I’m doing RS (and Corby) a disservice in setting the scene. There aren’t many companies that are evolving as quickly, particularly within B2B.

A whopping 70% of the company’s EU sales were online in 2015, up from 15% in just 10 years. And to give you an idea of the extent of sales, RS ships 44,000 packages globally every day, offering 500,000 products to 1m customers in 32 countries.

It makes for a fascinating case study (in fact, you can read previous Econsultancy articles about RS’s conversion optimisation and A/B testing).

Certainly, visiting the Corby HQ, you get a real sense of a business in the middle of a transformation. The enormous, ’80s-vintage distribution centre looks, from the outside, as it probably always has done – it’s built for functionality and won’t be picking up a RIBA prize any time soon (nor should it).

However, once you make it past the rather corporate reception with its green potted plants and an enormous company timeline, the digital departments are a scene of relaxed productivity, recently refurbished to more millennial tastes and belying the warehouse setting.

Changing the furniture

There are breakout tables made cosy and private with high-sided benches (the sort you see in airports to allow transfer passengers to get some sleep). Meeting rooms are neither plate glass nor windowless, again affording the right level of inclusivity, with slatted windows decorated in bright primary colours.

There’s a corner of the office where brainstorming can occur in the round, with an almost amphitheatre-like set-up – banquettes facing a whiteboard. High tables and chairs provide a place to eat lunch away from the desk.

Elsewhere, there are more clichéd touches, such as a large cardboard robot and another whiteboard covered in magnetic emojis, which my guide, digital marketing strategy manager Adam Pridmore, points out are just a bit of fun, in a room where employees are encouraged to express themselves.

It’s important not to scoff at fun, though. If you’ve ever worked in ’80s-built offices in a warehouse complex (I have), you’ll know that these touches can make a big difference. With fewer places to walk on lunch and nowhere to go for a beer after work, this commitment to a flexible and enjoyable workspace is vital.

rs workspace rs workspace

A new digital hub in London

Alongside improvements to the Corby offices, RS has recognised the need for a London base to gain access to a greater pool of talent. Like many other companies headquartered outside of London in the UK (such as Tesco), RS has created a digital hub in the capital. This office opened in early 2016 and now houses around 40 digital team members and some board-level staff.

RS recruited for around 35 digital roles in 2016 and 70% of these were into this London digital hub. These London-based positions are chiefly in the digital advertising and SEO department.

Harriet Quick, VP of digital marketing, told me that SEO, particularly link building, and digital advertising are the skillsets that are trickiest to recruit for. As language skills are often also required in these roles, for RS’s work with international offices in EMEA and APAC, a London base is helpful in finding the right candidates.

However, the digital hub is by no means a silver bullet for recruitment. Emily Garvie, HR business partner for innovation, points out that RS “has access to more talent [in London], but there is added complexity in that it’s fiercely competitive”. This competition provides a challenge for staff retention, with skilled employees coveted by headhunters.

There’s also the question of cultural fit when recruiting staff in London (who are often ex-agency) to work remotely with the Corby head office. Quick picked up on this, saying, “People who are used to working at agencies aren’t necessarily used to working in an international matrix environment.”

She continues, “Obviously, not being in Corby, where the majority of the rest of the UK business is, there’s that difficulty of integrating a London hub which is predominantly made up of agency-based expertise.”

This is where soft skills come in.

Softer skills are imperative

Though technical skills in digital can be tricky to recruit for, both Quick and Garvie were adamant that soft skills are much harder to come across and also much more important to the success and the development of any new hire.

“We’re quite clear – the technical training, we can go and get that. It’s an attitude we’re looking for,” said Garvie. “Being able to work with other people effectively, to influence, to thrive in the culture we are trying to create. People have to have the ability and the motivation to go and find the answer themselves. You can’t teach that.”

“There’s complexity, as there is in any organisation and… deep technical experts may not necessarily have worked in larger environments where building collaborative relationships and influencing people has been as relevant, due to the nature of their role.”

Garvie’s sentiments mirror Econsultancy’s findings in the 2014 Skills of the Modern Marketer Report, where the key softer skill mentioned by interviewees was ‘articulation and persuasion’. These skills can be honed, of course, but they often come from broad experience across customer-facing and business roles, something RS is keen to encourage its digital employees to seek out.

Chart below shows answers to question ‘How important would you say the following softer skills or behaviours are to being an effective marketer in the modern digital world?’

soft skills

A people strategy, not a recruitment strategy

A detailed and tailored approach to the personal development of its staff is at the core of RS’s digital HR strategy and this comes across clearly when talking to Quick and Garvie.

The company understands what competencies each employee or prospect should have and, according to Garvie, is “trying to develop a very open and challenging culture, to give people breadth of experience, opportunities and differentiated development plans, rather than a sheep dip approach.”

Quick, in her role as VP of digital marketing, says that regular sessions are held with heads of teams to “look at each team’s strengths, opportunities, and their succession plans”. She adds that “when there’s a gap between [an individual’s] capability and the next opportunity, we identify ways to help them so that in the next 12 months, say, they can fill that opportunity.”

“There isn’t just a recruitment strategy”, Garvie adds, “there’s a talent strategy, a people strategy”.

