Four brands, four collaboration styles
UK-based furniture retailer DFS has always been about more than just selling sofas. As a company, DFS recognizes that a sofa often becomes the centerpiece of a family’s life. Over the five decades of its existence, the company has focused on both delivering a high-quality product in a variety of styles and providing its customers with the best possible retail experience. This strategy has been a success. DFS has been the largest retailer in the UK upholstery market since 2003. To meet the needs of its customers, DFS now operates four separate brands: DFS, Dwell, Sofa Workshop, and its most recent acquisition, Sofology. After acquiring Sofology in 2017, DFS realized that it needed to address a significant internal challenge: each of the four complementary DFS brands had a different corporate culture, a different collaboration style, and even different collaboration tools. Russell Harte, CTO of DFS, explains, “We were trying to move to a more digital world. We already had a reasonably sized online business, but we had four different email systems, including a freeware version of email.” There was no overarching technology strategy, and the lack of a unified culture of collaboration made it very difficult for the four brands to function as a single, coherent company.
Building a united DFS
“Not only did it mean we could collaborate better, but it also accelerated digital change within the business.” —Russell Harte, CTO, DFS
In order to successfully integrate the company’s brands, all DFS employees would need to be able to collaborate. That meant providing a cohesive set of collaboration tools, ones that could be effective for all employees, whether they work in a manufacturing center, on the sales floor, or in the head office. DFS worked with Google Cloud Premier Partner Netpremacy to conduct a systemwide review across all four organizations in an effort to determine how each organization worked and identify opportunities for improvement.
The review revealed a starker challenge than DFS leadership had anticipated. Harte explains, “We were trying to figure out how to bring the groups together to be more productive and collaborative. Our review found that we had four different email solutions across the four brands in the group. It was becoming a pain to share documents or to get presentations done, especially when we were working on something confidential or password protected.” The existing systems weren’t integrating well with each other, and no matter which solution DFS settled on, a large portion of the organization would need to learn to work in a new way. That changed the scope of the project. It wasn’t just about improving the collaboration toolset, but about accelerating the company’s digital transformation by changing the collaborative culture.
Not just a collaboration change, but a culture change
“The move to Google Workspace was part of a bigger concept focused on bringing the four brands together so they functioned as a single group,” says Harte. Once again, DFS worked closely with Netpremacy, which developed a change management strategy and training plan. Ben Trood, Head of Business Development at Netpremacy, says, “The change management goals focused on having a common technology strategy across the group and bringing together multiple technology platforms into a single platform that could be used for all four brands: DFS, Sofology, Sofa Workshop, and Dwell.” As a retailer, DFS also faced some unique collaboration challenges. Trood explains, “DFS has multiple kinds of sites: head office, warehouses, and distribution centers. This made collaboration difficult as well. Google Workspace provided a mechanism to ensure enhanced collaboration across the group.” Having identified Google Workspace as the best tool to facilitate collaboration across all brands and all sites, the next step was helping DFS employees through that transition.
Netpremacy’s change management plan identified key user groups, and it provided detailed guidance for aiding each of these groups through the transition. Trood says, “We use different approaches to manage challenges with different user groups. For example, White Glove sessions for VIPs to ensure that they get the one-on-one time required and executive assistant training to ensure that company leadership can continue their work uninterrupted.” In addition to special training for the leadership team, Netpremacy’s plan also included provisions for training internal champions who could serve as resources for other DFS employees, providing training on a per-team basis via Google Meet, and offering self-service training via the DFS Learning Hub.
“It was a unique opportunity to work with a retail organization that was looking to come together under one brand,” Trood explained. “Typically, we would work with organizations that are moving from one collaboration mode into another, but in this case we were working with organizations that had different cultures and different technologies. It was a great project.” Harte goes on to talk about the way DFS and Netpremacy worked in tandem, “We relied on the Netpremacy training team quite heavily. We’ve got an internal learning management system called Learning Hub with Google short videos and other training materials for topics on everything from using Sheets and Gmail to integrating multiple applications. We used trainers to develop champions, walk floors, and conduct all sorts of education remotely on Meet.”
Simplifying sales with Google Workspace and Chrome tablets
The adoption of Google Workspace helped right away. “Not only did it mean we could collaborate better, but it also accelerated digital change within the business,” says Harte. DFS immediately started to see improvements in performance and collaboration, with Meet in particular standing out as a high-impact tool, allowing improved collaboration across geographically distant sites and reducing the need for travel. And when travel still was necessary, Google Workspace’s other collaboration tools ensured that DFS employees could work effectively no matter where they were. “With the amount of travel that our UK teams do—our regional managers and our area managers—embracing Google Workspace made a big difference in their working day and week,” shared Harte. “They were able to work from anywhere using a really recognizable user interface and just get on with their jobs and be productive. It was quite significant.”
