Overcoming challenges is something that was baked into the origins of Indianapolis-based athletic wear retailer Finish Line. Opened in 1982 by a group of former franchisees of The Athlete’s Foot, Finish Line had to navigate an athletic shoe market dominated by The Athlete’s Foot and Foot Locker and get past the lingering recession of the early 1980s. The chain pushed through the roadblocks and spread across the United States, then eventually moved into online sales like most other major retailers.
Today the company boasts annual sales of $1.8 billion with more than 14,000 employees covering online, bricks-and-mortar and branded athletic shoe departments inside hundreds of Macy’s stores around the United States.
That growth brought Finish Line a new challenge: Managing a workforce that large and spread out, especially difficult in today’s accelerated retail environment. To communicate with its workers, Finish Line was a longtime user of Microsoft Office; while employees were accustomed to using the system, nagging issues began to crop up.
“Our goal was to remove silos and improve communication between our staff and departments,” says Andrew Erdos, director of infrastructure and cloud engineering at Finish Line. “We had to become a more collaborative organization.”
That was difficult since employees had picked up habits such as using email as a storage platform and printing out documents for meetings, then recycling them on their way out of the conference room. Finish Line was also afflicted by a phenomenon sometimes known as “version roulette,” where a group of people working on a project might create and email each other 50 or more versions of a “final” document, only to create confusion about which one is right.
Last year, Erdos and his team saw that a move to Google’s G Suite and building an intranet on LumApps would be the most productive solution. “In talking with our integration partner Onix, we saw this as a way to better workplace collaboration,” he says.
“Finish Line came to us with three main goals,” says Pravin Pillai, global head of retail industry solutions for Google Cloud. “They wanted to reduce the information silos that existed in the organization, improve communications throughout the workforce and reduce inefficiencies, such as having multiple versions of files floating around being edited.”
Finish Line prepared extensively for the migration from Office to G Suite, involving teams from the company’s communications, public relations, IT and development departments. “It took four months, starting with a small group, then moving to a beta change-agent group and then rolling it out company-wide,” Erdos says. “Change management was a major aspect of the project as employees adopted a more collaborative way of working.”
Preparing and educating the workforce for the switch helped smooth the rollout. “One reason for the program’s success is the ‘internal’ marketing to our staff,” Erdos says. “We were very vocal about the upcoming transition and ensured our employees knew it was coming.”
Treating its company audience with the same level of precision as potential customers, Finish Line created a strategic communication plan that moved through four phases and spoke to everyone from C-suite executives to part-time store associates — pre-launch awareness building to ensure employees knew what was happening and when, understanding the benefits of the new system and how people could use it, then acceptance and support to help users navigate it.
Outside of some issues with converting files from Office into G Suite, the Finish Line transition ran smoothly. “We faced some challenges, for example, converting Excel spreadsheets to Sheets when they involved more complex content like pivot tables,” Erdos says. “But overall it was largely seamless.”
The transition to G Suite was also helped by the fact that most of the staff were already familiar with using Google products and services. “We design our products to be intuitive and easy to make the switch from one to another,” Pillai says.
To create a framework around which to use G Suite, the company built Finish Line Connect through intranet designer LumApps. Rather than sending emails that could get lost in inboxes or missed in spam folders, company announcements are posted solely on Connect.
For example, Finish Line occasionally has to close individual stores affected by winter weather. The company uses a Google Sheet spreadsheet that stores can update if they have any change to their service hours. All stores, store leadership and other key team members across the organization can access the one document for updates. The information is in one place, with quick and easy access to real-time data.
Security is always a priority for intranet users and G Suite tries to cover that in its overall mission. “Since it exists in Google’s secure cloud our products are protected at all times,” Pillai says. “Google has made big investments in its security. Our engineers and automated security decision-making tools work daily to detect and fix vulnerabilities. We’ve had zero reported or detected G Suite account hijackings.”
Since implementing G Suite, Finish Line has seen significant improvements in inter-company communication. “Rather than have documents flow back and forth between multiple people with multiple changes, now everyone can see content and updates in real time in one document,” Erdos says. “We’ve seen a 90 percent reduction in email from operations to the stores and back. We can more easily share reports, develop plans and monitor progress in a shared work environment.”
More than 800,000 files have been shared between Finish Line employees and the company has had upward of 30,000 Google Hangout sessions. More recently meetings have been featuring G Suite’s Jamboard app, which is an interactive whiteboard allowing users in various locations to connect visually.
“It’s all about making employees in various locations feel they’re a vital part of each meeting,” Pillai says. “They’re not just listening to a speakerphone.”
In the future, Erdos would like Finish Line to become more integrated into G Suite’s features. “We plan to roll out Pixelbook and Chromebook devices across the company,” he says. “We also want to continue to educate our employees about current and, more importantly, new features that G Suite develops so we stay on the leading edge as a collaborative organization.”
John Morell is a Los Angeles-based writer who has covered retail and business topics for a number of publications around the world.