Retailers' tech capability 'key to attracting staff'

The chief technology officer of online grocer Ocado, Paul Clarke, and the CEO of fashion brand All Saints, William Kim, both spoke this week about the role technology can play in keeping staff happy at an organisation.

Clarke said the technology toolkit and overall IT environment that Ocado offers its staff is a fundamental part of its attraction to would-be employees.

"If we don't use the best tech, there are so many other places people can go and work," he noted.

"The things that make great engineers work for you is so much more than money, it's the next big challenge you can give them, it's continual learning and it's the great environment to work in, but it is also a case of allowing them to do their job and craftsmanship. That is all about tooling and collaboration."

He added: "We simply wouldn't keep the talent we've got [without a forward-thinking approach to technology]."

Clarke said he encourages Ocado staff to share new technology ideas with each other, often by using Google Apps for Work platforms and Google Plus. "If someone across the business goes and finds another great tool that can solve a problem, we want to spread that," he noted.

Technology from Google is also used at All Saints to help foster this feeling of collaboration in the workplace, with Kim saying that his retailer taps into the search engine company's enterprise solutions to create dashboards and Google hangouts that are accessible to all 3,200 employees around the world.

Within these platforms, All Saints encourages staff to share visual merchandising best practice, information about new store openings across the globe and various company messages, often via "video education", that Kim says can help foster organisational transparency and a feeling of staff inclusion. Although company emails are integrated into this dashboard style of working, the system has partly been implemented to ensure the retailer is not reliant on email – a platform that Kim suggests does not rank highly in millennials' list of preferred communication tools.

Highlighting the importance his business attaches to providing its workforce with suitable, modern and agile technology, Kim revealed that he has experienced members of staff leave the business for large conglomerates only to return to All Saints citing a lack of success in adapting to a less tech-led culture.

"Sometimes you need to go on the other side of the fence to realise what we have and how difficult it is to function in an historic setting," Kim remarked.

Other retailers this publication has spoken to in recent months have suggested businesses working alongside some of the longstanding retail technology firms in the market may, over the next few years, be faced with a recruitment challenge as the next generation of IT staff turn their back on working with non-agile technology that they deem to be old-fashioned. There is an industry shift, highlighted by young retail businesses such as fast-growing The Cambridge Satchel Company, to work with best of breed cloud-based solutions that can function alongside outsourced tech and services.

James Werrey-Easterbrook, senior manager for retail at professional services firm PwC, also said this week that the correlation between technology and employee happiness is not an issue confined to retail.

"We're the biggest graduate recruiter in the UK, and our presence, value and credibility in that market could be halved if we don't keep up [with technology]," he said, adding: "From a client perspective, the systems and tech that people use is being cited as a cause of attrition in well over half of businesses."

Kim, Clarke and Werrey-Easterbrook were all talking at a new temporary Google site in west London, which from next week will be welcoming retailers and inviting them to try out the latest Google Apps for Work technology in a mock-up shop environment.

The initiative, which runs from 9-20 May at Paddington Basin, has been designed to demonstrate how Google can be a partner for retailers in their digital transformation journey. Over 40 of UK's largest retailers have already confirmed their attendance over the course of the fortnight, and they will be bringing cross-functional teams comprising representatives from the c-suite, tech, HR divisions and other departments.

Retail visitors will be set certain challenges, such as visual merchandising tasks and other every-day operational issues that crop up in a retail store, and will be encouraged to use Google's technology to solve them in a collaborative manner. Lasting an hour in total for each group, the session will entail half an hour of shop floor and back office tasks and 30 minutes of debating the issues in a boardroom-style environment.

Google has established this two-week challenge as a way of highlighting to retailers that changing the way they operate using technology does not have to be a future consideration; it says there are tools on the market today that can be used in "the here and now".

Indeed, Ocado's Clarke encourages the wider industry to be less cautious in the way it uses technology, suggesting that successful digital transformation in retail – aided by tools not just offered by Google, but by other vendors and those created in-house – can come from being brave, making big choices and keeping faith in those decisions.

"There is an awful lot of talking about it and lots of conferences about it, but it's like learning to swim by the side of the pool and having someone talk you through it," he argued.

"You just have to jump in and take that leap of faith that amazing things will happen to your business if you embrace it fully."

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Google Apps for Work