A culture of trust

Brand Learning, winner of the Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Award for larger SMEs, talks about its non-hierarchical structure and emphasis on flexible working.

Brand Learning has a culture which is based on output, trust and treating those who work at the company as adults. It's a culture which is part of its DNA as its founders, Andy Bird and Mhairi McEwan, set up the marketing capability consultancy based on a shared vision of a family-friendly, supportive business.  When they founded Brand Learning 13 years ago Andy and Mhairi both had young families and had worked in a very structured environment as marketing executives at major corporates. They wanted to create a company where employees could work flexibly in a supportive culture that enabled ambitious working parents to rise up the career ladder without compromising on delivering the excellent quality work on which they had always prided themselves.

Brand Learning now has 110 employees, a £17 million turnover, has grown on average 25% every year since it launched in 2000, working with such blue-chip multinational clients as AstraZeneca, Shell and Unilever. It has also won several awards for its work culture, including the Workingmums.co.uk Top Employers Award for larger SMEs.

To put its family-friendly vision into practice, the company uses flexible working as a core business principle and recruitment tool for a broad range of employees with diverse needs.

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Cathy Winsey, Brand Learning’s HR Operations Director, says: “Flexible working has to be two-way, enabling our team to flex their schedule to meet both client demands and home commitments. It’s not about taking the easy option, often the demands can be above and beyond ‘regular hours’ particularly with the clients we work with outside the UK, and the flexibility provided to our team creates a better blend of work life balance.”

The flexible structure of the company means it has a low absence rate [an average of two days per year] and employees who feel they have some control over how and when they work, understanding that performance is measured on results – not time spent in the office.

When workload peaks there is a one-company mindset to resourcing. “I know of no other organisation where colleagues offer to do other colleagues’ work,” is one comment from their recent internal ‘Happiness Survey’. The consultancy has also introduced a ‘client buddy system’ and colleagues will support each other on projects and when there are peaks of workload. Resourcing is reviewed at weekly meetings and in October this year a new role was created of Client Services Director to further support resource demands.


Brand Learning’s less hierarchical culture means that rather than ‘Managers’ there are ‘Supporters’.  The Brand Learning team comprises a Director team (client-facing and specialist experts in their field) and an Operations team: the specialist client ops team and the office operational i.e. finance, HR, IT etc.  The Operations team is office-based due to the nature of their roles. However, there is some provision for them to work flexibly through an ‘Earlies’ system, which allows flexibility to leave early one day in the week. The company is also reviewing further flexibility and plans to provide IT provision for the Ops team to work from home on an ad hoc basis.

Promotions are based on merit and there is a system in place to ensure this is the case and the consultancy invests a lot of time in the recruitment process to ensure it gets the right people who share the company’s values.

All Directors are given a laptop and iPhone to enable flexible working and the company have invested in technology like Yammer and Microsoft Lync to make remote working possible. It is very normal for meetings to be held with attendees working remotely dialling in.

At Brand Learning 30% of employees work less than full time, and Brand Learning often accommodates those returning from maternity leave who request a change in working hours to meet their home commitments. Some 48% of Brand Learning employees are parents so the company has always been sensitive to their needs, ensuring nobody is ‘held back’ when it comes to progressing their careers.

Cathy adds that both men and women need to be able to balance work and family commitments. She says one male colleague who, in his previous job, due to long hours working and additional commuting time, would say goodnight to his daughter on a Sunday and she would say, “See you on Friday, Daddy”.  “She doesn’t say that any more,” says Cathy.

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