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Interview

Lorraine Metcalf
Group HR Director, Zoopla Property Group (ZPG)

Take a walk through certain London suburbs, Shoreditch is a hotspot, Southwark another, and there they are, the rarest and most highly desired resources. The guys have big beards and whippy hair, the girls are less conspicuous, but they are all deeply coveted by madly dynamic and ambitious tech companies and they can write their own cheques. So what sort of bait does property portal Zoopla have on the hook to attract tech talent?

Lorraine, tell us about your early life and why you decided on a career in HR.  

I started my career as a PA for an entrepreneur, Roger Dunn, at Valetmatic, and whilst I was happy to gain experience doing anything and everything, he luckily saw I had some potential, and one day he asked me what I really want to do for a career. We talked about it and the conversation kept going along the lines of HR – I had carried out quite a bit of personnel work for him – but there was no proper infrastructure. So he sponsored me to study for my HR qualifications and, whilst studying part-time, I worked all hours to make up the time, qualified and he graciously accepted my resignation when I decided to set out on my HR career, armed with my new qualifications. I had to move on to gain some practical experience and was accepted at Lease Plan as HR Coordinator. This turned out to be a great opportunity as I joined and worked in their HR team and, after about a year, I transferred over to a company they had acquired, Keddy Services. I was the only HR person there and had to immediately roll my sleeves up and, in a very short space of time, experienced a full-on schedule of HR. I then met someone at a resourcing event and, long story short, became her successor when I moved to Electronic Arts which – then and now – is the biggest and most high profile player in the video games market. This was not only a hugely exciting prospect, it also exposed me to a truly creative environment, I was hooked and I still am.

In those days, video gaming was not the mainstream entertainment platform it is now, but in the ten years I was there, EA, arguably, did more than any other to propel gaming out of the kids’ bedroom and into the living room. When I first joined EA was growing in Europe, and was acquiring creative game developers and setting up their publishing businesses. One of the acquisitions we made was Bullfrog and, after working with them as one of the group I supported for over two years, I then moved to focus exclusively on the highly-creative development area. They definitely did not need bureaucratic HR, so I really aligned my style of management and delivery along these lines. I was working with incredibly talented and creative people, where you don’t want to put bureaucratic guidelines and policies in place and hamper their culture of creativity, but they want and need some sort of structures, so that’s a very fine line to walk. One thing I learned, creative people are very honest with you, which can be disarming, but refreshing. These were really exciting days as EA won massive licenses like; Harry Potter, Formula One and FIFA. EA was American owned, but what we achieved in Europe really shifted the focus of the business in terms of prominence and market share.

You are extremely passionate about the creative side, it sounds to me like you’re saying there’s a very specific way HR should manage that environment.  

I’m not sure if it’s about creatives it’s about starting out with the end in mind, really thinking about what your interventions are and what you need to achieve from them. Certainly people in a creative environment are far more vocal if they feel they’re not getting a good deal, and especially in smaller environments, discontentment can spread rapidly. So it’s about being nimble and agile enough to really engage people, not repel them and come up with solutions they need.

So why did you leave and where did you go?  

The ten years at EA rang some alarm bells and reluctantly, I realised I had to see how strong my skills were in the big wide world, outside the video gaming bubble. So I left and immersed myself in a couple of corporate roles and gained some experience, but I realised that my heart was definitely in creative technology. I stumbled into Cable and Wireless which, on the face of it, probably wouldn’t have attracted me, but they were going through massive transformation and that’s where the connection came. When I joined my divisional head turned around to me and said “we don’t have much time for HR, but if you want to come to meetings you can”. That wasn’t the most encouraging thing to hear, nevertheless, there was much to do, so I carried on with it. We had a matrix infrastructure, so I had two bosses an operational, day-to-day boss and a functional HR leader. After a few months my operational boss moved to a different division to handle a business and people transformation project which had a big people remit, not least of all a union challenge. By that stage I must have achieved enough for him that he requested I relocate too. It was a really exciting and challenging time, and I achieved what I always said I wanted to, a challenge and a job where I wasn’t just minding the function – my wish certainly came true.

Tell us about your next move.  

