Case Study

How Pets at Home
emBARKED on a tech-fuelled journey of discovery

In this exclusive interview, Louise Stonier, Chief People and Culture Officer at Pets at Home discusses the company's journey to find digital HR tools, with the help of some unexpected technology...

Words by Kieran Howells
Louise Stonier
Louise Stonier
Chief People and Culture Officer

From automation and AI, to digital comms tools connecting workers across the globe, innovative tech is currently allowing businesses to streamline, become efficient and more productive. In fact, so effective is embracing the right technologies, that those currently doing so are up to 18% more profitable than those dragging their heels, according to the latest data from Teamstage. And these technological advances aren't just at the benefit of profit; many of these tools are contributing to the betterment of worker experience. Whilst employee wellbeing suffered as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, job satisfaction increased by a massive 35% according to PwC data, as workers embraced new and improved digital tools.

To say that the pandemic had a hand in shaping the current trajectory of workplace tech is an understatement. LinkedIn's recent Technology in the Workplace report underlines the fact that Covid-19 has accelerated changes in the workplace and digitised it like never before. Tools such as Microsoft Teams saw a huge uptick in users during the pandemic, rising from 20 million users in November 2019 to 44 million in March 2020, then 75 million by April, according to the company's own data. Innumerable other tools have risen to prominence in the ensuing months, all aimed at facilitating better digital working. Onboarding, upskilling, collaboration and even meeting clients are all now easily managed with the click of a button. Unsurprisingly, LinkedIn's data claimed that the evolution of technology leapt over two years ahead due to necessity, and over 60% of those reluctant or unable to implement new technologies did so.

"We were constantly asking ourselves if people were feeling that sense of family and fun remotely"

Finding the right tools for the job

Yet, many companies are still struggling to come to terms with the task of creating a robust digital foundation for their workers. Many still haven't found the right tools to suit their needs. Just 30% of businesses planning on returning to the office full time, according to Technology in the Workplace statistics. This means that the vast majority will now be tasked with finding long-term solutions to building digital culture, combatting learning and development, ensuring that workers feel that communication is strong, and many other digital challenges. This begs the question, what tools should HR be using, and how do we find them?

Finding the right tools for the job

It was these issues that Louise Stonier, Chief People and Culture Officer at Pets at Home, recently discussed with myGrapevine magazine in an exclusive interview. Below, she explains why retaining the company's digital culture was so vital to its continued success, what solutions its HR team has found to the issues its faced, and how technology is taking them into the future of digital-centric working.

Unsurprisingly, the pet retail giant found itself in a similar situation to most businesses at the dawn of the pandemic. Its 15,000 strong UK-based staff, spread across 453 stores (plus 316 grooming salons), were dealing with increased uncertainty and the volatility of a world in which simply sitting down with a HR leader to discuss issues was no longer viable. As Stonier explained, she and her executive team needed technology to stand in to fill the void of their regular presence in-store. “[Myself] and the Managing Director are a constant presence in our stores, yet we were very conscious that if we did have Covid, we didn't want to travel around the country to all our locations spreading it. It was a challenge. We heavily relied on technology to bridge that gap,” she said.

Fact File:

Founded: 1991
Founders: Anthony Peterson
Employees: 15,000
Stores: 453, and 316 grooming salons
Headquarters: Handforth, Cheshire, England
Current CEO: Peter Pritchard
Acquired Petsmart UK in December, 1999
Best thing to do in-store: Pet the Guinea pigs

Pets at Home's need for communication

They opted to create daily ‘state of the nation' video addresses, in which the senior team would discuss what the latest Government announcements meant for the business, what they were doing, and general points about the progression of the company. “For our staff, they became an important part of the day. We were even told that many of our people's families would gather around and tune in – they were that well received.”

Like most businesses in this time, Stonier's HR team found that the tools they were using, in many ways, were not designed to effectively replace physical interaction. So, they set about trying to find the right technologies to facilitate the kind of strong culture that employees were used to experiencing when physically connected. “A big part of our culture is really being together,” she says. “For example, when you're in an office-based role, we encourage people to bring their dogs into work. We were constantly asking ourselves if people were feeling that sense of family and fun remotely.” Yet, despite the plethora of options available, she noted that finding the right tools was a significant challenge. As an essential retail outlet, the company still operated its stores, albeit in line with Government guidelines, which made sourcing digital tools that worked for everyone, not just those working remotely, essential.

"The tools our people use have the power to define their experience of working with us"

Finding solutions in unexpected places

This, she said, was acutely true when working on digital learning – an area in which Pets at Home is rigorous and meticulous. Unable to find the right tool to replicate classroom learning, the team opted to simply look for outside solutions, settling on software originally designed for DJs. “We tested out all sorts of technology to find the ones that work for us, and this software just works perfectly. It was definitely not designed for how we're using it, but we've been using it for lectures and it's been phenomenal.”

Stonier says that the somewhat unconventional tool had all of the elements that the team found lacking in other such software when going through the initial process of trial and error. This particular software allows the team to connect in a ‘drastically different' way than it had found on other such software, Stonier says, adding that people can chime in when they want, but also clearly hear and see the person talking. Its discovery and implementation, she believes, is testament to her team's dedication to being a solutions driven function. “We're constantly finding new solutions and new ways of working. Sometimes it's been thinking outside of the box that has given us the answer we were looking for. We're seeing that constantly. We've opened our eyes and kept our minds open to different opportunities and possibilities. We were great at just having a go on things,” she says.

Stonier on the connection between colleague and employee experience

“We obviously have cutting-edge technology in place to ensure the journey of our customers is fantastic, and we’re really looking at how this journey should be replicated for our internal customers. A lot of organisations don’t connect the colleague experience to the customer experience. They focus on one and not the other. However, the two have to be completely connected. Both the technology we’re using and the experience of using it has to be connected. As we analyse our customer journey, we seek to explore what attracts our customers to Pets at Home. We also look to deepen that relationship. And of course, we then look to retain them. It’s exactly the same headings that we use for our colleagues. We ask how we deepen that relationship, we ask how we connect with them, and we ask how we have great conversations with them. Ultimately, this leads to retaining them. Understanding this is so essential.”

Continued quest for top tech

Whilst many companies have now reverted to some form of ‘new normal', Stonier is adamant that Pets at Home will continue on its quest to ensure that the technologies it uses to bring its people together and facilitate better user experience will not end. “There's still so much uncertainty in daily life. We need to be prepared to carry on searching for solutions to make the experience of our people better.”

"We're constantly finding new solutions and new ways of working"

The immediate outcome of this journey for Pets at Home was the introduction of a new intranet, which benefitted from many of the lessons in creating an optimum experience that the company learned from its journey of discovery over the course of the pandemic. “We learned to act in the moment, find solutions and be flexible. The tools our people use have the power to define their experience of working with us. From onboarding, to learning and development, I don't think we'll ever lose that now. Just like with our customers, we want to ensure that the digital experience of our workers is as streamlined as possible. That's the journey we're on now with our own intranet.”

Continued quest for top tech

However, Whilst Pets at Home's journey of exploration was a positive one, Stonier's parting message to HR leaders also comes with a warning. She says that, as technology evolves, so too does the potential to become overly complex and unpleasant to use. The implementation of the DJ software within the company's digital L&D came about because the software was simple, yet effective. “We want people to be open to adopting new technology, yet we understand that we're asking them to learn a new habit. If you adopt software that hits your own goals, but the employee finds it difficult to use, it'll go unused. The bottom line is, think about your people and their experience. At the end of the day, that's the most important thing,” she concludes.

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