HR Grapevine
HR Grapevine | Executive Grapevine International Ltd

HR's risky business

MADE.com’s HRD encourages employees to take time for themselves at work and advocates freedom – is it a step too far?
HR's risky business
 

MADE.com’s HRD encourages employees to take time for themselves at work and advocates freedom – is it a step too far?

Risk-taking. It’s a concept that can make HR feel hot under the collar. Traditionally, the people function is perceived to play by the book – taking organisation, pre-emptive planning and structure seriously. In fact, most employees likely think that risk-taking is something that HR practitioners attempt to stimmy or mitigate in order to avoid unpleasant surprises. Many of the strategic responsibilities of the human resources discipline are risk averse by their very nature. Take succession planning for example: HR will plan how they want to develop their internal talent pipeline, so future leadership vacancies don’t impact a business’ smooth running. Additionally, cultivating a positive company culture, operating in an ethical and tribunal-averse manner and staying legally compliant – in order to avoid employer branding fails, high turnover and poor engagement; as well as everything else in-between – are other parts of HR’s remit that are as far from risk-inclined as can be.

It’s a very low-ego culture. There are no egos in the building

However, growing, and often successful, businesses cite risk-taking as an important part of their strategy and ethos. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, for one, places huge importance on taking risks for business gains. “The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking any risks,” he explained to a crowd of budding entrepreneurs at Stanford University in 2011. Few would disagree that for businesses to grow risks need to be taken. So, what is HR’s role in risk-taking when it is, traditionally, seen as risk averse? Furthermore, how can the function’s leaders create structures and strategy which align with more adventurous aspects of the business?

One clear example of an HR function open to the idea of risk can be found at MADE.com, a British-based retailer which designs and sells homeware and furniture products online and via a network of experiential showrooms. At the rapidly growing firm, HR’s prerogative is to provide employees with the right skills, space and culture to take – here’s the key phrase – calculated risks to stay ahead of the curve in a changeable consumer space. Competing against well-established players, such as Ikea, WESTWING and Wayfair, risk-taking is essential in order for MADE to stay agile, attract and retain employees, upskill its incumbent talent and therefore compete.

With big ambitions for further growth, the disruptor’s HR function has a big task ahead of them in order to provide employees with the necessary skills and cultural backdrop that allows them to challenge convention, compete with giants in this industry and, at the same time, complete all the usual HR requirements. To find out more about how HR at MADE embodies, manages and reaps the rewards of risk-taking HR Grapevine met with the firm’s HR Director Kate Humber at its head offices in Shoreditch, where she explained some of her function’s more unusual tactics.

A ‘challenger mindset’

MADE is not yet a decade old but from day one has operated in a competitive market which required it to take risks to even be able to compete. “From the very beginning, we have liked to think of ourselves as a business that does challenge convention; as a business that looks at things differently and takes a fresh approach,” Kate explains. Part of this business mode involves being agile: MADE doesn't stockpile huge quantities of its products, giving employees the freedom to experiment with design knowing that any financial liability isn’t too large if a certain line doesn’t appeal to customers. “Because of this we can take risks and sometimes they fail and [employees know] that’s okay. It is accepted that part of taking those risks is that not everything will work out,” she adds. With MADE’s 2018 overall revenue hitting £173million – a 37% increase on the previous year – this agile approach appears to be working thus far.

However, growth has not just been about the bottom line. Over the last three years that Kate has been at MADE, the retailer has grown considerably. The company now employs more than 550 people across six different countries. As the company continues to grow, both in terms of headcount and market position, Kate explains that this innovative mindset will not diminish, describing the opportunity for both MADE’s growth and experimentation as “limitless”.

 

We can take risks and sometimes they fail and that’s okay

Job autonomy

Experimentation starts well before product lines hit the market and is at the core of how employee life at MADE works. As Kate believes an important part of their financial success is underpinned by giving employees autonomy, within the framework of well communicated business structure, employees are able to work as best suits them. “You will never hear anyone say, ‘we wouldn’t do that, we’ve always done X/Y/Z this way'. There is an open mindedness, an entrepreneurial spirit and desire to innovate at MADE that permeates our culture,” she explains.

