Why we should work in the open

The Co-op Digital blog was set up almost 7 years ago, alongside the digital arm of the Co-op. Since then we’ve matured. We’ve changed our name internally several times, and we now sit as part of the Digital Technology and Data function. But ultimately, we still do the same thing: work with the wider business to help create value for Co-op by focusing on the needs of our customers, members, colleagues and communities. 

Over that time, the frequency of blog posts has changed and the tone of voice has evolved, but the blog is still an important platform for the team to work in the open. This post is about why working in the open is as important to us now as it was then.

Showing, not telling

Working in the open is not about ‘big reveals’ or PR-style spin. 

It’s about communicating in short, frequent updates. It’s about accepting that things will not always go to plan, and being comfortable about acknowledging that.

If you’re not used to working in this way, it’s scary. It can be terrifying for lots of reasons and the ones we hear a lot are:

  • What if our competitor sees our open working and steals our ideas?
  • Will I look incompetent if I admit that something didn’t go to plan?
  • I don’t have time to write about the work – I’m too busy doing the work.

They’re common worries but they come from the idea that working in the open means telling everyone every single detail. There are different levels of being open though, and working openly isn’t about sharing commercially sensitive stuff, talking about daft mistakes or churning out reams of detail for the sake of it. 

This post explains 5 reasons why it’s a good idea to work in the open.

1. It helps us own our own narrative

It’s important to have control over telling our own story. Proactively talking a little bit and regularly about the work we’re doing increases the chances of our reputation being one we can be proud of. We can help to create and influence our own reputation by sharing what we are, and what we know. The more we do that, the better our reputation becomes. It should be based on the work we do and the culture we build along the way. We are best positioned to talk about both. 

It is human nature to fill in gaps in narratives. Silence from a team leaves it at the mercy of someone else’s assumptions and although this is not malicious (it’s often subconscious), it’s dangerous because assumptions can quickly become the ‘truth’ if we’re not told otherwise. 

The New Happy’s illustration is a useful way to think about this (adapted for the context of this post).

Image shows 3 squares made up of dots. the one on the left shows the dots as different colours and underneath is captioned: our work/our thinking. the square in the  middle shows the outline of those same dots but without colour apart from a single yellow dot. it's captioned: what we see. the right-hand square has the same amount of dots but this time they're all yellow and is captioned: what we assume
Graphic to illustrate how easy it is to assume.

In other words, the more we show people, the less they have to guess.

Across various platforms including the Co-op Digital blog, we’ve been careful not to leave gaps in our story that assumptions could fill. Co-op is a gigantic, well-established, traditional business; rightly or wrongly, with each of those adjectives comes a set of assumptions. Co-op Digital was established to help Co-op thrive in the internet era so it was extra important that we began to talk about this new chapter to show everyone how we were moving forward.

2. It helps attract talent

Talking openly about our work and its challenges on the blog, on Twitter and at events has helped Co-op build a reputation as a good place for design, product and delivery people to work on things that matter.

The blog has played a huge part in recruitment: it’s helped us show what we’re doing and what we’re thinking right now which distances us from the typical recruitment site which might include rose-tinted representations of what working here is like. Our culture can be inferred from our blog posts and they’ve given potential employees a good indication of what it’s like to be part of the team – more so than a job advert ever could.

image shows a tweet from Katherine Wastell (ex head of design and customer experience at Co-op). her tweets says: Amy led one of the most impactful things we did 
, the blog.

With her guidance, it helped us recruit super talented people, influence internal teams, and reflect on our direction.

If you want to make change happen, write about it in the open.
Tweet from our former Head of Experience Strategy and Design, Katherine.

image shows a message in slack from Phil Wolstenholme that says: the blog was the reason i applied to/got interested in working at co-op and i'm sure plenty of other people would say the same too.
Message from Lead front-end engineer, Phil, on Slack.

image show a tweet from caroline that says: also I know this is really cheezy but back when i didn't work at 
 but it was my dream job, I used to read the blog all the time and think "wow they do cool stuff, what a great place to work" and so to have my thing featured on the blog makes me really happy
Tweet from our former software engineer, Caroline Hatwell.

3. It helps us build trust

Working in the open – particularly on the blog – has helped us build trust between ourselves and our colleagues, stakeholders, community and customers. It has meant we’ve been able to show our work while it is in progress, including the things we’re finding difficult and the things that haven’t gone to plan. This authenticity has gone a long way towards building trust because, in contrast, many companies only publish slick, polished PR which can feel a bit too shiny to be an honest reflection of what’s happening. 

It’s reassuring to see the more human side of an organisation. People tend to respect those who are humble, who show they are thinking, admit they don’t know everything, but are committed to learning.

We choose to put our authentic collective self out there and be vulnerable because this is the behaviour that we encourage. And as research professor Brene Brown says [paraphrased]: 

“In the workplace, if there is no vulnerability, there’s no creativity. If there’s no tolerance for failure, there’s no innovation…” 

4. It helps create a community

Blogging and tweeting have helped us find people and teams who are working on similar things in other organisations. It has also helped people from other organisations find us too. For example, Jamie Kane published a post about how a voice user interface could help our colleagues in Funeralcare, and user researcher Mirabai asked us for advice – she was looking at the user experience of registering a death on a council’s website.

image shows a direct message in twitter from mirabai to jamie. she says: i'm a user researcher at croydon council and i just read your blog post. i'm planning and designing a research to understand users' experience in registering a death through our website. i was doing some reading about this sensitive topic and carrying out research on it. do you have any advice or things i should know?
Twitter conversation between an external user researcher, Mirabai and Co-op user researcher, Jamie.

When Jamie and Mirabai spoke they learnt from each other – the conversation was mutually beneficial. However, talking about a subject openly makes us visible and it positions us as experts by default and communities build around this. (We’ve spoken about our Funeralcare work here). This has happened with many posts but memorably on accessibility, design systems, and our mental health meet-ups.

5. It makes governance easier

Show and tells, weeknotes, and blog posts are all ways of working in the open but depending on the situation, we don’t always refer to the methods in those terms. However, we do always look for opportunities to get our work (and our plans for what’s next) under the noses of people with expertise in other parts of Co-op, beyond our immediate team. We’ve had some success but this one is dependent on creating the conditions where these become the right touch points for decision makers. It takes time and we constantly work on this.  

In theory though – and we’ve seen this to varying degrees – working in the open can help with governance because: 

  1. Stakeholders have regular opportunities to informally feed back any concerns and flag things that may become a problem later on. It means we are far less likely to spend too much time or money pursuing something that isn’t viable. 
  2. A more collaborative approach increases empathy and understanding between us and our stakeholders. Show and tells, weeknotes and blog posts help us involve them from the start and earn their trust. Working in this way means governance can be less arduous and lighter-touch than it might be if our siloed team built something and submitted it to a formal reporting process for a panel of gatekeepers to run checks on something they haven’t seen before.

👑 Long live our blog

I recently left Co-op, but the team knows the value of the blog and is determined that it will continue. The keys to the blog will sit with Head of Content Hannah Horton for now and you can read my blogging guidance to find out more about the process.

Amy McNichol