I moved on to CPA Global an intellectual property company, headquartered in Jersey. I worked as their Global Head of HR Operations for a few years, and in that time, we set up a big operation in India, so this was my first real international role. Because of the expansion, I was seconded to a senior resourcing role, which wasn’t what I really wanted, but I certainly did it, and it was very much about getting the right cultural fit, but it wasn’t where my passion was. Then an ex-colleague from Cable and Wireless, who was working at Iron Mountain, said there was a real need for a shake up of HR there, so I moved there for a year on the operational side as their UK HR Director, working on changing the model for how the business partners worked, and again there was lots of change and a real opportunity to work with the business and demonstrate the value HR can add. Due to restructuring I decided to leave and moved to become the HR Director at notonthehighstreet.com, a relatively small operation in those days, but it was an opportunity to get back into an entrepreneurial technology business. It was really a blank sheet of paper, no HR department to speak of, so that was a full-blown set up, and what was really exciting and compelling about NOTHS, was that you were dealing with all these individual artisans of a mind boggling array of products, really unusual, unique businesses, all highly creative, and the platform was enabling them to promote their products to a wider audience. It enabled these creative entrepreneurs to get their products out to their market. Historically they had only been able to sell by going through craft markets and the like. The volume they managed to build was phenomenal.

Give us an idea of how that business developed and, from an HR side, how you managed to put the puzzle together?  

It was all about building the technology. Trying to find talent… attracting talent quickly enough to develop and maintain the technical platform and bringing in the talent in other areas too, that could support this very diverse e-commerce platform but also fit the unique culture. That was quite a challenge. It has a very strong brand, look and feel, although trying to find people to fit that culture and meet those high standards wasn’t easy, but a great opportunity to be really at the beginning of a very dynamic entity. Some of the partners were doing what they loved in their spare time whilst also having a full time job. I remember meeting one partner who, a year on, had managed to give up his full time job to focus exclusively on his own business. Notonthehighstreet.com created a whole industry of passionate creatives fulfilling their dreams. There were people who had gone off and started families, often they were women who didn’t want to go back full time to work and this was their opportunity to do something they loved, earn money and realise their talent. Also, unlike EA which was male dominated, notonthehighstreet.com attracted lots of really talented women, in a way it was the dawning of what we now call the gig economy and I genuinely believe the founders created something for local UK creatives that nobody else had managed to achieve.

Tell us about Zoopla and how it came calling for you.  

I wanted to scale a little bit more and I met with Zoopla’s CEO and then CFO, Alex Chesterman and Stephen Morana, they painted such an exciting vision for the future, the potential for getting involved really bowled me over. Alex and Simon Kain were the co-founders and originally, of course, Zoopla was about providing a web platform, to help people search and find property, essentially, an online property portal. Zoopla was becoming well known too, of course, because you could check what your property is worth but, even more intriguingly, what
your neighbour, friends and colleagues, bought their properties for and the current value. When I joined the HR Manager was
going on maternity leave, so my experience set was ideally suited, not least of all that HR was at an early stage, which was familiar territory for me. In terms of business needs and rapid ambitions; there was resourcing talent – again familiarity kicked in – and formulating a cohesive recruiting resource that could effectively continue to build the technology resource. This, of course, was at the very same time that hundreds of tech-based companies were doing the same, but resourcing and also putting in some infrastructure and getting an HR system in place to enable people to self-serve and provide people data at the press of a button, were my first objectives. Also it was about implementing policies that were balanced between being robust enough to withstand some hectic growth and activity, but at the same time didn’t stifle, and you can’t do that in isolation, you have to make everyone a stakeholder in the journey. It’s very much about the balance of not putting loads of policies in place, but creating guidelines and not putting red tape in for the sake of it. It’s about making sure you do the right thing and work with the business to solve their problems with them. It’s very much about meeting the standard for talented people. Plus it’s creating enough structure to avoid anarchy, but not so much that you inadvertently create bureaucracy. Increasingly, I think pragmatism will be a pre-requisite of HR, to manage the fluid
and changing workplace. I really felt that I had come to Zoopla at just the right time in my career, in terms of what I was looking for from a career at that point, but also my experience set was a good match for what needed to be achieved. The other big
objective was to compensate for the fact that we were a small HR team with a lot to cover, it was about driving as much HR in an
automated way and freeing up time to add value where it was needed, whether that be working on talent plans or creating toolkits to help our talent reach their full potential. The IPO, early in my tenure here, also made me look at the right reward strategy for a FTSE250 business. Hot on the heels of that
were the acquisitions and my focus then was ensuring the synergy, from an HR perspective.

In terms of business growth and finding the resources to meet that, what was the plan from a commercial point of view? And the HR commercial initiative, what does the next five years hold?  

Bringing the Group together was about changing how we operate the HR team and another big commercial consideration was to meet the demands of a pretty ambitious merger and acquisition projection. Having joined in January 2014 and IPO’d six months later, we acquired uSwitch in June 2015. Now our commercial proposition is you’re then looking at not just finding your property, but also managing it. uSwitch are a price comparison website covering energy, banking, comms and finances helping the consumer manage their property during and once they have moved. Our latest acquisition, Property Software Group provides the software to enable estate agents to manage their CRM and workflows, so we now help our consumers find, move and manage their homes, essentially, the entire property journey. In terms of meeting objectives and the HR plan, my priority is not to go adrift. We are definitely on schedule. In no small part the pace is down to our CEO. We have very high standards and aspirations, and my experience is you can’t afford not to be on your plan otherwise you’ll quickly slip behind. It is very much about what are we trying to achieve and to keep that ambition, energy and focus. That’s what makes it exciting and why we have to be agile to adapt to that. It’s a really exciting place to be. Having those opportunities to continue pushing the boundaries is a privilege as well as working with incredibly passionate, collaborative, talented and agile people.

The type of people you are keen to attract is ruthlessly competitive and salaries are going up and up, unsustainably  

And that is a real challenge! We build the talent pools, and they are constantly being poached, attracting and retaining them is our number one priority. So we have brought our talent and resourcing function in house, because we want to total control over our early conversations. And there is also the need to meet expectations, being competitive and retaining our talent is a constant concern that I have. People’s expectations are far higher, there’s a lot of discussion about that, and different people have different requirements. A job for life is no longer the case, but as you bring new talent in, it sets new standards. We try to retain as much as we can, but you have to be pragmatic about this sector and we feel proud of developing people who eventually move on – then we have to accept this as part of the cycle. So long as they have enjoyed it here, they become great advocates out in the market and that’s a real positive. It’s not ideal, and in the early days, we found it difficult to accept that people wanted to leave, but you cannot ignore it and you have to adapt.

Do you wonder why there's not enough tech talent to go around, when the younger generation is the complete digital native?  

I think digital talent is a really young industry, the developers we started with at EA, which we talked about earlier, were often “garage developers”. Times have changed, the technology has evolved and then some, and there are no boundaries now. It’s ultra-competitive for all concerned – like everyone else, we would rather not hire the wrong quality of talent, and for tech people, their knowledge could be out of date in a matter of months, if they stepped away for whatever reason. But in terms of the talent drought, the fact that there is such a lack of women in the tech environment is an issue that occupies my thoughts a great deal, I think employers should change their game on how to improve on that. There are just some roles that appeal more to one gender than another, but we shouldn’t give up. It is about starting early with your audience, it can be difficult to get to grips with, but invest in the future we must, and now. We are looking at creating the right infrastructure for an apprenticeship programme, dovetailed with a graduate programme within the next few years, and I think both of those programmes will help to ensure we will be successful. In terms of attracting talent, being in London obviously has its benefits, but you are also competing with some pretty heavy hitting neighbours. Wherever
you choose, you only have that finite pool of talent who are able to work there.

In a business that is a technology driver if you offer paternity leave, people fear they will be out of date in six weeks.  

That’s the challenge, business is so fast paced, you step back and it will have moved on, you have to make conscious decisions about what you are prepared to pause. I think that is the world over. Shared parental leave hasn’t really been taken up and it is difficult to step away, but it is a choice.

The impact is, women are pursuing careers and having families much later now.  

And possibly when they have built their career to a point where they can pause, then it’s time for them to start a family – we all have to make choices and choices have consequences. But families are very important and it’s about creating the right platform that doesn’t deter people and helping create an environment where people can be honest about what they want to do and what that will mean for them and what support they will need.

You are about to move to a new London HQ, that you have been able to design to fit your needs, that must have been fun to do.  

Yes, it is being totally purpose built, with a fantastic gym, spaces to meet and have coffee, pods to work in, as much as you can make an office for the future, this is it. And this is a big part of
cherishing the employer brand we have, but also recognising where we can get synergies. I have no hesitation to say that our ambitions will continue. It is getting the right talent and that continues to be a challenge. It’s about making sure we have a good three-year plan that we can articulate. My HR team can really see where they add the value and enjoy themselves along the way, and I think that’s important for all of our teams. And of course, the new offices will be about supporting dynamic working. For a business like this, as we transition, the opportunities to meet people’s needs and also business objectives is here. For us it’s about creating the right environment. We feel lucky from an HR perspective because
we will be coming together into one group. I think there will always be challenges to overcome as the business and environment changes – but that’s what makes it exciting.
We are actively hiring a brand new role as an Employee Engagement Manager. We want to give our employees a single point of focus for engagement. If you have a strong culture and
values, it should be embedded in how people work every day. Great people want to work with great people and they self-manage that themselves, they become so aligned to it and
are so passionate about doing the right thing that they don’t want to work with people that don’t think like that. That for us is the standards we want to attain, but it means firing on all cylinders and staying competitive and that is a challenge worth aiming for.