Borrowing ways of working from the Digital team

I’m a Lead People Partner on the Food People team and I am responsible for Food stores in the north of England. Around 3 years ago, in my last role, I started looking into how we might improve Co-op colleagues’ experiences of our performance process – this led to conversations with the Digital team about how user research can help understand what colleagues really need. It also sparked my curiosity about how Digital teams work.    

Since then I’ve: 

  • spent a week working on Performance for Stores with Digital colleagues James BoardwellHannah Horton and Fiona Linton-Forrest. As a result, the process is now simpler and we removed performance ratings for over 30,000 colleagues.   
  • brought delivery manager Stewart Livingstone in to help us bring different ways of working to parts of the People team.  
  • reconsidered how we communicate with colleagues thanks to regular catch-ups with Hannah Horton.  

Each of these people deliver digital products and services through agile ways of working and this really interested me. It felt like a way to be more inclusive, more democratic and in many ways more efficient. I wondered if the approach could work for some of the teams I am part of.  

Photograph from the week I spent with some of the Digital team. James Boardwell left, Fiona Linton-Forrest on the right

For the last year the Food People team has borrowed and experimented with some of the ways of working we’ve seen in the Digital team. Here are some of the things we’ve tried and the differences we’ve noticed. 

Lean coffees encourage a flatter structure and a more democratic culture  

Lean coffees’ are gatherings that have crowd-sourced agendas. Participants meet and nominate a topic – work-related or otherwise – that they’d like to talk about for a predetermined amount of time. Everyone then votes on what they’d like to hear about next and the facilitator starts the timer. We introduced lean coffee sessions into our team around a year ago and they’ve been a regular hour-long slot ever since. We’ve enjoyed them because they’ve helped us: 

  • improve morale because they give everyone a voice. We’ve heard about concerns and achievements from across the team that we might not have in a more traditional ‘top-down’ meeting  
  • become more concise when communicating – the timer pushes us to say the most important points first and stay on track with our point 
  • create a safe environment which is the first step to better transparency 
  • build and maintain relationships with colleagues (learning about teammate’s lockdown whippet brought much joy) 

We’ve chosen to have the sessions on Fridays because the positivity and the connection with colleagues that we get from them is a nice way to finish the week.  

It’s ok to be uncertain (but it does take a while to feel ok about it) 

During my time with James, Hannah and Annette I learnt about the importance of how we ask someone about something. In short, asking open questions leads us to a more accurate, less biased truth.  

When I started my current role I wanted to find out how me and my team could best support the Operational team. Before I’d spent time with James, I might have made assumptions about the challenges Operations faced, and I might have asked leading questions to elicit responses that would prove that my assumptions were correct. Perhaps that was down to some unspoken expectation of finding a definite answer immediately.   

 But an immediate answer isn’t always accurate so it’s better to sit with your uncertainty. This takes a lot of getting used to if –  like for us –  it’s not your usual way of working.  

Instead, I made sure my questions were open and worded in a way that would give honest, accurate insights. Then, rather than coming up with a plan and a to-do list, I created problem statements. For example:  

  1. How do the Operational team get access to the right people support first time? 
  1. How are we directing our energies on the areas we can impact the most?   

We’re still working on these but they have provided a real anchor for our work. We’ll continue to think about how we ask questions in the future. 
 

Ceremonies are great for visibility 

We’ve also experimented with agile ‘ceremonies’ that the Digital product and services teams  use. They’ve helped keep our teams in the loop – even those who don’t usually work together.  

Some teams have stand-ups 3 times a week which are great for visibility of what we’re all working on as well as being very inclusive. 

We hold regular ‘all hands’ sessions for the wider team too. 

Stewart introduced us to ‘retrospectives’ – dedicated time to reflect, air grievances and talk about how to improve next time. He guided us through various ways to frame the discussions (for example, things we loved, lacked and lost over a certain period of time or piece of work). 
 

Culture isn’t built overnight 

We don’t pretend to have all the answers (and we’re comfortable admitting that now) but by taking what we’ve observed from the Digital team we’ve been moving towards a more inclusive and flexible culture.  

Here we are on a Zoom call. Spot the honorary member of the team…

We’d love to hear about new ways of working you’ve adopted – what’s worked and what has flopped? 

Clare Fogden, Lead People Partner 

Co-op resources we find useful 

Ways of working  

A glossary of terms

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