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.
With 40 shops nationwide and a recent launch in the US, Sweaty Betty is one of the UK’s most successful and well-loved brands. Founder and CEO Tamara Hill-Norton has built the company from opening one tiny Notting Hill shop in 1998 to a global brand with a turnover of £31m. Here she tells us why flexible working and listening to the needs of your employees is vital to running a successful business. Why did you decide to set up Sweaty Betty? I’ve always had an active lifestyle. As a family we did lots of watersports and skiing, so it's in my blood. Then I moved to London from university and wanted to continue this way of life, but I realised there wasn't much catering to women. It’s a very bleak landscape for women's activewear (there was nothing on the high street, apart from a little patronising women's section at the back of men's sports shops). And there were hardly any independent fitness studios, it was mainly masculine gym chains - full of men grunting over weights. I wanted to reach out to women who had an active lifestyle. Whether yoga, skiing, swimming or running, I wanted to provide products that could be part of every woman’s wardrobe. How did you start the business? I had just been made redundant from my first real job. I took the opportunity to evolve the concept I had long been contemplating: As a sport enthusiast, I felt there was a gap in the fashion sportswear market on the high street - and I wanted to fill it. I started to work on a business plan with help from my husband Simon, now CEO of Sweaty Betty. He'd been to business school and had worked as a management consultant - and pulled together the numbers. I researched products and eventually found a site for our first shop, in Notting Hill. The company was initially financed by friends, family and the bank. The Weston family, major shareholders in companies such as Associated British Food and department store Fortnum & Mason and therefore with significant experience in retail, also have a stake in the business. By 2009 I decided to shift the direction and model of the business. Initially growing by selling other brands, I decided that despite the manufacturing risk, own label was demonstrably more profitable. As time has gone by, so this model has proved increasingly successful and Sweaty Betty now stocks everything from yoga wear to ski wear sporting their logo. What are your brand philosophies and how do they work in practice? Our purpose is simple: ‘To inspire women to find empowerment through fitness’. In 2014 we launched our values – 4 key statement that sums Sweaty Betty’s team. These values underpin everything that we do globally, how we behave and how we make decisions. We bring out the best in each other – We support, motivate & encourage each other to succeed and are honest and open in our communication. We push boundaries – We exceed expectations, push past our comfort zones & embrace change. We have a positive attitude – We have a positive and optimistic approach to everything and we celebrate achievements. We love what we do – We inspire people with passion and enthusiasm whilst always having fun. We also believe in this equation: Healthy & Fit = Happy! And we like to do things differently - we are a pioneering company, which aims to make a lasting contribution. We will do this by challenging conventional wisdom ‘style + performance’ ‘sweaty + betty’ ‘feminine + sporty’ Does Sweaty Betty offer flexible working/part-time roles and job shares? We have loads of part-time and flexible roles in our boutiques, which obviously is the bigger proportion of our workforce. At the office, we do have some part-time staff and we do operate flexible working hours, we haven’t any job shares but we would do it if it fitted the needs of the people involved and the business. Why? We strongly believe that happy employees make a better and more balanced workplace. So we try to make our employees the happiest as possible. How does it work in practice? We trust our employees, we give them flexible working hours, let’s say if some people rather leave earlier in the afternoon due to a long commute they can start earlier in the morning and that’s absolutely fine. Our working hours are not cut in stone. We encourage them to take the time to exercise so we’re fine with people leaving earlier to attend their spin class. We also often see lunch breaks turn into group runs or yoga sessions. Would you say that flexible working and listening to the needs of your employees is key to a successful business? Why and how? It definitively does, it’s important that employees feel trusted and that they can still have time for hobbies and time – a balanced work and personal life is key to a healthy living. What would you say to an employer who is considering offering flexible working or part-time roles? I would say that it’s worth it, I understand the apprehension of it but you’ll see the positive effects of this rather quickly. How many mothers do you have working for you and do you think they are attracted to working with you because of your flexible working practices? Nearly all of our employees are women so we have a lot of mothers indeed, just this year we’ve already seen the birth of 4 babies in our head office. I think they are attracted to the lifestyle and that their office hours can fit their childcare hours. Our philosophy is to empower women and working after becoming a mother is a key moment in a