The tech tools helping co-ops adapt to home working

‘We had to do a lot very quickly. It has shown that we can be very agile and flexible’

As the Covid-19 situation emerged, retailers scrambled to put emergency technology measures in place. How did co-ops respond? What did they learn, and how will this knowledge affect their way of working in the future?

Agility through tech

“We had to do a lot very quickly. It has shown that we can be very agile and flexible,” says Samantha Bradshaw, head of business solutions at the Southern Co-operative.

This included responding to the increase of the contactless payments and rolling out a 10% discount to NHS staff and carers. “Just before the Easter weekend we also found out there would be considerable advertising about our partnership with FareShare, the UK’s largest hunger fighting charity, and we were very quickly able to put something temporary in place for our colleagues to take donations easily at the till point, before putting something more robust in place. Our software allowed us to do this easily.”

Southern uses VME Retail’s IntelliStore till and back office software. “Because VME is a smaller organisation, and the technology is very much geared to convenience retail, it has enabled us to do things quickly and easily. This is important, not least because the technology needs to enable colleagues, not inhibit them.”

The society also uses Microsoft Teams, a unified communication and collaboration platform that “from a communication perspective, has almost become the tool that’s enabling the business to continue,” says Ms Bradshaw. “We’ve also had a lot of Zoom meetings. As that’s freeware I’ve had to do research to make sure that from a business perspective we’re not doing something we shouldn’t be doing when we’re having business meetings over Zoom.

“I like to think we can keep some of this agility, albeit I’m still quite cognisant that we need to maintain a good level of governance.” One way that Southern manages this is through a  retail system steering group which meets weekly, with cross-organisational attendance from colleagues in retail business operations, central operations and the tech teams.

Culturally, Southern Co-op’s central teams have been very office-based, and one of Ms Bradshaw’s biggest surprises was how well the organisation adapted to remote working. “At the beginning there were lots of people who were very anxious and concerned about it, and for my small team, trying to facilitate the needs of people to be able to work from home was a real challenge. We were pushed right to the limits, but we got there. 

“We knew the technology would be able to do what it does (although we had never tested it to its full volume) but the biggest thing I’ve learned is the resilience, flexibility and the camaraderie of people. Our colleagues in store are phenomenal.”

Southern is now looking at remote learning for colleagues. “We’re starting to look at the more normal activities that we carry out, and how we do that in a more restricted ‘normal’,” says Ms Bradshaw. “A lot of this is having to think outside the box, because the infrastructure isn’t necessarily there. We’ve already put a project in train to beef up our broadband connectivity in stores, for example – that will allow more smooth streaming of video and CCTV and will also ease the facilitating of online training and remote classroom sessions.”

The threat of the pandemic meant that other co-op retailers, like Heart of England Co-op, had to act quickly to ensure operations continued to run smoothly. “With almost all the admin team working remotely from home for the first time in the history of the society, the IT department had to ensure the right infrastructure was in place and all staff were adequately trained,” said Ali Kurji, the society’s chief executive. 

“Preparations of our systems were well underway before the lockdown. These were a great success. We worked closely with our IT department to make the preparations in phases. This was to ensure the day-to-day needs of the business were still being met while the preparations were being made. It has been an unprecedented experience for the staff but it has worked very well.”

A few miles down the road, Tamworth Co-op faced similar challenges in setting up home working and a new home delivery service, working out how to make current systems work in a new way, taking into account tech solutions already in place, colleague experience and the challenge of how to get stakeholders to embrace change.

 “Change doesn’t necessarily happen quickly,” said a Tamworth spokesperson. “It’s easy to keep doing things the same way, but reviewing processes alongside the available technologies is a key part of looking towards the future and improving the way we work. I’d like to think this situation may enable us to review what we do more regularly, to make what we have work harder for us.”  

A colleague app for all 

At Lincolnshire Co-op, the colleague TogetherApp has been invaluable. The app launched in 2019 and it is now used by over 70% of its 3,000 colleagues. During the pandemic, there has been “a huge increase in usage by those who already had it,” says Heather Lee, head of people and performance. “It’s been used by colleagues to find out what’s happening, ask questions and support one another. We’ve seen a significant increase in the use of the app’s thank you card and colleague award functions.”

Like many other retailers, Lincolnshire ran a recruitment drive at the start of the pandemic, taking on 220 new starters. “We’ve been encouraging those starters onto the app as a way to very quickly induct them into the society,” says Ms Lee. The app is also used as a portal to the society’s e-learning system to bring people’s training up to date on things like social distancing, having difficult conversations and using PPE correctly. Those without the app can access the information through the colleague intranet. 

What makes the app uniquely co-operative is that it is two-way, says Ms Lee. “An intranet is you telling people the messages you want them to know, whereas our app is very much a two-way messaging channel. It allows colleagues to raise questions and get responses from their peers, their managers, the most senior in the organisation. [The executive] have informally taken it in turns to respond to things on the app, so it’s not unusual for colleagues to get a direct response from myself or the chief retail officer. Sometimes that might just be a ‘well done, that’s a great story’, but sometimes it might be ‘we understand your frustrations and here’s why we’re doing what we’re doing’.

“At the start [of the pandemic] we recognised that we needed to demonstrate strong leadership. So for about the first three weeks Ursula [Lidbetter, chief executive] filmed a video each week that was posted on to the app, thanking colleagues, recognising them, reassuring them. We wanted them to feel confident and comfortable about coming to work. Within our business we’ve had areas that have traded throughout: food, pharmacy, funerals and post office. The only areas that haven’t are travel and our florists.”

Some of the questions raised by colleagues through the app have been around why stores are still taking cash and around the nature of ‘essential’ items. “We’ve been able to answer those questions immediately, directly to the individual that’s raised them – but everybody else can see that dialogue. There’s transparency.”

It was also colleagues who raised the question of screens in stores. “We listened to their feedback and from getting their suggestions of having screens to actually implementing them was seven days.”

Colleague mental health is a priority for Lincolnshire. “Historically we have done a lot around wellbeing and colleague volunteering because we recognise the positive impact that can have on your mental health,” says Ms Lee. “Much of the volunteering work was face-to-face physical activity together in a particular place, so during lockdown the society introduced opportunities to search for remote volunteering such as befriending services. We’ve also put in place a range of support around mental health and wellbeing. We’re offering all colleagues access to coaching and counselling services, and coaching for people coming back from maternity leave.”

Some of the app’s content is more light-hearted. “One of our post office colleagues posted a picture of her dog – about 30 other colleagues followed up with pictures of their pets. In the middle of a crisis, that brings you back down to earth. It humanises the workplace, reminding people that we’re not just part of the community, but that we are a community.”