The roll out right before Thanksgiving turned out better than expected. Having a single centralized spot where everyone could see what was happening in real time was an incredible improvement to the status quo experience of phone tag or tracking people down during the holiday order rush. You could simply post a message and almost instantly see somebody respond to the issue. The staff were blown away by the efficiency of the system. They were sold on Slack.
Slack, an internal messaging app, has been a transformative communication tool for the Weaver Street Market staff. The platform allows users to set up various “channels” for groups to communicate in real time, much like Twitter. Staff can post questions, information, pictures or documents for an entire team, or tag an individual in messages on the channels. While some are private, most channels are public and all information is available to anyone checking that channel’s feed. The switch to posting on Slack from group emails is designed to ensure that everyone who needs information has access to it at all times. Slack has shortened department response times because any staff member can see and reply to a query at any time. It has truly changed the way Weaver Street’s workers communicate with each other—and do business with everyone.
Launched at the co-op right before the 2014 holiday season, there was some trepidation about the learning curve associated with using a new technology right before such a hectic time, but the anxiety turned out to be needless. While many new technologies aren’t always easy to pick up, Slack is fairly user friendly. Anybody who has used Twitter has a baseline understanding for how the system works. The majority of the Weaver Street workers in most age groups were comfortable from the get go.
Using Slack has created efficiencies within Weaver Street’s multi-unit operation. For example, there’s an online form for new SKUs or UPCs that can be posted to the #POS channel. Now all produce department teams at all stores can see that conventional, rather than organic, strawberries came in. Produce teams make new signs and Julie in POS enters the UPC info—all before the berries reach the storefronts. Slack is particularly useful for Weaver Street’s commissary Food House, which sends large amounts of product across the stores constantly. Questions are asked and responded to and snafus are caught and resolved quickly.
Marketing and social media staffers can scan the store channels for promotions, tastings, and other interesting goings-on across locations. Before Slack, time spent calling around to various departments getting information was sometimes fruitful, or not. Now social media channels can be updated more regularly with store and event content, saving labor for other endeavors.
Challenges of Slack
Slack is not without a few hiccups, and Weaver Street is still figuring out how to adjust to them. First, there aren’t set rules as to what types of communication should come through Slack, and not everyone agrees on what they should be. For example, the Southern Village store is missing a case of raisins and @Pete posts a Slack message to @Lisa on #Finance requesting a credit. Lisa doesn’t see the message and Southern Village never gets credited. Pete and Lisa have different perspectives on the proper way of handling the issue. Lisa thinks the request should have been in an email; for Pete, posting on Slack saves him the time of going upstairs to send an email.
Second, sometimes it’s difficult figuring out how other teams are using Slack. Some staff feel there are too many channels and groups set up. And there are still times when “old fashioned” email may be the preferred method of communication. If someone is skittish about or has a lack of understanding of how Slack works, they are less inclined to use it. Sending a file to someone directly without having to contact the whole group is also a gap of Slack.
At Weaver Street, Slack has two different types of users: one group who sits at a desk with a dedicated computer and individual account and the second group who use shared computers and shared accounts. Since the first group is the only one manipulating their account, they maintain better control over what they’ve read. Anyone from the second group can check Slack when they get a chance—sometimes only once a day—and if anyone else who shares the account has read a message, it is no longer highlighted as new. This creates much more work to follow what is being communicated on Slack.
At the Food House, where food production is done and days are highly scheduled, worker owners don’t have the freedom to spend 20 minutes catching up on posts. While Slack in many ways has been essential to improving communication with Weaver Street’s internal customers, an obvious weakness is that it is designed for people with ready access to screens.
The Food House still struggles with figuring out the best way of using Slack. The most successful use of it in that department has been coordinating one or two people per shift to be in charge of keeping up with the app. But this requires a system outside of the app itself, and Weaver Street is still working on what the implementation of that looks like.
And third, an inadvertent hierarchy has been created within the app’s function. At first, Slack communication was restricted to managers who only had access on their computers. Now all staff have access to touchscreens or apps on their phones. Given the costs and logistics associated with giving all staff members individual Slack accounts, managers are given their own accounts, and department team members are given team accounts; if you’re a team member, you have to sign your name to your post to identify yourself. This system has created some feeling of an “us and them” mentality. This issue is perhaps the biggest hurdle that Weaver Street faces integrating Slack into its culture.
Virtual Water Cooler
Despite this, Slack integrates into staff culture well because it’s a tool that mirrors existing types of social media in which people already participate. When Slack first came to Weaver Street, #random allowed people to post silly, fun things. People liked it and it got them used to using it, though eventually it was shut down. Slack has a definitively community feel to it. People genuinely enjoy using it and interacting with one another on it.
Nearly everybody at Weaver Street uses Slack to varying degrees. While non-management staff do not have individual accounts, they have access to team accounts and can pull them up on their phones or on touchscreens in the stores, providing momentary opportunities to step away from the regular work day and engage with each other in a different way. Anyone can stop by a touchscreen to get “the news” and perhaps have a quick hello with a compatriot doing the same. Conversation on Slack is convivial yet professional. Mystery shops are posted on Slack and staff are excited to find out if they “got shopped”.
Supports Co-op Values
Slack is also reflective of the cooperative values of transparency and participation. Information posted on Slack is public and people are encouraged to share, explore and contribute to it. This helps foster the cooperative community culture that’s important to maintain, particularly in large or multi-store co-ops where technological change may be seen as a threat to the old “right way” of doing things. Slack can be viewed and used as a reassuring new technology that addresses the needs of operations while honoring the community environment.
Slack is being used to encourage staff participation in the achievement of co-op goals at Weaver Street Market. Workers have been encouraged to provide feedback or volunteer to work more in-depth on the 2017 business plan by asking questions or making suggestions on #2017Plan. Mostly administrative staff have taken the co-op up on the offer of plan participation, and management is currently thinking about new ways to engage operations staff with less flexibility in their schedules. Slack provides a great space to experiment with optimizing participatory culture at the co-op.
Slack’s constant stream of actual time conversations for special orders for the holidays was a great proving ground for everyday use and showed to be the perfect fit for Weaver Street’s communication needs between locations. Phoning or emailing about orders or corrections was eliminated, saving time and upping customer service quality. Beyond that, Slack provides opportunities to foster the spirit of cooperative culture by supporting participation, feedback and input, openness, and community. Weaver Street’s Slack story is just beginning.
Considerations for General Managers
- Weaver Street’s set-up and costs: Touchscreens + $7/account per month (allows archiving. Free service does not allow archiving.)
- If Slack becomes the expected channel through which staff get information from coworkers, then management should makes expectations for how it is used explicit and impose consequences for not following those expectations.
- GMs need to decide whether to give departments the autonomy to decide how specific types requests and transactions are communicated via Slack, only through email, etc, and they need to hold that department accountable for checking Slack. Supervisors of the departments making the requests should be responsible for training their staff on the proper use of Slack.
- If staff are using their own phones on the floor to communicate about work with each other, there needs to be clear expectations in place that phones aren’t for personal business at the same time. Keep in mind it is very difficult to enforce what people do with their phones on their paid time.
- There is a legal issue of people having access to work communication when not on paid time.