A lot of organisations talk the talk when it comes to putting autonomy at the heart of their culture, but Ocado Group walks the walk.
The global tech company, which provides end-to-end online e-commerce, fulfilment, and logistics solutions to some of the world’s largest grocery retailers, has received Slack’s Digital UK Excellence Award – United Kingdom for its use of Slack to enhance collaboration through intuitive hybrid working. After all, just because someone might be sitting at their desk in Barcelona, it doesn't mean they can’t collaborate with a colleague sitting on the sofa at home in London.
“The ability to collaborate closely in Slack channels where you can get input from the whole group, across different time zones and regions, is a great way of connecting across these locations,” says James Donkin, Ocado Technology’s CTO.
Donkin was part of Ocado’s Slack adoption in 2015, and in September 2021 the whole organisation embraced a digital HQ when it switched to Slack’s Enterprise Grid. Regardless of where an employee might stick their pin on a map, Slack helps Ocado to unite teams, enables flexible and inclusive ways of working, automates work for everyone, and empowers staff. In short, Slack has been critical to ensuring collaboration is at the heart of Ocado’s approach to innovation.
As ever, collaboration starts with getting the culture right throughout an organisation.
“We have open conversations across all levels, and Slack is really good for DM-style conversations,” says Donkin. “We also have leadership question channels where we have ‘ask-me-anything’ chats.
“Culturally we really value people asking direct questions. Everyone’s input is as valid as anyone else’s, and Slack really helps with ensuring we always have diversity of thought, which is so important for innovation.”
Slack supports two modes of working, which Donkin calls synchronous and asynchronous. Employees can either have a conversation in real-time (synchronous), or if they’re busy, or wish to gather their thoughts, they can respond at a later time (asynchronous). Asynchronous working is increasingly important in organisations like Ocado that foster collaboration across different time zones and schedules. A recent steering committee collaboration saw the team use Slack clips to meet asynchronously. The result? What would have been intense, hour-long meetings were condensed into five-minute videos, and then Slack threads were used to action feedback.
This collaborative approach empowers agile working practices. “We get software and hardware out of the door quickly,” says Donkin. “We move quickly and improve it as we go, so learning about things and collaboration is really important. We like to go out there with something simple for the first cut and then iterate, and Slack is great for enabling that at high speed.
“It’s very hard to build anything interesting on your own in one area: our innovation comes from guys in different areas and locations being able to communicate with each other. Slack gives us the power to innovate through its web of connectivity; you can’t mass innovate without it.”
Using Slack’s Workflow Builder and integration library, Ocado empowers teams across the organisation to automate tasks. With hundreds of projects ongoing at any one time, Ocado creates a workflow that grabs updates from Jira and pushes them into Slack channels dedicated to specific projects.
“We have an autonomy approach where, to get things done, we have a high level of trust,” says Donkin. “It’s a bottom-up approach, with decision-makers often quite far down the org and then those decisions get backed-up higher-up. So automation and bots are a big part of the appeal of using Slack. Informing and helping people with their days is really useful: we have bots that let people know what’s going on and can answer questions.
“We use a lot of automation around support incidents, which helps with looking for fixes and improving our processes. This makes Slack a great tool for distributed innovation, helping to improve processes little by little as you work.”
This approach also helps to improve day-to-day working for Ocado staff in a variety of ways. Back when Ocado had fewer charging spaces for electric vehicles, employees who owned EVs set up a Slack channel to share chargers. Adding in a bit of automation, they worked out between them a sharing system to ensure everyone had access to charging spaces when they needed them.
“Because of our culture, we don’t have a central Slack gatekeeper giving permissions to have channels on certain topics, we trust people to set up their own channels,” says Donkin. “It really helps get things done and enables people to manage their information flow, and being able to solve those little problems through Slack without having to use another tool is incredibly useful.”
Don’t forget to have fun
Innovation requires a healthy sprinkling of fun, and the time to step outside of work.
Slack has a series of custom statuses and functions that encourages a better work-life balance (it’s OK to go offline!), and it also encourages social channels. It doesn’t all have to be about work, and Ocado sees the value in its people connecting across shared interests.
“Ocado is a super exciting place internally and when you get on Slack you get to talk to a lot of people with really deep skills in a lot of areas,” says Donkin. “Equally, whether it’s gardening or live music, or anything else, you want people to have fun at work – innovation requires that.”
James Donkin is Chief Technology Officer at Ocado Technology