Autonomy brings obvious benefits for job satisfaction and wellbeing too – which in turn have been found to correlate with lower staff turnover and higher productivity – so it is unsurprising to find that this mindset currently drives MADE. In fact, research from the University of Birmingham Business School also found that employees with higher levels of job autonomy report positive effects on their overall wellbeing and hold higher levels of job satisfaction. This appears to be reflected in MADE’s Glassdoor score – which is fast-approaching four out of five stars.

Freedom isn’t total though. Kate lays out that employee autonomy only works because of clearly communicated strategic goals which MADE has in place. “Obviously, it is not a case where employees are actively encouraged to take reckless risks. We have a clear vision and priorities, so we are clear about our direction of travel,” she adds.

You will never hear anyone say, ‘we wouldn’t do that, we’ve always done X/Y/Z this way’

Innovative development

A key facet of autonomy involves giving employees space to innovate. To help with this, MADE actively encourages certain employees to spend a portion of their week working on projects of their choice. Under a scheme called ‘Friday Time’, which operates every other Friday, the tech team are given the freedom to work on a project of their choice that sits outside of their day-to-day job. While most employers would express concern about employees not always being on task – Peldon Rose research reveals that 42% of employees aren’t given autonomy over their roles – Kate explains that this freedom keeps employees fresh, engaged and up-to-date on the latest technology. In turn, she believes this keeps MADE ready to grow. “I think particularly for tech – which is such a fast-moving area – it enables people to keep fresh, current, engaged and to try new things. Sometimes these are things that come back and benefit us in the future – but not always,” she says.

Outside of ‘Friday Time’ Kate notes another newly created team called ‘Made Labs’. “This [team] operates like an innovation team and they are always looking at new and different ideas,” Kate explains. The ‘Made Labs’ team work in tandem with tech innovators and pioneers to develop new software that will help MADE stay fresh and relevant in the market. Kate explains that giving employees the freedom to innovate has resulted in the birth of several successful ideas, including the ‘View it Live’ function on their website. This allows customers around the world to video call a showroom and have a consultation about products before buying them.

“I think there is quite a lot of freedom that keeps them up-to-date and engaged which is good for morale. We have a high-performing tech team and we manage to retain staff really well: I’m sure it is initiatives like this that make MADE a great place to work,” she adds.

Hands on

For employees to understand what direction innovations should drive the company in, it would be difficult without leadership transparency and open channels of communication. Both of these are organisational features that Kate describes MADE as having. “We have a monthly ‘All Hands’ meeting which is run globally,” she explains. “It is quite unique to see a company get over 550 people together globally once a month for a company-wide update. We make that really interactive: we have Q&As so that people’s voices are being heard and we are responding to questions which are coming up in real-time.” Coupled with a transparency-minded Board – who regularly communicate the business plans to the company and sit on the office floor amongst the team – this has contributed to what Kate describes as a “very low-ego culture” where staff can approach leadership and know what’s going on.

 

Allowing room for failure

In less open environments, businesses are terrified of the word ‘failure’. Yet Kate, mirroring comments made by the firm’s CEO Philip Chainieux, at the early 2019 launch of a London store, believes MADE can afford to fail. Like Kate says: Having a challenger mindset means not being afraid to take risks and she explains that this is only possible because of their business model. Flexibility, empowered employees who know they’re allowed to challenge convention, both at work and in the market they operate in, not only benefits engagement scores and the company culture but it enhances customer experience, too.

Yet, HR and business strategy isn’t made up on the fly; there’s a clear sense of where this risk-taking is driving the business. “Whilst we can’t plan everything, and things will happen that you can’t necessarily foresee at the same time we do have to be quite planned. We go into each year with a clear roadmap of things that we want to deliver from an HR perspective,” Kate explains. “There will be a combination of things that are key to our business strategy and also things that we think are important from an HR perspective in terms of how we can operate better, work more efficiently as a team and how we can continue to make MADE a great place to work.” In many ways, Kate is echoing features of the function that all HR departments will recognise, they’re just going about it in a different way, understanding that it might work but it also might not. As Chainieux has previously told the press: “Daring to fail allows us to do things differently.” It seems HR, under Kate’s stewardship, has taken on this mindset to excellent effect so far.

