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CIO interview: Matt Grest, Very Group

Consumer expectations have always been sky-high, but the Covid-19 pandemic pushed retailers to the limit as the whole of the UK was forced online.

But for online retailer Very Group, parent company to online fashion and lifestyle site Very.co.uk and online catalogue Littlewoods, many of the challenges faced were to do with remote working and on-boarding rather than demanding customers.

When the UK went into lockdown in 2020, Matt Grest, CIO of Very Group, says everyone went into “coping mode”, but now things are returning to normal, businesses are thinking about how they can use what they implemented and learned to their benefit going forward.

“My team could work from anywhere and still be engaged in the business, and not get lost or feel distanced from the organisation,” says Grest.

“As a leader, you need to reinvent yourself if you’re going to be successful and your teams are going to be successful in this new world. I think that’s all part of the challenge of being the leader. It’s not just, certainly in the tech world, about having your tech skills. It’s [also] how you’re going to manage your people and manage your team.”

The opportunity for remote working, which reached new heights during the pandemic, is now very common for most businesses.

For Very, the customer-facing elements of the firm were already online, so when lockdown started, the business set about investing in the technology to make sure people could work effectively from home.

Appropriate investment

Full flexibility is not the reality for all as the world returns to “normal” – some companies are still asking employees to come back to the office, whether full-time or a few days a week – leaving Grest speculating whether these businesses have invested in the right tools and processes to allow people more freedom to work how they want to.

“To continue trading when we weren’t going be sat together, we had to make up for the lack of physical presence by the investment in tools and processes,” he says.

Some of the tools Very uses include JIRA for service management, managing complaints and logging bugs, and an internal platform for company communication, business issues and a self-service payroll system.

Grest argues a shift towards the digital means people at Very, especially on his team, are “probably communicating better than you did before” – Very “became a Microsoft Teams organisation” and Grest’s tech team are on Slack “all day every day”. “But I think it became the great leveller, really. I think when we’re all sat at home all peering into each other’s houses, regardless of your role or whatever, and everyone was accessible.”

Because hybrid working is still an evolving concept, according to Grest, the firm is changing and applying what was learned during lockdown.

There will be no mandate at Very on the number of days people have to be in the office, allowing employees to make arrangements amongst themselves.

“It seems crazy that [we used] to come into the office everyday now, doesn’t it?” says Grest. “We’re allowing people to own where they work based on the type of work that they’ll be doing on that day. And I think that’s gone down really well with people.”

Creating online culture

This increase in remote working has been a win for attraction and retention of talent, for example, it no longer matters where employees are based, as proximity to the office is no longer an issue, widening the potential talent pool for a lot of businesses.

“Previously, maybe the people you hired lived a maximum of an hour from your HQ,” says Grest. “I think that’s completely different now. I think not only are we looking in all corners of the UK and also casting the net wide further afield, I think we’ve all proven over the last two years that we’re just a rectangle on the screen and it doesn’t really matter where you live or where you sit anymore.”

Company culture has always been important for the attraction and retention of talent, but the pandemic made firms think about whether their internal culture can translate to an online-only environment.

Grest started at the firm in 2020 while the UK was in lockdown, unable to meet any of his colleagues or team in person for the first six months of his time at Very, but he claims he “quickly learned about the culture” and “warmth” at the Very Group.

The first few months of working at a business are “vital” for making connections, settling in, and understanding your team and priorities, he says. The firm has used technology and processes to make employees feel “part of the gang” no matter where they are.

Remote onboarding

Being a new starter at a company, especially if it’s your first job, can be difficult without having to contend with working remotely, so Grest says the firm invested heavily in “remote onboarding”, including making sure new joiners are “buddied up” with someone more experienced so they feel welcome to the team, and to tackle the differences between being online and being in a physical office.

“[This flexibility] is a reason for people to stay with us because they can build their lives around work and vice-versa.”

All teams, including the executive team and CEO, have a stand-up meeting every day to establish what everyone is working on, and according to Grest, this “bonding and gelling” filters down through the rest of the organisation.

Once a week, senior management also talks about business performance, and there is an internal quarterly conference to keep everyone up-to-date with the business direction.

“I think maybe in the past it would be considered over-communicating, but in this new world it’s essential to make sure people stay connected with the business they’re working for,” he says.

Ensuring employees know what they’re working towards and why gives them a “spring in their step”, making the work “more enjoyable” because they know where they stand in the organisation.

