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Farfetch’s Sian Keane on Adapting to the New War For Talent

Farfetch’s chief people officer says it will be hard for fashion companies to strike the right balance across recruitment and retention strategies as the industry faces a talent deficit in the year ahead.
Sian Keane. Fashion employees working remotely.
Sian Keane. Fashion employees working remotely. (Farfetch | Getty Images.)

This article first appeared in The State of Fashion 2022, an in-depth report on the global fashion industry, co-published by BoF and McKinsey & Company. To learn more and download a copy of the report, click here.

E-commerce companies like Farfetch have long prided themselves on an ability to attract a healthy mix of talent from both the tech sector and the fashion industry, but the war for talent has only intensified in recent years. It could get even tougher next year, as fashion companies battle to secure the specialists they need. A tighter labour market, where workers scrutinise everything from a company’s sustainability record to its inclination to offer flexible working environments, means it will be just as important for people leaders to have an ironclad recruitment and retention strategy as it is for them to be ready to pivot on a dime.

Sian Keane, the UK-based luxury e-tailer’s chief people officer, believes that the talent challenges that have arisen from the pandemic are not necessarily more difficult than those of the past, but simply different in nature. Among her concerns for the future are the number of women leaving the workforce and the challenges associated with building and replenishing pipelines that feed diverse talent into a business whose workers and consumers are increasingly global. But despite the pressures that are likely to mount across the industry in 2022, Keane sees opportunities in the “borderless society” that has emerged since remote and hybrid working took hold. “Now we’ve got access to people who may not have considered leaving their job before,” she says.

BoF: A lot has been said about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on people’s values and their attitude towards work. How has this played out at Farfetch?

Sian Keane: The two things we really think about are around meaning. People need to be connected to meaningful work. The second is making sure that we create a very strong sense of belonging. That’s something that has always been an important factor at Farfetch and is something that we know our people value, as we’ve learned through our employment engagement surveys. But creating a sense of belonging in a hybrid world is a new challenge.

BoF: How have you done that — created a sense of meaning and belonging — with remote work in play?

SK: Learning is something we had always invested in, but as soon as we went into working-from-home mode, we really fast-tracked a lot of our digital learning tools so that people could learn remotely and still be able to access that level of training. Thinking about how we can make sure that people feel they’re continuing to grow their own careers and thrive in a hybrid and remote world is something that we’ve really leaned into. We just launched a very structured programme around personal development plans for everyone and that started from some of the work that we were doing under diversity and inclusion. Then, we accelerated that for all our [employees], because I think ensuring that everyone feels as though they’re connected to their future career is quite important.

BoF: In what significant ways have recent social justice movements and protests, especially those in the summer of 2020, changed how you think about recruitment and employee retention?

SK: The first thing we did is host listening sessions with our internal communities to find out what they’re really experiencing and feeling in their personal lives as well as their professional lives. Then we built a “positively inclusive” strategy against that, so that we are responding to not just what we’re hearing externally, but what our people are really feeling and experiencing internally. We created our Farfetch commitments, which are about creating a values-driven experience for all our [employees]. One of those commitments is around increasing the pipeline of diverse talent and increasing senior representation internally. The second thing is trying to [address] the skills gap. This is really important because the challenge that we have faced, with regards to hiring and recruiting more diverse talent, is how to access talent in the first place. So that may be thinking about partnerships with external businesses and organisations; it might be broadening where you look for talent to access a broader set of demographics and people from socio-economic backgrounds. We will be watching very closely and monitoring the impact of some of those partnerships on the diversification of the way that we recruit. Internally, we’re making sure that we’re collecting the data — and we’re still on a journey with this — to be able to ensure that our promotions, progression, development and the decisions that we make are having a positive effect on the diverse pipelines that we already have.

BoF: Broadly speaking, is it harder for you to recruit now than it was a year ago?

