Our executive team at the Vitamin Shoppe was formed during 2020, so we've never been in the same room together. I've never met our Chief Merchant other than on video.
It’s what might be termed a very 2020 sort of observation from Andy Laudato, Chief Operating Officer (COO) at the New Jersey-based omni-channel retailer of nutritional supplements, and one that must be mirrored to a greater or lesser degree across many organizations in multiple business sectors.
In his role as COO, Laudato has responsibility for tech spend at the company and as such has been on the front line as the firm has adapted to the realities of operating in a pandemic. He has a clear idea of where credit is due:
The cloud has been the hero of the pandemic, [given] the amount of scaling that e-commerce sites had to do. Our [online] business doubled when the pandemic hit and people weren't going to stores. What Microsoft, Zoom and these companies must be doing to support these technologies and the capacity and the volume is monumental.
Cloud applications are, of course, more readily updatable, with new features and functions appearing regularly. This has been a boon, says Laudato:
I do know as a user of Teams, it seems like every time you log on there's some new feature. I noticed the other day that there were breakout rooms. Now, Zoom already had that so they're catching up. I'm old enough to remember when if you wanted a new version of Microsoft Word, you had to do an upgrade download and it wouldn't work with some legacy systems or your Excel would break. So the small incremental improvement to business applications and these productivity applications is spectacular and here to stay.
In common with almost every organization, Vitamin Shoppe has seen a heavy shift to remote working and with that comes a need for remote support to keep critical IT infrastructure up-and-running. Laudato notes:
It's really easy to fix someone's computer when you're in front of it; it gets monumentally more difficult when it's remote. One thing that our end user computing team did is that they created curbside support, so you could drive up to the office and they'd pick up your laptop, fix it and then bring it back down and put it in your trunk. Some of the tools we use for remote support for stores now can become useful, taking over someone's machine, things like that.
There was also a need to make people have the right equipment, at home, such as good quality computer monitors. There is inevitably a balance to be struck here - budgets remain limited even in a time of crisis - but everyone needs a decent laptop, says Laudato:
Luckily, those are a lot more affordable. Everyone needs to have a decent laptop. We do provide two monitors for people to use from home. We're not providing any kind of office equipment, chairs or anything. We think that that's on their own [responsibility].
Vitamin Shoppe is also keeping a wary eye on security issues and actively discouraging its staff from printing documents at home, he adds:
We implemented DocuSign so that you don't have to print or scan while there. Another thing we have to worry about is when people do print at home, how is that getting shredded? [We are] making sure that important documents are being shredded, either by bringing them back to the office - home shredders really aren't up to this task - or even dropping it off at a third party.
Keeping in touch
With a dispersed workforce, it’s vital that lines of communication are open and robust so that everyone is kept up to date and on the same page, particularly in a time of crisis when events can move rapidly. This has been a priority for Vitamin Shoppe, Laudato confirms, and has led to some organizational behavior changes:
We have a daily IT meeting, every day, 8.40am Monday through Friday. We actually invite everybody in the corporate office to that meeting. Now we have over 120 people every morning that log on at 8:40am, including our CEO and all of our executives. We go over sales from the day before, we talk about what changed. We are a health and wellness company so we have one of our scientists talk about nutrition and health. Every single day we do it and it's been really fun.
That's a good way for us to all get together first thing in the morning. We also do these monthly shop talks where we get together with all the corporate office using Teams. Those meetings used to be quarterly; we moved them to monthly. Just this past weekend we did a first time ever, all stores live event. We put Teams on iPads in all of our retail stores, so we're really just embracing the technology and being very intentional and overt about communication.
All of this helps to tackle one potential problem of which Vitamin Shoppe has been conscious, he adds:
We have to remind ourselves as retailers that most of our employees are out working in the stores, in the distribution centers and...having empathy and understanding that the people that work for our companies are essential workers and they're out there in public. We're social creatures. People like to be together, miss each other.
That said, the shift to a Teams culture has brought some benefits in its wake, suggests Laudato:
A lot of people that work in our office have long commutes in, so working remotely you have a 3 second commute from wherever you're working in your home. Ideally, people can share that time back and forth. People really seem to be more available. Now when you ping somebody on Teams or Zoom, they're easy to find. And hopefully people can spend more time with their families and have a better work life balance.