Introducing our informal cross-Group meet ups

Around 70,000 people work for the Co-op Group across 5 business areas so it’s safe to say there’s a lot of people we’re never going to get to know. It’s really easy to only spend time with people you come into contact with which is a shame because we can learn a lot from colleagues working in other areas.

To help bring people from the Co-op Group together and to start conversations we hold ‘Tea for 3’ meet ups. Over the last 3 years there have been over a thousand meet ups and over 350 people have connected. We’re hoping more people will get involved after reading this post.

The meet ups are an opportunity for colleagues across the business to say hello, find out what other people do and whether they have any common interests inside or outside of work. Ultimately, meeting and chatting to people with different expertise is an excellent way to get different perspectives on solving problems and ways of working.

How it works

The meet ups are open to colleagues across the Group. If you’re interested in getting involved you can sign up to take part. Three people are chosen at random and introduced over email beforehand. They then meet in person, over the phone, videoconference, Google Hangout or however works best.

The next 30 minutes is up to them. We haven’t proposed a series of questions or conversation cards or anything. The whole thing is supposed to be really informal so that conversation will flow freely.

The lowdown from this month

Photograph of Nassali, Sabrina and Mike sitting at a table and smiling at the camera.

We were involved in this month’s Tea for 3 meet up. We are Nassali Douglas, a food project manager in the Retail Support Centre and Sabrina Jacobs, a community programme management office (PMO) manager.

Nassali’s role is to manage changes that affect our food stores. This includes things like our customer service learning and development initiative, Service Rocks, as well as setting up email in our stores to improve the way colleagues can communicate with the business and their communities.

Sabrina helps manage many aspects of the Community Change programme which aims to build on Membership as the community strategy. She also looks after budget management, recruitment, governance reporting and risk and issue management.

The third person at our meet up was Mike Bracken, Co-op’s Chief Digital Officer. Mike is responsible for making the Co-op an organisation that can operate effectively in the digital age.

We spent most of our meeting chatting about how we can use digital to encourage younger people to become Member Pioneers, and how the Digital team is helping some of the exciting developments in our food stores.

If it wasn’t for this meet up, it’s unlikely our paths would have crossed and even more unlikely that we’d spend half an hour chatting and learning from each other.

Tea for 3: networking works

Since the meet ups started, people have made new friends and acquaintances and there have been occasions when people’s informal networking has been useful in other ways.

One example of many would be when Nassali went to a meet up and found out that our Co-op Academies were looking for school governors. The person who told her encouraged her to apply because Nassali had mentioned she had a background in teaching and was looking for a way to reconnect with education. She’s now a governor for the Co-operative Academy of Manchester.

Every now and then you bump into people you’ve met through Tea for 3 and it’s great to already have a connection. It turns out that Nassali will be joining the same team as Sabrina when she moves roles in the next few weeks – good to have a friendly face in a new team.

You can sign up to take part in Tea for 3 or email EA.ThinkTank@coop.co.uk if you have questions about it.

See you for a cuppa soon.

Sabrina Jacobs and Nassali Douglas  
Community PMO manager and food project manager

Our mental health meet ups and why they matter

Mental health problems affect around 1 in 4 people in the UK each year according to the latest stats from Mind. In England, 1 in 6 people say they’ve experienced a common mental health problem, such as anxiety and depression, in any given week.

This week is mental health awareness week so it seems like a good time to talk about how we’ve been supporting each other at Co-op Digital.

Opening up

Getting people to talk is something I’ve been encouraging people to do here for a little while now. Since September last year, I’ve been running a mental health meet up.

I set up the group after finding that opening up about my experience with anxiety helped me. I also noticed that friends and colleagues I’d spoken to would often then open up to me and say things like, “I’ve never talked about this with anyone before”. That’s not good. I wanted to change that. So, twice a month a group of us have been meeting to talk about all issues relating to mental health.

A safe place to speak

I knew the most important thing for anyone who came to the meet ups would be knowing that anything they said would be confidential and for them to feel they were among empathetic people who understood. This way they could talk freely.

So our meet ups started out small and very informal. Everyone was welcome but I didn’t want to risk opening up the group to spectators, which would be easily done in an organisation as big as ours, so I didn’t involve HR.

No minutes, no register, no pressure.

At the meet ups

We hold the 1-hour meet ups on site because it’s hard to find a safe space off site. Doing it on site also means it’s in the open and makes it as accessible for people as possible. There’s no pressure to come to every session. Come when you want to.

Sometimes, we have an agenda but most meetings start with people saying how they’re doing. Then we talk. Loneliness, depression, isolation, medicine, stress, sex, relationships – no topic is off limits. Some like to talk a lot and some don’t like to talk much, and that’s ok. Whatever works for them.

This is a place where you can come to feel reassured you’re not alone, and a place you can let others know that they’re not alone either.

A few guidelines

To keep people safe in the meet ups, we have a set of guidelines that we stick to.

Photograph shows 5 post it notes. 1 says "guidelines" the other 4 have one guideline on each.

  1. Everything said during meet ups is confidential.
  2. There’s no need to apologise for how you feel.
  3. Instead of advice, offer personal experience. Ask, “Can I tell you what I’ve done in a similar situation?”
  4. Try to speak openly. The more we do that, the more we can remove the stigma around talking about our mental health.

Learning as we go

I regularly ask the group how they think the meetings are going. This cycle of feedback means I can continually iterate and do what’s right for the group. In the early days, I learnt that even though what we talk about may be hard and people might feel sad, the meet ups shouldn’t just be a place to be sad together.

To prevent that happening, we try and end on a positive note. We’ll look at a feel-good article or a funny YouTube video or Twitter account. Just something that helps people leave feeling more positive.

In the future

The group has gone from strength to strength and we’re keen for it to become an even stronger support network. We’re throwing around ideas about how we could help more people. At the moment, we don’t know the answers so we’d like to hear from you.

If you’re a Co-op colleague, let us know what you’d like to see. We’d also like to hear how other organisations help their staff. You can leave a comment below (anonymous if you like), or email tom.walker@coopdigital.co.uk

Mental health is a big deal and is often an unseen issue. It affects so many of us and workplaces need to give their colleagues the time to build stable and useful support networks.

Tom Walker
User researcher

Co-op employees, we meet every second and fourth Thursday of the month at 12 noon in Federation House. I post reminders in the #general Slack channel a few days before.