SK: I don’t think it’s harder for us to recruit now than it was a year ago; we just have different challenges than we did a year ago. We’ve certainly increased and leaned into the hiring, training and development of our talent acquisition team more than ever. We’re seeing that shine through in some of the numbers. However, some of the challenges that we are facing are the compensation strategy and the challenges that we see around competitors from a remote working point of view. We want to have a very strong balance between home and office-based work because we think socialisation and collaboration is critically important to our long-term culture, so we’re not a remote business. There’s also a number of new start-ups and businesses that have been born out of the pandemic that may be attractive to people as they’re considering job moves. Then we see things like saturated talent markets. There are geographies where we need to keep shifting and moving to be able to access talent from different sources. Of course [having] avenues for a more diverse pipeline of talent is something that is hard for businesses to do [but] they really have to make an effort. This kind of sentiment — the war for talent — is something that has been around my entire career, [but what’s different now is where the] demand is, and where you’re seeing it pivot, and being fast enough to make decisions and adapt your processes and hiring policy practices to support that.

BoF: As both an e-commerce company and a fashion player, Farfetch must recruit from both tech and fashion circles. How do employees’ expectations tend to differ from these groups, and are they evolving in different ways now?

SK: Fashion businesses are starting to look for people who come from a technology background, and technology businesses are looking for people who come from a fashion background. Whereas for Farfetch, that’s been front of mind since day one as we’ve always been a mixture of both. Our ultimate aim is to create one community at Farfetch, although we’re not blind to the fact that there might be differences in desires of how those things come to life from an employee experience. For example, some of the initiatives or ways of working that we put in place for our technology community and our engineers would differ greatly from the experience that we might have for the commercial or the fashion side of the business. But one thing that we have done that we felt quite strongly about is not encouraging microcultures within the business. Farfetch values... are Farfetch values [across the entire business]. They’re not different in any region and we believe it’s a common thread between the broad range of specialists that we have within the business because we really have come together as both fashion and technology specialists. That’s very important to us. Another thing is that we actually embrace our difference. We don’t try to be Slack, Google, Facebook or anything else like that.

BoF: Farfetch has more than a dozen offices and locations across 10 countries, which employ more than 5,000 people. With such a global view, would you say that the talent shortage is palpable right now, especially in terms of digital and technical skills?

SK: When I joined Farfetch, there were 100 people and now there’s more than 5,000. There are more vacancies than ever in the world right now, certainly in the UK. It’s already quite easy for people to think about leaving a company. Then, when you add on the digital expertise side of the equation, put Brexit on top of that, and the fact that it’s much harder to travel now, these are all the sorts of things that are starting to erode access to talent. By the same token, businesses can benefit from movements of talent. We’ve certainly seen increases in success in hiring, because now we’ve got access to people who may not have considered leaving their job before.

BoF: Is diversifying how you look for tech talent as well as engaging underrepresented groups helping Farfetch avoid the talent shortage?

SK: Absolutely. Then there’s the other side of things; our consumers are increasingly becoming more global. In order to engage with your consumers, you need access to more native-language speakers than you had before. We’re seeing demand for stylists from Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and places that we hadn’t seen before. It’s about being able to access talent from other regions that we may not have been heavily leaning into before the pandemic.

BoF: What are the most concerning issues surrounding talent recruitment and retention for the fashion industry, as we head into 2022?

SK: The movement of talent. We put a huge amount of effort into hiring, nurturing and growing our Farfetchers internally, so our talent pool is very precious to us. Being such a values- and culture-driven business, we want to ensure that we have as much as possible in place so people don’t feel as though their heads need to be turned to other businesses. That’s why we have our internal engagement surveys and things set up around access to our people communities and our people processes. Those things allow us to understand why people may get itchy feet and be able to mitigate that before they’re considering leaving the business. The other concern is the rate of females leaving the workforce and what might therefore happen in the long term to the successes that come from business investments in increasing gender balance within the workforce.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The sixth annual State of Fashion report forecasts that global fashion sales will surpass their pre-pandemic levels in 2022 thanks to outperforming categories, value segments and geographies, while supply chain headwinds will pose a risk to growth prospects. Download the report to understand the 10 themes that will define the state of the fashion industry in 2022 and the strategies to deploy to safeguard recovery and maintain sustainable growth.

BoF Professionals are invited to join us on Dec. 8, 2021 for a special live event in which we'll unpack findings from the report. Register now to reserve your spot. If you are not a member, you can take advantage of our 30-day trial to experience all of the benefits of a BoF Professionals membership.

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