It is accepted that part of taking those risks and trying new things is that not everything is going to work out

 

Risk-taking. It’s a concept that can make HR feel hot under the collar. Traditionally, the people function is perceived to play by the book – taking organisation, pre-emptive planning and structure seriously. In fact, most employees likely think that risk-taking is something that HR practitioners attempt to stimmy or mitigate in order to avoid unpleasant surprises. Many of the strategic responsibilities of the human resources discipline are risk averse by their very nature. Take succession planning for example: HR will plan how they want to develop their internal talent pipeline, so future leadership vacancies don’t impact a business’ smooth running. Additionally, cultivating a positive company culture, operating in an ethical and tribunal-averse manner and staying legally compliant – in order to avoid employer branding fails, high turnover and poor engagement; as well as everything else in-between – are other parts of HR’s remit that are as far from risk-inclined as can be.

 

It’s a very low-ego culture. There are no egos in the building

 

However, growing, and often successful, businesses cite risk-taking as an important part of their strategy and ethos. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, for one, places huge importance on taking risks for business gains. “The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking any risks,” he explained to a crowd of budding entrepreneurs at Stanford University in 2011. Few would disagree that for businesses to grow risks need to be taken. So, what is HR’s role in risk-taking when it is, traditionally, seen as risk averse? Furthermore, how can the function’s leaders create structures and strategy it can align with more adventurous aspects of the business but do so in a manner which will help rather than harm the smooth running of the business?

 

 

One clear example of an HR function open to the idea of risk can be found at MADE.com, a British-based retailer which designs and sells homeware and furniture products online and via a network of experiential showrooms. At the rapidly growing firm, HR’s prerogative is to provide employees with the right skills, space and culture to take – here’s the key phrase – calculated risks to stay ahead of the curve in a changeable consumer space. Competing against well-established players, such as Ikea, WESTWING and Wayfair, risk-taking is essential in order for MADE to stay agile, attract and retain employees, upskill its incumbent talent and therefore compete.

With big ambitions for further growth, the disruptor’s HR function has a big task ahead of them in order to provide employees with the necessary skills and cultural backdrop that allows them to challenge convention, compete with giants in this industry and, at the same time, complete all the usual HR requirements. To find out more about how HR at MADE embodies, manages and reaps the rewards of risk-taking HR Grapevine met with the firm’s HR Director Kate Humber at its head offices in Shoreditch, where she explained some of her function’s more unusual tactics.

 

 

A ‘challenger mindset’

MADE is not yet a decade old but from day one has operated in a competitive market which required it to take risks to even be able to compete. “From the very beginning, we have liked to think of ourselves as a business that does challenge convention; as a business that looks at things differently and takes a fresh approach,” Kate explains. Part of this business mode involves being agile: MADE doesn't stockpile huge quantities of its products, giving employees the freedom to experiment with design knowing that any financial liability isn’t too large if a certain line doesn’t appeal to customers. “Because of this we can take risks and sometimes they fail and [employees know] that’s okay. It is accepted that part of taking those risks is that not everything will work out,” she adds. With MADE’s 2018 overall revenue hitting £173million – a 37% increase on the previous year – this agile approach is working thus far.

 

We can take risks and sometimes they fail and that’s okay

 

In addition, there is continued people growth. Over the last three years that Kate has been at MADE, the retailer has grown considerably. The company now employs more than 550 people across six different countries. As the company continues to expand, both in terms of headcount and market position, Kate explains that this innovative edge won't diminish and will continue to drive the firm, describing the opportunity for both MADE’s growth and experimentation as “limitless”.

 

 

Job autonomy

Experimentation starts well before product lines hit the market and is at the core of how employee life at MADE works. As Kate believes an important part of their financial success is underpinned by giving employees autonomy, within the framework of well communicated business structure, employees are able to work as best suits them. “You will never hear anyone say, ‘we wouldn’t do that, we’ve always done X/Y/Z this way'. There is an open mindedness, an entrepreneurial spirit and desire to innovate at MADE that permeates our culture,” she explains.

