How to improve ways of working for 70,000 Co-op colleagues

Where do you start?

The Co-op employs nearly 70,000 people, across six main businesses, Food, Banking, Insurance, Legal, Funeralcare and Electrical. It also has many divisions within those (for example Co-op Digital) who also have different needs within each business.

Co-op opening in Rochdale

Co-op opening in Rochdale” (CC BY 2.0) by The Co-op Group

It’s a complete minefield for research which covers the breadth of the business. For example, the needs of Food employees in Manchester differ significantly to those within Funeralcare homes in Leeds.

We were working on behalf of Co-op Digital, a relatively new organisation within the Co-op. They asked us to work with their IT department who were about to embark on a massive project to improve ways of working and cross-team collaboration on things like file sharing and communication with each other and with external parties outside of the business.

One Angel Square

One Angel Square” (CC BY 2.0) by The Co-op Group

Understand how people work together

We wanted to understand how people are currently managing to complete tasks on a daily basis. We hypothesised: “people are trying to get a job done, and the route to completing that task is troublesome”. We had some insight from the team that this might be true, so we focused on asking questions about how people currently complete tasks, and observing that rather than just asking people what they want.

We needed to answer a few simple questions about Co-op colleagues:

  1. How does this person work?
  2. What do they struggle with day to day?
  3. How do they communicate with other colleagues?
  4. Hypothesis: How might we help?

“people are trying to get a job done, and the route to completing that task is troublesome.”


We explored the jobs people are trying to get done and how they complete those tasks. It often (in Angel Square) covered software solutions such as using Excel to plan shifts or balance finance sheets or using WhatsApp to share photographs between a team. To explore what the real need was though we needed to remove these solutions from the conversations. We designed a hypothetical scenario to understand how someone would solve the problem without their current solution. Their existing solution was often a short-term solution masking a more significant problem.

“If we were to remove [the most important tool] from you, how would you go about getting this task done?”

That question often dug out the core need. So we developed from the useless “I need to use WhatsApp” to the useful “As a publicist, I need to share media from an event so that I can send these to my team to publish them in real time”.

A Co-op User Need

After starting the interviews, we saw a pattern of colleagues solving their own needs and having issues with some policy procedures, so we added in two more questions we needed to answer:

  1. What needs have colleagues solved for themselves?
  2. What does the business block?

Context is critical

A photo of Co-op retail depot

If you don’t manage to see where your users work you’ll struggle to design for their needs. We encourage understanding context in addition to understanding what people are trying to do.

We needed to see how some of the harder to reach Co-op colleagues work together, and how their time is managed each day. To gain more insight we visited various Co-op businesses (Insurance, Food stores, Food depot at Lea Green and Funeralcare homes) to see how the way they work might be affected by introducing new tools.


The Collaboration team Some of the methodologies we follow in the digital industry are challenging and different. It’s all still a new practice of delivering digital services instead of low-level solutions and concentrating on user needs, not requirements in addition to other processes such as Scrum. The team at the Co-op are very experienced and extremely good at what they do. That mentality and skill meant we all developed our unique method of delivery as a team combining two different ways of working into one.


Our research suggested that a software solution (Co-op were evaluating Office 365 and G-Suite in parallel) would solve some of the collaboration issues we observed, but without structural change to Governance and Policy and a shift in framing the problem, it was likely to be less successful. We had some (not exhaustive) examples of problems to solve culturally:

  • If users can’t enable their webcam due to security concerns, for example, video conferencing would be impossible.
  • If users can’t access the WiFi from their mobile this would restrict how they work with colleagues
  • If users can’t do [the thing they’re trying to do] with Co-op solutions, they will create their own solutions and solve their individual needs
  • If users misunderstand Governance they can often give up trying to complete a task they’ve not necessarily even started

James Boardwell (Head of User Research) from Co-op Digital said “This was a really hard topic to research because as work and personal lives blur it’s becoming messier to mandate a way that people have to get jobs done - we’re using different products for different jobs and contexts e.g. Slack, WhatsApp, facebook, Google (Android). If organisations mandate ways to work that don’t work well for users they’ll find their own happy path to get a job done.”

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