This people strategy is demonstrated by the policy for secondments between digital teams. Digital is made up of digital marketing, digital analytics, digital content (onsite product content), and ops (development). Quick tells me that two people from the content team are currently on six-month secondments working on email in the marketing team, and another employee is on secondment from Madrid to London.

These opportunities are particularly important when you consider that a proportion of the digital staff have backgrounds as print specialists, working on RS paper catalogues. As the company has changed, moving from print versioning and sign-off to a more flexible approach to web, these employees have had to develop new skills.

As Garvie puts it, the strategy is “Attract, retain and develop. Rather than just attract. That’s a big differentiator.”

But how to convince the best candidates?

Getting this message of personal development and progression in digital roles across to potential hires can be difficult – what company doesn’t claim the ‘possibility of progression? – but RS is beginning to build out its content to better paint this picture.

Recruitment in digital is changing and is no longer about posting an advert on a jobs board and sitting back and waiting. Content and communities matter.

RS uses an Oracle talent management programme called Taleo, which helps to manage and grow the company’s social media presence to gain better reach with candidates. This approach involves making the most of the current expertise in the digital team to create content that will attract the best talent.

Though these efforts are still scaling up, HR has already created compelling video content, for example, showcasing the culture and the people within the organisation. It’s a far cry from the dry B2B recruitment videos of old.

“Our latest video hopefully gives people a snapshot of our culture…We’ve got some really great stories where people have moved across the organisation and we know that these are the people that have really great insight into our business,” Quick explains.

“It’s the same as marketing,” Quick continues, “In marketing you have to be where your customers are, and in recruitment you have to be where potential candidates are. It’s not even job search engines (Indeed etc.) any more – we are using skills and expertise to find candidates within their own online communities.”

Creating a digital culture

RS’s efforts are bearing fruit, with cultural change and talent management seemingly chicken and egg. Employees are given accountability, without “bags of governance”, according to Garvie.

Over the past 12 months, the company has reduced the remaining agency retainers it had (social media and advertising) and brought the activity in-house.

The operations team – 100 strong and managing 30 digital properties – has adopted agile methodology, split into five teams prioritising site search, product pages, site speed, filtering and checkout, with changes prioritised in product sprints. The gains have been impressive, with a 40% improvement in site speed in 2016 and vastly improved search relevancy just two of the highlights.

Rolling out changes to the site has been up to four times quicker using agile methodology. And marketing teams, too, have also taken on some aspects of agile, for example sitting together with stakeholders at the beginning of a project and understanding the objectives behind each piece of work. This represents a big change from previous methods of receiving, reviewing and updating proposals over lengthy email chains.

“The whole approach for the agile team is to put the customer in the middle,” says Quick. “We ask what the problem is then build out from there. Rigorous testing plus an increase in UX resource has helped to turn the way we build our website on its head.”

To that end, RS has built a new customer lab within its Corby ops offices, and a second in London. Qualitative tools like Foresee, along with session tracking, are utilised by UX experts who are regularly recording user feedback.

This customer- and digital-focused approach is something you can see starting to come through from the new CEO, Lindsley Ruth, who has been in place since 2015. As you can see in a video where he discusses half year results for the 2017/2018 year, the commitment to CX is clear, with Ruth even praising that aforementioned 40% increase in site speed over 2016.

You have to wonder how many other CEOs know how much their site speed has improved over the past 12 months.

However, Quick and Garvie said that the next big challenge is one that faces many forward-thinking organisations – embedding digital skills across the organisation, not simply within digital teams.

Digital culture should not be siloed

“By having a digital team, you almost take away the requirement of the rest of the organisation to be digital. That segregation shouldn’t exist. We should be rebalancing our focus whether teams are customer facing or not. It could be picking in the warehouse, for example,” says Quick.

Digital represents 70% of RS’s business, but the digital team represents only 180 people out of 6,000 staff. Understandably, this can generate tension if the digital department is seen to be allocated disproportionate resources.

Quick comments that a broader focus on digital has to be a combination of upskilling and sharing digital expertise, as well as a topdown approach, and that this is very much in the offing through CEO Ruth. Departments such as sales, HR and finance should become empowered to develop digital skills that increase their efficacy.

However, Garvie adds a note of realism saying that “the business has many different cultures (finance, digital, supply chain) and in a company of such size this is quite natural.”

The future of innovation

So, what’s next for the RS digital team and the hunt for talent?

Well, the company is continuing to encourage innovation, to add to successful projects such as DesignSpark, a community of industrial designers making use of RS Components’ free CAD tools. This software, alongside initiatives such as RS’s high profile partnership with the Raspberry Pi Foundation, is great for sales, brand awareness and RS’s education work (CSR), but it may also help attract great candidates.

Not only do these innovations provide more content to shape recruitment efforts, RS also has one eye on the apprenticeship levy that will be introduced by the Department for Education in Spring 2017. This greater funding for apprenticeships, Garvie says, “will challenge what we do… Apprenticeships and digital is a great partnership and could be a good area for us to attract more people who are very junior in their career.”

“Getting them in earlier,” she continues, “means we can give them technical expertise but also give them rounded business expertise too.”

So, the next time the RS sales team takes its new innovation truck (engineering’s cross between a transformer and an episode of Pimp My Ride) to a school, perhaps the children there will be inspired to start a career at RS.

For more on digital recruitment, check out the below posts. You can also benchmark your team’s expertise using the Econsultancy Digital Skills Index: