How the retail giant is staying true to its free-spirited roots

As the Tube slowly trundles up the Northern line, past Leicester Square and Euston, there’s a strange, almost imperceptible shift in the demographics of People Management’s carriage. The oldest and youngest passengers disappear. The concentration of trendy haircuts, tote bags and the newest smartphones increases. The bearers of these fashion signifiers abruptly disembark en masse – as PM does – at Mornington Crescent, and form an orderly queue at the creaking lifts. They all, of course, work at Asos.

Even if you aren’t a member of the retailer’s core 20-something demographic, you’ll have felt its presence on the British high street. Launched 17 years ago as ‘As Seen on Screen’, it’s now just £100m shy of overtaking Marks & Spencer’s market valuation.

Even at 9am on a Friday – when most companies are only just coming to life – the sense of urgency and dynamism at its Camden head office is palpable. “When I came here for my interview, I was hooked,” says people experience director Peter Collyer. “I loved the passion, the pace. It is exhausting, but it gives you energy – you just feed off each other.”

Despite its phenomenal growth – it employs 3,400 staff and plans to recruit 1,500 more in the next year – the business has continued to carefully nurture its entrepreneurial ethos. “Asos is not a company that likes anything corporate – there are no plush carpets, Monets on the wall or closed doors here,” says Collyer, who began his professional life as a trained chef before moving into L&D, which led to senior HR roles at retailers Oasis, Disney Store and Claire’s Accessories. “We want you to be free-spirited; we want to put in processes and procedures that are going to release you and allow you to be the best you can.

“Our focus is always on the customer experience – everything we do is about that. And my agenda is to do the same for our people, which is why I rebranded HR as the ‘people experience’ (or ‘PX’) team last year. We all know that happy people mean happy customers; it’s not rocket science, but I think we’re doing a lot more work on this than a lot of companies.”

HR’s repositioning is part of a concerted effort to make it more in tune with its customers’ needs and wants: the average Asos worker is just 29, and 63 per cent are women. “The language we use is really important,” says Collyer, citing the ratings given in objective reviews. “Originally it was a ‘boom’ – that was the best you could be. And we asked our Asos-ers: ‘What do you think about this?’ They said it was a bit cheesy – but they really liked ‘aced it’. So now that’s at the top, then ‘smashed it’ and ‘nailed it’.”

Collyer and his team also spent a year re-evaluating the company’s values, before deciding on the final three: authentic, brave and creative. While these are still being embedded, he says, they are “constantly referenced” in reviews and discussions. “We have a leadership charter for the executive team, and if, for example, someone isn’t being authentic, we’ll call them out on it. It’s a really open dialogue – and it has to be, because our younger population in particular see through a lack of authenticity instantly, and will feed back on that through social media.”

Is the prevalence and pressure of social media a cause for concern? “I feel 50-50 about it: it benefits half of people, but it’s not a benefit for the other half. They want instant gratification and instant feedback, and some of them respond well to it, and others don’t. It’s a new reality that I think we have to work with. Some of those issues do come into the workplace, and we spend a lot of time supporting employees when these situations arise.”

Asos’s young employees are ambitious, says Collyer, with a keen interest in developing their own careers – ranking development opportunities highest on their list of priorities in a recent internal survey. A new internal academy will soon bring together L&D under a single umbrella, which will, in time, offer specialist training for divisions such as retail, technology and finance.

The PX team naturally focuses on emerging talent, working closely with universities and charities such as The Prince’s Trust to identify and nurture potential stars, and the company will run its first graduate scheme this year.

And an unexpected pipeline of talent has emerged in the form of Asos ‘boomerangs’ – staff who’ve moved on to pastures new (a quarter of all the company’s employees are in their first job) and have found the grass isn’t necessarily greener elsewhere. “Normally after six to eight weeks we’ll get a phone call asking if they can come back,” says Collyer. “And we say: ‘You made a bold, difficult decision; stick it out for another 18 months and then come back at a higher level.’” 

It’s clear Collyer is as passionate and excited about his work as the day he arrived at Asos a little over two years ago. “Working here has released me a bit: I can be more me – I’m excited about life, and that’s really important. For me, it’s the difference that makes the difference – whether that’s having new starters join on a Tuesday because no one likes Mondays, or inviting people to bring their parents to work for a day to find out what they do. We’re a different brand and a different company to work for than others out there. I don’t want to be vanilla.”