How this online retailer bridges the gap for remote-working staff

Well.ca was struggling to help frontline workers feel more connected to head office. Here’s how they do it

Interior of Well.ca’s warehouse

Well.ca’s Guelph, Ontario warehouse. (Well.ca)

As an online business with no physical storefront, Guelph, Ont.-based Well.ca has always had a virtual mindset. But when the company opened a Toronto office in 2012 to better attract marketing and merchandising talent, it became apparent that the new team’s physical distance from the more than 40,000 health, wellness, home and beauty products the e-tailer delivers to customers across Canada was challenging their ability to buy, select and market the products effectively. What’s more, weak relationships between staff members from the two offices were causing friction when things went wrong.

“One of the biggest challenges is that the people who are ultimately accountable for inventory are separate from it and, as a result, don’t necessarily think about operations and what needs to happen,” says Erin Young, chief marketing and merchandising officer. With the warehouse in Guelph and staff in charge of buying, promotions and vendor relations about 100 km away in Toronto, it’s not always easy to solve problems on the fly. For instance, Young says, “the buyers have to work with vendors on how inventory comes into the warehouse, but if it doesn’t come in the right way, they’re not there to see it. When these people aren’t side by side day to day, there can be some tension.”

Young knew that better infrastructure and processes would help smooth relationships – and improve people’s abilities to do their jobs well, too. “It’s good to have first-hand experience with the product to tell a story to the consumer,” she notes. So she and her colleagues put into place systems that would facilitate better team-building and encourage employees to learn more about each other’s jobs and the company as a whole, incorporating both remote and in-person communication methods in both formal and informal ways.

One key move, Young says, was to increase face-to-face time not only amongst the company’s 125 employees, but between staff and herself (based in Toronto) and CEO Rebecca McKillican (based in Guelph), each of whom spends one or two days a week in the other office. “Because we’re together and back and forth we’re able to create bridges and close gaps,” Young says.

Toronto staff also visit the Guelph location roughly once every six weeks, not just to do their usual jobs from a remote desk, but to get hands-on with the inventory. “One of the things we try to do is have the people from Toronto actually work in the warehouse and spend some time picking orders so they understand the process,” she says. “They work with the operations team to understand some of the challenges we face.” Conversely, Guelph-based employees will attend functions in Toronto, including media and customer events, to boost their exposure to that side of the business. “It’s not a short trip, but it’s always worth it,” Young adds. New Toronto hires visit Guelph within their first couple of weeks, and within their first 36 hours, they’ll have spent time on the phone with the VP of operations and the inventory team, for a walk-through of how the business works.

While face-to-face time is optimal, it’s not always practical, so a number of remote communication strategies have been put into place as well to keep channels open. Regular weekly meetings with standing agendas, for instance, give team members the chance to raise issues before they can fester, and to stay up to date on each other’s plans so there are no surprises when, say, a certain promotion might be boosting sales – and the quantity of work on the warehouse floor. Virtual communication tool Slack also facilitates conversation throughout the workday. “If you were in the same office you’d go over and ask someone a question,” Young says. “You can’t do that remotely, so I’m constantly sending little messages and questions to people on my team in Guelph through Slack. It’s easier than sending an email, and who wants more email?”

Team building is also boosted by two company-wide in-person events a year, plus monthly KPI calls that give employees an update on how the company is performing. All staff attend the annual vendor summit, held in Guelph, allowing staff to interact not only with vendors, but with their peers, too. And in a model case of making lemonade out of lemons, the yearly inventory count in the Guelph warehouse is turned into a social affair. “Everyone’s mandated to be there,” Young says. “We turn the music up, don’t ship orders for a day – it ends up being a fun day where everyone’s together.”