woman's life. Being a woman myself and knowing how difficult it can be for working mums I find it very important to support them. You’re a wife and mother of three children (and a beloved dog!) – how do you manage to juggle all of this and run a successful business? Whether it’s at home or at work it’s all about being part of great team and supporting each other. I also believe that having a positive attitude helps you deal with anything. Can you describe your typical working day? I leave the house at around 8:30 am and cycle to work along the river. We live in Acton and the office is in Putney Bridge, so it's a good five-mile bike ride. Monday is a very typical day, as I'm in the office. I spend the day catching up with various teams on everything from new product launches and weekly trade, to my blog and new catalogues. At 6 pm the team goes for a run led by one of our ambassadors, ultra marathon runner Annie Fouldes, and then we have a body conditioning class. When I get home I flop down on the sofa. We usually try to have supper as a family and then I'll catch up with some emails before bed. What has been the most challenging part of setting up your business? The beginning was stressful, I lost a lot of weight. I opened the first shop in November and my only staff member decided to quit, so I was left to run the entire store on my own over Christmas. I was working seven days per week and put myself under enormous pressure to deal with any problems on my own, without help. I was very proud and passionate, the business was my baby and I wanted to do everything independently. In hindsight, it was a great experience being on the shop floor: I learned a lot about the customer. But it was hard. After about a year I took up yoga and started running to keep me fit. At the time, I exercised at weekends, because during the week all I could think about was work. But now I exercise throughout the week and have learnt to switch off. Did you ever lack confidence? If so, how did you overcome this? I was being put under pressure to launch our own label as we weren't profitable enough selling other brands, but I didn't have the confidence or knowledge to know how to do this on my own. So, I started working with a talented consultant who was used to dealing with small growing businesses like ours and was able to set me on the right road and give me the confidence to carry on. Any advice for newly back-to-work mothers? Organisation is key, I would also recommend trying to find time for some personal time. Exercising and practising yoga really helped me deal with stress and my workload. Any advice for mothers who are thinking about setting up in business? I would say to them, that everything is possible with the right mindset and a bit of organisation. I always say that it’s really important to keep doing what you’re passionate about, the happier you feel, and the better mother you will be. What are your plans for the future? This year our main focus is our growth in the US market. We aim to open 5 new stores and open our first stores on the west coast. We are not going to change our concept; we’re still chasing the same customer. We know our customer really well and want to be able to follow her wherever she is. In terms of the UK, we have a plan to open more stores over the next three to five years, but a bit more gradually. We’ll probably see 50 to 60 stores maximum in the UK.
Owner of a small graphic design firm, This Ain’t Rock ’n’ Roll, Charlie Waterhouse, explains why he actively looks to employ mothers part-time. How did we ever used to get anything done? In the olden days I mean. Before the internet. When we had to wait in for bike couriers, or (God forbid) go to the Post Office. My game, Graphic Design is a non-stop to-and-fro between studio and client. Brief begets proposal, spawning response, rethink, re-supply and repeat refinement. All of which used to have to happen on bits of paper and board, presented in physical meetings or ferried from office to office. It made lead-times lengthy, and (if one goes back even further than the dawn of the ’net to a time before computers), involved a whole raft of different people, from secretaries and art directors to typesetters and reprographics experts. Today it’s possible for an individual to generate in minutes or hours what might’ve required several weeks, and several people. I’m over-simplifying here of course – new challenges and complications have arisen thanks to technology. We’ve had to learn how to do websites and all that gubbins for starters – but you get the picture: our industry used to be rooted in the physical, and now it lives very much in the virtual. Even printed items are often only printed (out) at the final stage. And what is true of the creative bit of the process is increasingly reflected in the organisational. Email instead of bikes, Skype rather than meetings; the mainstream manifestations of technology’s redrawing of our interaction are self-evident. But until recently such innovation was still rooted squarely in the physical reality of the office. And in full-time work. So desks grew computers; boardrooms got big chav tellies with cameras. Big servers sat in air-conditioned rooms to power all this innovation. And we continued to clock-in. Then, home broadband and wifi began to pull the rug from the thinking that the only place to be productive was at the end of a commute. The means of production existed outside the office. The physical ‘truth’ of work changed. Now, we keep track of job progress through amazing tools like Basecamp, or hang out in the virtual office that is Slack. In our office, we simply don’t need to be in the same place at the same time. While some of us choose to sit in a funny little office on the rather ancient Borough High Street, others call the wilds of Wales home. Tokyo even. We don’t have to be present to be able to contribute. All of which makes life a hell of a lot more flexible. Especially for parents. Parents have to deal with more than their fair share of the inflexible. Drop-offs and pick-ups; inset days, sick days – endless school holidays. Not to mention all the other inflexible parenting stuff. And by parents, I do of course mean mainly mothers. It used to be that part-time was as much defined by the detrimental time one wasn’t in the office. Not any more. So after decades of you-can-have-it-all nonsense, it does feel like it might just be possible for mothers to be taken seriously as members of staff – without the St. Peter-esque prerequisite of having to deny the family. A slightly more pragmatic you-can-have-a-reasonable-bit-of-this-and-a-half-decent-bit-of-that which feels more balanced, less compromised. It feels like the right thing to do too. Part-time working that encourages mothers reduces the power of the professional Bermuda Triangle that removes 30-something women from the workplace (not to mention the misogynist argument that women aren’t as valuable to the workplace because they have children). Plus, on a really basic level (and at the risk of sounding like a smug parent) I don’t think you really understand responsibility until you’ve had kids. Or is it that you don’t really understand what constitutes a hard day in the office? Dealing with difficult suppliers, moving deadlines, squeezed budgets (or any of the myriad challenges our modern work environment might throw at us) does more than pale in comparison to the demands of child-rearing – it hides whimpering in the stock cupboard until 5:35 and everyone’s gone home. Which is a rather long-winded way of saying: employ a mother and you employ someone who a) has perspective, and b) knows how to get a job done. Thanks to Charlie Waterhouse at This Ain't Rock'n'Roll.
According to Assay Advisory, a company specialising in supporting businesses all over the world, creating a work culture that encourages creativity, openness and innovation is a winning formula for business growth. The key to consistently successful innovation isn't just about having a handful of people with a few great ideas - it's about creating an organisational and relational culture, where businesses truly invest in the needs of their employees. This allows creativity and innovation to thrive systematically, delivering long-term competitive advantage for the business. Though people often confuse them, leaders and managers have very different roles. Managers are there to manage complexity, ensuring that employees carry out their given tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible. They are concerned with what's going on inside the organisation. Leaders are concerned with what's going on outside the organisation. It's their task to look ahead and prepare the business for what's coming so that it can survive and thrive. By definition, leaders manage change, and that often requires adapting or doing something different: innovating something within the business in order for it to adapt, grow and retain competitive advantage. Therefore innovation = change. And change is not always welcome. In fact, most organisations are resistant to change. People like to know where they stand and they prefer to keep the status quo. There may be vested interests, employees or managers who believe they will lose out if you start doing things a different way. Perhaps it's outside their comfort zone. After all, change inherently means risk and they have spent a great deal of time eliminating risk in today’s operations. The importance of starting with culture For these reasons, many businesses at some level are anti-innovation. They do not have a culture that consistently embraces the possibility of change. But to borrow an evolutionary metaphor, if your environment is changing then there's no choice: you have to adapt to survive. And today’s environment is changing. We are moving to a more flexible working culture, where full-time is no longer the default. Business innovation today means including a capability of truly listening to staff needs and this means being open to the idea of employees working from home, part-time working or even job sharing. Creating an open and flexible culture is part of building a profitable business, and spending time developing a great team of people makes sense, as this becomes part of the business assets. At Assay we believe that creating the right culture underpins high performance in business. If you get your beliefs, values and intent right, commercial success will naturally follow. Businesses that support creativity, innovation, openness and flexibility adapt to a changing environment faster than the competition. This kind of creativity and innovation can't be bolted on to a business. It needs to be explicitly built in as part of its culture. Most organisations have a transactional culture: their people do what they do because they're asked to and because they get paid for it. Great innovative organisations have a relational culture: one in which each partner listens to the needs of the other and where people are encouraged to participate in solving problems together. If this philosophy is intrinsically built into the business model, people are happy to participate more fully because they have an investment in the likely success of the future business. Ideation, invention, innovation In practice, this process of change has three stages. It starts with individuals creating or generating ideas -ideation. These ideas are then brought together, discussed, honed and adapted to provide solutions - invention. Finally, these solutions and technologies are productised to produce new products and services that can be valued or commercialised - innovation. The task of leaders is to ensure their organisation is always fit for purpose. The best way to do that is to foster a culture of innovation both at the strategic level and at the operational, or both product and service level. Culture as an asset Most owners are familiar with the business valuation equation: V = P x M, where the valuation (“V”) of a business equals profit (“P”) times a multiple (“M”). If profit is £10m and the valuation multiple is five, then the company is valued at £50m. Whilst Profit (“P”) is a measure of past and current profits, the Multiple (“M”) is a measure and judgement of future profits. The greater the likelihood of future profits the higher the multiple. When focusing on culture and innovation, most businesses are doing so with a “P” focus only. However, an organisation that creates a culture of innovation and investment in people, and where that culture has been embedded and systemised, will also be creating an asset that has the potential to generate future profits, thus enhancing its multiple or “M” and therefore its likely equity value. How innovative is your business? When working with clients on improving their multiple and making them attractive in the future we assess the overall culture and the culture of innovation within their business reviewing several critical competencies, including: Leadership/vision – how open are you as leaders to innovation, change and an open flexible culture - do you understand and support it? Mindset and culture – how are new ideas treated in your business? The innovation mindset of the organisation must support the exploitation of ideas that could improve your business. Clearly aligned strategy – what evidence is there in your business plan and company annual reports that innovation is systematically put into practice? Intellectual property – how much of your competitive advantage have you codified and protected – and do you do this systematically? As it can't be bought, outsourced or delegated, it's a business owner or leader's personal responsibility to create the focus and change needed for innovation to flourish. Focusing on an open and flexible culture as the starting point for consistently successful innovation is a powerful approach for businesses to develop and thrive. Author: Thanks to Peter Harford from Assay Advisory.
Thank you to the employers who filled in our survey. The results are in and are overwhelmingly positive. According to these enlightened employers, flexibility is a bonus and employing part-time mothers not only saves money but their industry “know-how” is a worthwhile asset to growing a business. The companies surveyed covered a wide variety of industries – from retail and banking to care services and advertising. Where staff work * 37% work in the office. * 62.5% work as a combination of work and home. How staff work * 100% of employers agreed that part-timers were hard working and focused. * 100% of employers thought their industry know was an asset to the company. * 100% of employers thought their part-time staff saved them money. * 100% thought their productivity was very good. * 100% thought there was good team support between full and part-time. * 100% thought it took the same amount of time to manage part-time as full-time. And if they employed a part-time mother – the results were similarly positive * 100% of employers agreed that part-time mothers were hard working and focused. * 100% of employers thought their industry know was an asset to the company. * 60% of employers thought their part-time mothers saved them money. * 100% thought their productivity was very good. * 20% thought it took more managerial time managing part-time mothers. * 80% thought their part-time mothers where very loyal. * 60% agreed that accommodating domestic needs was not a problem. And it looks as if part-time is here to stay with 66% saying they would be taking on more part-time staff in the future and 100% saying that part-time and flexible working should be more widely embraced. Which days were a favourite for part-time? 66% thought that Mondays Tuesday, and Wednesday all day were best for part-time staff. Who trusts who? * 100% of employers trust part and full-time staff to do an equally as good job. And best of all, read some of the comments around part-time staff... “Access to experienced people who are motivated to work effectively for the company without a full-time overhead.” “Vast experience & ability that wouldn’t be available to us normally.” “Flexibility, cost efficient and scale-able.” “It allows us to utilise the skills of people who are now unable to work full time due to other commitments, it also allows us to have flexibility in our staffing levels and spread the load around the team more.” “Flexibility of costs and capabilities.”