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Tarah Lourens, chief product and technology officer (CPTO) at Rightmove, is on a mission to use digital technology to create a range of products and services that help the company improve the experience of the homeowners and clients that rely on its services.
Rightmove is the UK’s largest online real estate portal and property website and is listed on the FTSE 100. Experienced tech chief Lourens joined Rightmove in April 2019 after having led technology for finance firm Wonga and held senior managerial positions at luxury retailer Harrods. Two years into the challenge she’s loving the opportunity.
“Rightmove ticked a lot of boxes – it’s an extremely popular site and a recognisable brand, but there were three other key reasons that the role appealed. First, it has a great culture, which is very important to me – being able to lead in a supportive rather than an authoritarian way, and for people to feel empowered, is key,” she says.
“Second, it’s a company that has built a successful brand, and it’s still ambitious and keen to do new things. Third, it is a dual technology and product role. I’ve done both roles before, but always separately. I’d never had both together and I’m loving the opportunity to fulfil that dual role.”
Setting new priorities
On joining Rightmove, Lourens assessed the IT organisation, its capability and systems, then put together a plan for change. The aim of her long-term strategy is to help the business create fresh data-led services and products, and to develop the in-house talent to make that business transformation happen.
“We’re growing and hiring 45 new roles into the team and starting to build products in new areas that we’re keen to explore and know we can make a difference in, but we haven’t had the capacity to do so until now,” she says of the plans for technology-led business transformation.
These plans for change come after what has been – for all IT chiefs and business leaders alike – a challenging 12 months due to the restrictions introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Like other CIOs, Lourens had to place some of her transformation plans on hold during the first lockdown. The priority at that time, rather than innovating, was making sure that the business was still serving its clients effectively.
“The team pivoted to building a suite of features to help our customers given the circumstances of the lockdown,” she says, reflecting on the period of rapid change last year. “We built these features within a six-week period, which was incredible. You weren’t allowed to complete a home-buying transaction, so we built a video-viewing platform to help keep users searching and expressing their interest.”
When the first lockdown ended and the market reopened, Lourens and her team made another rapid switch. “This change was about helping consumers catch up with what they might have missed and reminding them of the properties they might have been interested in, so we did a big relaunch campaign,” she says.
That process involved making sure Rightmove’s users knew that the market had reopened. It was a challenging task that involved a complex set of processes to reach out to users with the right type of content. However, digital capacity and capability helped Lourens and her team approach the task with confidence – and now they’re looking to make the most of those lessons learned as they innovate through 2021.
“After the first lockdown, with home-moving interest at highest-ever levels, we picked up the roadmap again – and we achieved the vast majority of what we originally set out to achieve in 2020, which is phenomenal, considering we’d lost three or four months of the year”
Tarah Lourens, Rightmove
“We contacted about three million consumers, which helped to generate interest back into estate agents and helped them build their pipelines again. That work involved rapid product delivery and it was time-sensitive; if those things dropped too late, they were pointless. And launch dates weren’t predictable, because it was all against a backdrop of uncertainty, which meant we just had to go as quick as possible,” she says.
“After the first lockdown, with home-moving interest at highest-ever levels, we got on with those longer-term things that we’d been planning before lockdown. We picked up the roadmap again – and we achieved the vast majority of what we originally set out to achieve in 2020, which is just phenomenal, considering we’d lost three or four months of the year.”
Transforming the business
Lourens’ pioneering plans for digital-led change continue apace. Like her other senior business colleagues at Rightmove, she has big plans for transformation – and technology sits at the heart of that strategy.
“We want to help the industry as a whole, and home movers, to have a much better experience. In two or three years’ time, I’d like us to be known not only as ‘the place I found my property’, but also ‘the place that helped me move in’, which is quite a big shift,” she says.
That process, says Lourens, will involve working on its clients’ behalf. In many cases, that means streamlining a series of things that might be seen as overheads today. She says the long-term aim of the business is to help turn what is often a range of paper-based communications, phone calls and emails into a truly digital experience.
“If letting agents, for example, don’t have to wait days for a reference and don’t have to spend time calling the reference provider repeatedly for updates, they can spend more time on other activities,” she says. “Ultimately, that’s an approach that will deliver more value to them through making things more efficient.”
When it comes to her own technology team, Lourens’ aspiration is to continue building a high-performing, very tech-led culture that is, as she says, “a great place to code”. While all businesses in all sectors have huge demands for digital talent, Lourens wants to make sure that Rightmove creates an enticing offer to any talent that’s on the market.
“I want to help us be known for being a wonderful place to work, where you can be part of something really meaningful and to enjoy coming in and working with your colleagues. As an organisation, we want to be recognised for what we do, what we have done and the success of that work,” she says.
“Everyone will move home at some stage, and [working here] you’re part of a company that’s helping to shape that experience. We’re appealing to an individual’s need to have an impact wider than themselves, which – for the younger generation in particular – is so important.”
Engaging with staff
Lourens recognises that the past year has required a very new approach when it comes to keeping staff motivation high. Working from home has become the new normal for employees across the globe. She believes the key to keeping people happy and motivated is creating a strong sense of purpose, with a focus on regular communication.
“Because of the wider impact on people that this situation has had, we’re doing more to help people with their own well-being. Working remotely does mean that managers need to do a lot more proactive communication because people can become isolated quite quickly,” she says.
Avoiding any sense of isolation is crucial, as it will have an impact on happiness and motivation. Experts recognise that organisations and senior executives must work hard to ensure that staff feel connected and content. On that front, Lourens says her business has been extremely supportive. Parents, for example, were given 10 extra holiday days to use to help with home schooling.
“We’re very mindful of those who are having a particularly hard time. We’ve done lots of things at company and team levels, such as a virtual pub, Christmas party and regular quizzes – just giving people lots of places to connect into,” she says.
“The other thing we’ve done is increase the mental health support available across the company. We’ve just launched a new campaign, where people can access additional help if they’re struggling with their personal resilience in getting through this situation. Coaching sessions and collaborative workshops are available to help deal with various situations.”
Leading from the front
CIOs who want their organisations to emerge on a strong footing in the post-Covid age must continue to push digitisation in the coming months. Lourens’ engaged approach to talent is, in many ways, representative of her wider approach to digital leadership.
Tarah Lourens, Rightmove
Rather than being a traditional IT director, with a focus on back-end systems and processes, Lourens is keen to use technology to make a difference where it matters most – in terms of delivering a great experience to customers.
This focus on customer-led products and services helps to explain why she’s taken the title CPTO rather than CIO or head of IT. Lourens says that grabbing the opportunity to be a CPTO means she can help the business to really take advantage of the game-changing opportunities that modern technology offers.
“It’s about recognising that, ultimately, almost everything we’re trying to do now is delivered through technology. Assuming that technologists only help you deliver the tech is a very limited view. To actually deliver the tech, digital leaders have to understand the business and, therefore, they should play a bigger role in helping to shape what the business is trying to do,” she says.
This is something she’s been able to do at Rightmove. “I like having responsibility for both technology and product because that dual role means I’m a big part of the commercial side of the business and shaping what we’re trying to do, and then I can also help get it done because I also know how to execute. So for me personally, this role is great – I can both help shape what we’re doing, and I can get it done really quickly.”
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