With the success of the transition to Google Workspace, DFS realized it had another opportunity. Because employees throughout the organization were already accustomed to working with Google Workspace, the company could provide Chrome ASUS tablets to showroom employees in DFS and Sofology stores to help assist with sales. DFS didn’t need to worry about staff training because staff would simply be using the same familiar tools on a new device. DFS started the Chrome tablet rollout in September 2019, and this, too, had an immediate, positive impact. Harte relates, “We created Cloud identities for all our sales teams. Once those were in place, we were able to roll out a Chrome tablet really, really quickly. It took us about 20 seconds to stage each device, instead of a couple of hours each with our old devices. We’ve also seen a significant reduction in the support requirements of our devices.”
The sales teams also reaped the benefits. They loved the ease with which any member of the team could use any device, the speed of their applications, and, especially, the devices’ long battery life. “On our really busy sales days, it’ll be order after order, so having a good battery life is very important. It makes our salespeople more efficient,” says Harte. This was crucial when completing the sales application process, which often involved a lengthy process of completing forms, applying for financial credit, and reviewing mandatory financial conduct authority scripts. “It’s all about being really comfortable,” says Harte. “We make sure the customer is comfortably sitting on the sofa they are about to buy, get them a cup of tea, and go through the entire sales process on a tablet.”
The company’s adoption of a single technology strategy; the unification of DFS, Sofology, Sofa Workshop, and Dwell with a single collaboration platform; and the investment in technology to facilitate sales team efficacy showed every sign of being a success. Then came COVID-19.
DFS and COVID-19: The flexibility to respond to a changing world
“When the government announcements go out, our executive team uses Google Docs, Slides, and Sheets. The ability to get nine or ten people involved in creating announcements and providing feedback very quickly, instead of sending out a document and receiving five different versions in response, has really streamlined the process.” —Russell Harte, CTO, DFS
Right from the outset of the pandemic, DFS was able to see the value of Google Workspace in helping the company keep its employees safe. “The first really significant meeting we held over Meet was our Leadership Forum,” says Harte. “Normally, we would go out to every site in the group over the course of three days. We planned to do it at the end of February, but with the pandemic, we knew we couldn’t do that. We brought together the wider leadership with the top 50 or 60 people in our teams.”
As global events progressed, it became clear to the DFS leadership team that a remote working plan would be needed if the UK government announced a stay-at-home order. Harte explains, “We consulted with Netpremacy and developed a strategy to ensure that everyone was prepared—accelerating the migration of our shared drives, encouraging employees to move their data onto the cloud, and rolling out authentication tools.” Trood provides more detail about their pandemic preparedness strategy: “We provided a COVID-19 remote working pack that detailed the best practices for DFS to use to work from home efficiently and ensure business continuity. The document included administrative guidelines regarding how to enable offline functionality for Drive and Gmail, as well as tips for end users and training videos to ensure that all users made the most of the Google Workspace toolset.”
When the UK government announced the lockdown, DFS used Google Workspace to communicate how the mandates would impact DFS employees. “The usual 5 p.m. government briefing was pushed later, to about 7:30 or 8:00 that evening. By 8:30, all the execs were on Meet, making the decision to close down operations. We wanted to make the right decision for both our people and customers by trying to keep everybody safe and well.” The next day, DFS closed its manufacturing and distribution centers and halted all deliveries. Approximately 5,000 employees were furloughed as part of the company’s response to the government’s COVID-19 requirements.
Team spirit, no matter the circumstances
“[Google Workspace] lets us stay in touch, and that’s important, both for business and for personal welfare.” —Russell Harte, CTO, DFS
In the early days of the stay-at-home mandate, DFS leadership used Google Workspace to expedite communications with employees. “When the government announcements go out, our executive team uses Docs, Slides, and Sheets,” shares Harte. “The ability to get nine or ten people involved in creating announcements and providing feedback very quickly, instead of sending out a document and receiving five different versions in response, has really streamlined the process.”
Later, the focus switched to helping employees who were stuck at home to stay connected. “We wanted to keep everybody engaged as a way to help with their personal well-being—checking in on how people are getting on with their families, and making sure that everyone is safe,” says Harte. “The communications team has been coming up with ideas for games, quizzes, themes for memes, costume contests. Even though many of our staff are furloughed, they are getting together and playing Bingo on Meet.”
Google Workspace has also helped DFS staff members who have continued to work during the pandemic to be more efficient. Claire Rushton, Head of Public Relations, explains, “We’ve been using Google Chat a lot between the PR team and the social media team, which often deals with either escalated complaints or questions from the public. The customer service and social media teams sometimes need guidance on the latest information to give. We use Chat between those teams to get answers quickly rather than using email or making a phone call. It’s a handy tool to quickly connect to the team with the right response.”
At the core of it all, DFS is using all the tools at its disposal to keep people connected, whether that means explaining the impact of government mandates on employees, making sure that customers get the right answers from the right team, or keeping spirits up with a quick game of Bingo. Harte speaks to the special relevance of connectivity during the pandemic: “That’s what’s most significant about this collaboration. It lets us stay in touch, and that’s important, both for business and for personal welfare.”
*Google Workspace was formerly known as G Suite prior to Oct. 6, 2020.