As the pandemic eases, things are changing again – but Very is continuing to learn and adapt, ensuring to keep employees engaged through anonymous surveys which are then followed up on via “people labs”, where people from across the firm work out fixes, next steps and good points.

The search for talent

Grest says it’s important for businesses, particularly ones the size of Very, to have “talent pipelines”, which may involve “development of existing staff”, attraction and retention, or “making new tech talent”.

As Very Group is going through a “significant technology change” Grest says developing new skills internally is “pertinent”, especially for those who are experts in the current technology the firm is using who will either need to develop a new relevant skillset or be placed elsewhere in the business where their knowledge will be put to good use.

He explains: “We need to work out what new technology skills do we need to help them help them get in order for them to stay and have more fruitful years as an organisation. So I think that’s absolutely essential and is a big focus for us.”

Some of those across the business who have moved into tech roles include people from the company’s warehouses. “Tech is something that you can you learn and be taught. So I’d rather take someone that’s worked for us for a couple of years in different parts of the business and understand the organisation and the business and how we can actually give them a skills top up to have the next phase of their career can be in tech.” says Grest.

With the UK’s tech skills shortages leaving many fishing in the same small talent pool for skilled workers, Grest says Very’s approach has been a positive move for the firm, especially as people already in the organisation are already aware of business goals.

In 2022 the firm also ran a returners programme, hiring 16 people from its initial cohort who have been out of work for a few years, keeping them at the same level they were before they took their career breaks, but ensuring their skills are “topped up”. “It’s just been a massive success because of people that are really experienced people out there that previously maybe didn’t have a pathway back into the job market,” says Grest.

The firm has plans to do another in the future, and Grest points out most people now have a basic understanding of tech through use of mobile phones and day-to-day living, so firms should be focused on how that can be added upon to make someone ready for a tech role.

A necessary change

The nature of the technology department has changed for most businesses, with Grest pointing out that it’s “no longer the department that sits in the basement – every business is a tech business nowadays”.

“If an organisation can put tech and data at the heart of their business, they really do stand a chance of succeeding in the future,” he says.

Over the next year or so, Grest claims the retailer is going through a “wholesale tech transformation programme” aimed at replacing a large amount of the tech that runs Very’s online offerings.

He’s quick to highlight that their current technology is still functional and operational – the firm is investing in technology not because their current tech is broken, but because the retailer wants to offer so much more as customers change and make new demands.

Very wants to innovate at pace to account for how consumer behaviour changes over time, and to be able to offer the best customer experiences. “Hence, the need to modernise our tech to enable us to really increase the velocity [of change],” he says.

The group is replacing the technology powering its website and app, hoping that in the future this will make it easier and faster to develop or plug-and-play new customer-facing services.

Grest says some high-street staples, such as Debenhams and House of Fraser, are both rapidly scaling back on retail real estate after financial issues, leading to gaps in the retail experience such as in-store makeup and beauty.

Augmented reality

Very has created an augmented reality service on its mobile site which Grest says aims to “bring those offline experiences into an online world” – customers can use Very’s app to “try on” makeup looks from particular brands to see if they like products before they buy them, just one example of the innovations Very’s tech team want to continue to create at speed in the future.

Grest calls the retailer’s approach “riding two horses” – at least for the time being, Very will be working on its new technology platform while still delivering new customer experiences that meet current customer needs and work on the retailer’s current platform as the transformation takes place.

The retailer has partnered with Commercetools for the re-platforming project, using Commercetools as the underlying framework for its e-commerce offering.

“If I look at the whole of the tech re-platforming initiative, the default position is a best-of-breed, cloud vendor, vanilla solution.” He points out many of the offerings Very will be investing in will be cloud-based and out-of-the-box, while thinking carefully about what they want to have complete ownership of or have built bespoke.

“Part of our tech strategy going forward is that we don’t want to overly lock ourselves into the decisions that we’re making today,” says Grest. “We want a modular platform that, as we go through the next few years, [allows us] to swap a module if a new supplier comes along and offers enhanced capability in three years’ time.”

This is a very different approach to retail technology, which in the past would likely have involved building a very specific and “monolithic” system designed to be used for 10 or more years.

“The demands of the consumer are ever changing and ever demanding ,” says Grest. “You have to be able to keep pace with what the customer out there is looking for. I think building that flexibility into your tech architecture is the way to sort of combat against that and stay apace with what customers are asking for.”

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