IT-ready, business-ready - how retailer J.Jill is coping with COVID-19 and planning for what comes next

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan January 11, 2021
Women's apparel retailer J.Jill is contemplating the Future of Work in a Vaccine Economy.


We like to say there's IT-ready and there's business-ready. Just because IT is ready for something, it doesn't necessarily mean that the business is.

Refreshing candor from a CIO, in this case Deanna Steele, who’s also Chief Digital Officer at women’s fashion retailer J.Jill. Steele’s comment comes as she reflects on some of the tech challenges and changes that have arisen over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to remote working, as well as considering what might lie ahead in a Vaccine Economy.

Tech inevitably plays a large part in J.Jill’s operating model, with the retailer having evolved from its stores-only origins in the 1950s to a omni-channel mix of shops, catalogs and e-commerce today. With physical outlets closed for varying lengths of time in 2020, the online aspect of the business, in common with the rest of the retail sector, has taken on fresh impetus, while the demands of working-from-home have brought new enablement demands on the IT team.

As if that weren’t enough to be getting on with, the retailer has been through its own turmoil of late. Former CEO Linda Heasley left in December 2019 following poor results, with an interim title holder in place throughout 2020. In June last year, the firm admitted that it had doubts about its ability to meet its financial obligations, but secured a deal with lenders in September to fund restructuring. Next month, a new CEO takes the reins in the shape of Clare Spofford, charged with seeing that through.

All of this means that everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to competing priorities, which can be a challenge suggests Steele:

We've needed to identify upfront, like we always have, what are Key Performance Indicators? What is going to make it successful? How do we make sure that people are along for the ride, that it's not the birthday present of IT software delivery which is, 'I heard what you said, and now I hope you like it!'. It’s more than that. If you're going to equate it to a shopping experience, it's involving somebody in that shopping experience from the start.

She cites an example to illustrate her IT-ready vs business-ready comment:

We've been making some changes with regard to our ordering and how much inventory we're carrying and what we're going to do with it and how often we bring newness, which is all great and important for fashion apparel. But we've had to make changes to the systems and, of course, to recording to accommodate that. So, as we look at what changes are we making, what are we delivering, our business partners are involve and along for the ride. They're testing it. They accept it…We've got to coordinate the IT-ready with the business-ready for a timing and an acceptance that makes sense for everybody.

Working from home

Inevitably in 2020, the tech team at J.Jill has had an extra challenge over the past 10 months of supporting a workforce that is heavily-remote, but with some employees working from corporate facilities. The retailer had begun to roll out Microsoft Teams in January last year, which was good timing for when everyone left the office on 16th March.

The shift to working online has been easier than might have been expected back in March, with even Teams-skeptics converted into enthusiasts, says Steele, but it’s a different way of working though, albeit one that brings its own benefits:

I've found that meetings tend to start on time and they tend to end on time and so you're much more productive with the use of your time. People have been really on top of it in terms of their attention. When you're on a screen, you're not multi-tasking. Your attention is rapier - it's in the moment, it's in the conversation and people are very engaged. Of course, the devil happens if you have two monitors. I intentionally won't get two monitors because I'll lose any focus that I have in my head.

That’s the plus side; the negative side is that such focused engagements can lack the ‘passing the time of day’ element that people experience and enjoy in a traditional workplace, those ‘water cooler moments’. This absence needs to be given careful consideration, says Steele:

There is no chat before the meeting and there's no chat after the meeting and there isn't really a conversation. A lot of what happens, with all of us, is we're waiting for the last few people to go in physically to a meeting and it's, you know, learning about somebody's day or about what our kids did in their sports or whatever it happens to be. If we're not attuned to [that], if we don't have that deliberate empathy, I think we lose a little bit of that personal touch and that personal relationship. I think that's something that we just have to be deliberate about and focused on.

That’s a challenge for the corporate culture as a whole perhaps. For the tech team, the primary goal is going to be to support the infrastructure that enables these remote meetings and online working. That means ensuring that employees have the right kit at home to work with and being able to support and service that tech when necessary. Steele explains:

People can contact us, contact our service desk, and we will definitely support either servicing or fixing laptops and that kind of thing. In terms of equipment,  we outfitted with laptops, with monitors if they wanted . We've been thoughtful about just ensuring people can send their computers back. We'll send a messenger courier service if need be.

But there are limits, she adds:

Some questions come up, and they've come up fairly publicly too, like are we going to pay for Internet service or upgraded connectivity?  The answer is really no. Some of what we run up against is kids on Zoom in class and Mom and Dad working from home. The bandwidth and the connectivity at home really depends on what that person needs and they need to be accountable for it. But that said, we haven't really run into issues there, which is good.

There have also been tech innovations at the physical store level, even though most of these have gone through periods of shutdown or slowdown depending on where they are situated in the US and what COVID restrictions look like there:

We’ve rolled out some technology that allows us to monitor our store networks so that we're watching to see what happens within the store and around the store. We have rolled out things like curbside pick-up and so it's important for us to be able to understand all of the activity that happens at the store, even if a store isn't open 100% of the time and we're seeing reduced store hours. We're definitely flexing to what we're seeing are the needs of stores  by region, by jurisdiction, etc.

The vaccinated Future of Work

With the start of vaccine rollouts, attention is beginning to turn to what happens next. Since the onset of the pandemic and the enforced move to home working, the question of what the workplace will look like once the COVID crisis has subsided has been much debated. That’s the case within J.Jill, confirms Steele:

Depending upon the part of the organization, we've been almost 100% remote, with some people in office. So, we'll be flexible for those people that need to be in, those people supporting the distribution center or the data center. In some cases, we still do have needs there. Those people are in and they're working safely. From a safety perspective, both in the home offices and the distribution center, we’ve put in place very thorough cleaning policies etc, so, we've got safety guidelines that people are adhering to.

But there will be a need for changed attitudes in the future, not least in terms of how people who are not physically present are accommodated, she says:

What we're discussing as a leadership team is [how] the role and the need for the role to be on site is going to drive a little bit of how we look at whether people need to be in the office or not. I think about our product design product technology merchant teams - they like to be in the office. They're working with fabrics, they're working with apparel, so that fit, that feel, all of that's very important. They're very creative teams so they do like to get together. So we've had to follow the guidelines in Boston around percentage of occupancy and so forth.

Thus far that hasn't really been a factor because, obviously, we haven't been open 100%. But as that dynamic changes a bit, when the executive team returns to the office and we've all been vaccinated and we're collaborating as a team, the conversation we're having is, ‘Well, what happens when somebody isn't in the room?'. If you recall, before COVID, we'd have meetings and the people on the phone or the people on Zoom or what have you, would be sort of forgotten. That's definitely not happening now. The person on the call [pre-COVID] was like, 'Hey!', trying to chime in or pipe up to contribute to the conversation. So we're being real thoughtful, or at least having thoughtful conversations, about how we make sure that we include people who can't or aren't able to be in the office.

Steele’s overall conclusion is one that will be mirrored across business sectors as the vaccination programs provide a glimpse of some possible escape from COVID confines:

The Future of Work is a great question. I think as long as somebody's contributing and they're meeting their deliverables, their work quality and product is very good and timely, then we can be more flexible. But I think that just goes back to accountability, whether you're on site or remote.

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