can’t have a one size fits all package because everybody is different. With all of our parents, it’s a case of working out the best possible scenario.
Smaller companies often say it’s easier for larger organisations to offer flexible working – do you agree with this?
Actually, I think it’s easier for us to be flexible because we are small. Larger companies might try but they often have a more “cookie cutter,” one size fits all approach but it doesn’t work like that in reality, because everyone needs something different.
We don’t have an HR policy. We just want to create a situation where we all enjoy coming to work.
Are there any difficulties with the flexible model and how have you overcome them?
I don’t find it difficult – we just put the effort in and it’s paid back every time. However, I would say that organisation and communication are crucial.
You have to create a culture where people can be open and say what they need but the flexible model also relies on mothers getting their home life in order. By that I mean you might have to accept that as a working mum or dad, you simply aren’t going to be able to be everywhere.
As a mother, in order to work flexibly, you will need to create a home situation where partners and other people can take the pressure off you. Balance is important.
Do we need to change the narrative around part-time/flexible work and how do we do this?
You can’t change a situation by ignoring it. Employers need to recognise that parents wanting to spend time with their children is not a situation that is going to go away. It does no good to box someone in the corner when they’re back from maternity leave and expect them to perform. You have to embrace people and help them by creating a culture of openness.
Senior women need to help other women and men need to be more vocal about wanting to spend time at home.
What would be the ideal working situation and what should we, as a society, be working towards?
The workplace should reflect the world as it is and be a proper representation of society. If it fails to do this, we all run the risk of missing out. What we want to do for working mums, we need to do for working dads too, so the next generation can see both mum and dad helping out at home and going to work.