Autonomy brings obvious benefits for job satisfaction and wellbeing too – which in turn have been found to correlate with lower staff turnover and higher productivity – so it is unsurprising to find that this mindset currently drives MADE. In fact, research from the University of Birmingham Business School also found that employees with higher levels of job autonomy report positive effects on their overall wellbeing and hold higher levels of job satisfaction. This appears to be reflected in MADE’s Glassdoor score – which is fast-approaching four out of five stars.

Freedom isn’t total though. Kate lays out that employee autonomy only works because of clearly communicated strategic goals which MADE has in place. “Obviously, it is not a case where employees are actively encouraged to take reckless risks. We have a clear vision and priorities, so we are clear about our direction of travel,” she adds.

 

 

Innovative development

A key facet of autonomy involves giving employees space to innovate. To help with this, MADE actively encourages certain employees to spend a portion of their week working on projects of their choice. Under a scheme called ‘Friday Time’, which operates every other Friday, the tech team are given the freedom to work on a project of their choice that sits outside of their day-to-day job. While most employers would express concern about employees not always being on task – Peldon Rose research reveals that 42% of employees aren’t given autonomy over their roles – Kate explains that this freedom keeps employees fresh, engaged and up-to-date on the latest technology. In turn, she believes this keeps MADE ready to grow. “I think particularly for tech – which is such a fast-moving area – it enables people to keep fresh, current, engaged and to try new things. Sometimes these are things that come back and benefit us in the future – but not always,” she says.

 

You will never hear anyone say, ‘we wouldn’t do that, we’ve always done X/Y/Z this way’

 

Outside of ‘Friday Time’ Kate notes another newly created team called ‘Made Labs’. “This [team] operates like an innovation team and they are always looking at new and different ideas,” Kate explains. The ‘Made Labs’ team work in tandem with tech innovators and pioneers to develop new software that will help MADE stay fresh and relevant in the market. Kate explains that giving employees the freedom to innovate has resulted in the birth of several successful ideas, including the ‘View it Live’ function on their website. This allows customers around the world to video call a showroom and have a consultation about products before buying them.

“I think there is quite a lot of freedom that keeps them up-to-date and engaged which is good for morale. We have a high-performing tech team and we manage to retain staff really well: I’m sure it is initiatives like this that make MADE a great place to work,” she adds.

 

 

Hands on

For employees to understand what direction innovations should drive the company in, it would be difficult without leadership transparency and open channels of communication. Both of these are organisational features that Kate describes MADE as having. “We have a monthly ‘All Hands’ meeting which is run globally,” she explains. “It is quite unique to see a company get over 550 people together globally once a month for a company-wide update. We make that really interactive: we have Q&As so that people’s voices are being heard and we are responding to questions which are coming up in real-time.” Coupled with a transparency-minded Board – who regularly communicate the business plans to the company and sit on the office floor amongst the team – this has contributed to what Kate describes as a “very low-ego culture” where staff can approach leadership and know what’s going on.

 

 

Allowing room for failure

In less open environments, businesses are terrified of the word ‘failure’. Yet Kate, mirroring comments made by the firm’s CEO Philip Chainieux, at the early 2019 launch of a London store, believes MADE can afford to fail. Like Kate says: Having a challenger mindset means not being afraid to take risks and she explains that this is only possible because of their business model. Flexibility, empowered employees who know they’re allowed to challenge convention, both at work and in the market they operate in, not only benefits engagement scores and the company culture but it enhances customer experience, too.

 

It is accepted that part of taking those risks and trying new things is that not everything is going to work out

 

Yet, HR and business strategy isn’t made up on the fly; there’s a clear sense of where this risk-taking is driving the business. “Whilst we can’t plan everything, and things will happen that you can’t necessarily foresee at the same time we do have to be quite planned. We go into each year with a clear roadmap of things that we want to deliver from an HR perspective,” Kate explains. “There will be a combination of things that are key to our business strategy and also things that we think are important from an HR perspective in terms of how we can operate better, work more efficiently as a team and how we can continue to make MADE a great place to work.” In many ways, Kate is echoing features of the function that all HR departments will recognise, they’re just going about it in a different way, understanding that it might work but it also might not. As Chainieux has previously told the press: “Daring to fail allows us to do things differently.” It seems HR, under Kate’s stewardship, has taken on this mindset to excellent effect so far.


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