DFS launched a strategy in 2019 to become the leading sofa retailer in the digital age. The company is a household name in the UK and has been the largest retailer in the upholstery market since 2003, bringing in close to £1 billion in revenues annually. The DFS Group operates four separate brands - DFS, Dwell, Sofa Workshop and Sofology - and back in 2019 began on a journey to bring its employees closer together, across all its organisations, by embarking on a digital collaboration programme with G Suite.
To live up to its digital ambitions, DFS knew that it needed to unite the different corporate cultures, collaboration styles and tooling across its organisations. The Group had been using a variety of productivity and collaboration tools and that rolling out the G Suite project would require deep culture change within the business. CTO Russell Harte spoke with diginomica about the difficulties this fragmentation brought. He said:
Collaboration has always been a really challenging thing. At DFS we were actually on Lotus Notes, Sofa Workshop were on Microsoft Outlook. We tried everything for video conferencing - such as Blue Jeans, Zoom , WebEx was around as well. There wasn't really a consistent, coherent method of collaboration. We didn't do any shared documents and although we used video conferencing here and there, it wasn't something that wasn't part of the culture on an ongoing basis.
The reason for wanting to do something that brought the Group together from a collaboration point of view was - aside from being on four different email solutions and no singular collaboration platform - that we want to be a leading retailer in the digital age. So it was partly about the technology and helping people to work better, but also about the culture change within the organisation, saying we are going to work differently as a group. We're going to work differently with each other and use our technology and tools to help achieve that.
The DFS group went live in June last year with G Suite for all of its users, having taken the decision to roll out the platform in December 2018. Harte said that at a management level there was already a lot of interaction between the four different brands, as well as in certain areas that were moving to a group function, such as a supply chain. However, other areas of the organisation have historically worked in silos.
The use of G Suite is now helping the organisations come together and work across a shared environment. Harte said that the move helped significantly as the threat of COVID-19 grew in the UK and the national lockdown looked imminent. He explained:
As a leadership team we used to do a concept called Around the Group, whereby in three or four days we would try to visit every site in the UK, whether it be manufacturing, distribution or store. Across the brands we would have some of our senior teams go and visit and listen to our colleagues and give them an update on key topics and gather all the feedback.
This was the first year we couldn't go and do it because COVID-19 was just starting to emerge and we decided it was not something we wanted to do as a team. That was the first significant meeting we did from a collaboration point of view. We had 50 or 60 people available on that Meet conference, so that was a really big step.
Recognising that a culture shift was needed and the Group needed to change its ways of working, DFS considered different options, including Microsoft. However, the company is investing in a broader Google strategy, which made the decision clear. Harte said:
To be honest I knew that moving away from Lotus Notes was going to be a PR winner from my point of view no matter what we did. But I think the decision to move to G-Suite was reasonably straightforward. We already had Sofology on G Suite. And therefore it was a good opportunity to move the other three brands to that way of working and reinvigorate what they had already done.
We had also just prior to that started a wider Google journey. We had already implemented Apigee as an API gateway and we started to do some things with Google Cloud, we host our website on Google Cloud now as well. So for the last year we've been on G-Suite as a Group and I think it's just massively accelerated as a result of COVID-19. I think the adoption before COVID-19 was great, our people took to it really well. But the acceleration through COVID-19 has been really pleasing.
Culture change key to success
As noted above, DFS was fully aware that this project wasn't simply about new technology, but rather about organisational change and a culture shift. The company worked with Netpremacy, a Google Cloud Premier Partner, to conduct a systemwide review across all four organizations in an effort to determine how each organization worked and identify opportunities for improvement. Harte outlined the approach:
We always knew it was going to be a culture change as well as a technology shift. We were very much guided by Netpremacy who helped us on this, they've done this a number of times and have got some good practice for how to go about it, so we took a lot of their feedback on board. So we did everything from champions, to collaborative training programmes, we got a lot of content out there, hosted videos on our e-learning hub to give people training.
We started with around 50/60 people initially and that was a good two weeks ahead of migrating other colleagues, and that was to make sure that we had enough people across the whole of the UK to really help other people. I was quite pleasantly surprised. I feared there'd be a little bit of pushback because Office is so ubiquitous in many organisations and people are really familiar with it. I can safely say that within days that the majority of our employees were using it and there were no issues, they were really comfortable with it.
Training has continued with specific user groups, to ensure that everyone across all of DFS' organisations is getting the most out of the G Suite tools. The rollout and change has also been aided by senior executives getting behind the programme and recognising its potential. Harte added:
I think from a Meet point of view, one of our retail directors really embraced it - she could make so many more appearances with her teams, rather than driving a couple hundred miles and doing phone calls on the way. So I think there were a few people in the organisation that helped accelerate that culture change. I think the moment someone realises that you can collaborate on a document when someone's on a train, someone's in the office and someone's at home, suddenly the productivity benefits are so clear.
Benefits and learnings
Harte said that whilst it's possible, identifying hard benefits from a collaboration project of this kind can be quite a difficult thing to do. However, the soft benefits are clear and DFS is focused more on changing its ways of working to improve productivity and deliver better service to customers, rather than purely being focused on directly linking G Suite to cost savings. Harte explained:
We know from a soft benefits perspective, when we've done surveys with our teams, we have now got very different and positive scores than we once had. We believe that the benefits are in productivity, particularly for senior teams and anyone who is mobile. Cutting down on travel is a clearly obvious one. I think mainly we knew that we were investing in the technology to make a culture shift and a culture change. The harder benefits around reducing travel costs are the ones easier to measure and we saw benefits there, but it is a very difficult one to get hard and fast metrics around.
However, this focus on culture and organisational change is key to ensuring the success of a collaboration project of this nature. Harte said that by positioning this as a change project was key to getting the business excited.
I would definitely max out on the user champions across the business. I think we saw this not as a technology change first off, we saw it as a culture change. And I think we were very clear that we're not just doing this to change our email system, this is a change of culture. From day one that was a very clear statement of intent.
And I think therefore the business functions are generally more interested and are more bought in and it's a bit more exciting. I think we have also engaged with different functions and spoke to them about what they want to achieve with the tools, but they just don't know how to get there - and we've tried to make those things happen for them. Just keep talking and keep taking the temperature checks of colleagues as you go through.