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Cutting employees some Slack: The rise of messaging apps in retail

Slack’s 2019 stock market debut raises the profile of enterprise collaboration software, but what options do retailers have in this space and how are they using the technology?

Collaboration software company Slack’s New York Stock Exchange listing has been one of the most eagerly anticipated technology offerings of 2019.

With Slack’s messaging services entrenched in multiple sectors, including retail, where it counts the likes of Benefit Cosmetics, Intu Digital and Walmart-owned Jet.com as customers, there are high hopes about its future growth as a public entity.

Fundamentally, it is a digital messaging, collaboration and information-sharing platform for enterprises, providing an alternative to email and physical noticeboards.

Talking to retailers, it is clear why there is a market for the technology offered by companies such as Slack. As many of them face falling profits and squeezed margins, there are calls from the sector to break down internal operational silos and for head offices to better align with the wider workforce to help turn around their fortunes.

And for brands and retailers that are already performing well, there are also potential benefits.

Clarins UK managing director Debbie Lewis says her company’s adoption of Workplace by Facebook – another enterprise collaboration platform – is positive for management and front-line staff alike.

“We were very much top-down driven, pushing out communications and what I really wanted to bring to [the team] was an opportunity for them to share their thoughts and ideas – not just with us, but with their colleagues as well,” says Lewis.

“One of the challenges sometimes of being the managing director of a business is that you get told what people want you to hear – you don’t always get told what is actually happening.”

Lewis says the Facebook platform enables her to see “what is truly happening out there”, be it how staff are reacting to new products, how they share ideas, or how things are generally going for them, while also alleviating the isolation that store staff can sometimes feel.

“Having come from the shop floor, I know what an incredibly lonely experience it can be at times,” she says. “No matter how your company tries to talk to you through training seminars or communication, you can feel incredibly isolated.”

A range of companies offer collaboration software platforms and technology for use in internal communications – all promising slightly different functions. Workplace by Facebook sits in the larger players category alongside Microsoft’s Yammer and Slack, but alternative options from the startup community are also gaining traction.

Among those are StorIQ, Yapster and Zipline. Meanwhile, Atlassian – owner of list-making enterprise software Trello – discontinued its Stride and HipChat propositions in 2018, selling the intellectual property to Slack in exchange for a stake in the business.

Research from Workplace by Facebook underlines why this technology is becoming important to everyday operations in retail.

In a survey of more than 4,000 front-line workers and headquarters managers in the US and UK, 86% of respondents said they felt connected to their direct co-workers – but only 14% felt connected to their business’s HQ.

A quarter of employees said they have had an idea in the workplace but never told anyone, while 38% have shared their idea, only for it to be ignored. Some 54% of employees claimed to feel voiceless, while 21% of front-line workers would consider quitting if they were not listened to.

Breaking down barriers

Yammer is deployed at large companies such as supermarket chain Sainsbury’s and DIY retail group Kingfisher, while Facebook’s collaboration tool is well regarded by the likes of Farfetch and O2 parent Telefonica.

Some retailers say they are attracted to startups like Yapster because they feel they can shape product development and foster closer working relationship with suppliers.

Other retailers have expressed concerns about deploying Facebook in a corporate environment when the technology is so widely associated with usage in people’s personal lives. Personal messaging platform WhatsApp can evoke similar feelings within the workplace.

Clarins UK made a conscious move to take it off company mobiles during the onboarding process of Workplace by Facebook because it wanted a centralised communication tool.

Nicky Prangley, HR service manager at doughnuts and coffee chain Krispy Kreme, says the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) prompted a need for an official tool and a WhatsApp alternative on which to share company information. At the start of 2018, she chose Yapster for the company’s UK and Ireland business, and credits it with opening up a previously hard-to-foster communication link between support team and front-line staff.

“A lot of our sites are box stores [in shopping centres] where there is no noticeboard to pin anything to, so how do we communicate with staff in that environment who probably only see another member of Krispy Kreme staff when they hand over shifts?” says Prangley.

“Yapster has opened up a whole new audience for communication because it used to be directed from support office to managers, before filtering down to their teams.”

The technology is also entwined with the business’s growth story, she adds. “As we get bigger and bigger, it’s a case of keeping that small business feel – and that’s where Yapster becomes really important.

“We have sites from Scotland down to Devon, so how do we make sure everyone feels like they are part of the Krispy Kreme family?”

This month, Krispy Kreme will launch a new digital HR and payroll platform, where all documents, rotas and administration can be held and accessed from one location. Prangley wants to use it for core corporate communications, with Yapster used as an adjacent vehicle for celebrating success and good practice within the organisation.

“The combination of that and Yapster means we can contact people across the business within seconds,” she says.

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Celebrating success, sharing ideas and linking management to the front line is fundamentally the way Honest Burgers – a rapidly growing burger chain with 35 sites and 650 employees across the UK – uses Workplace by Facebook.

Daniel Davis, internal communications project lead at Honest, says the business has been on a strong growth trajectory and is adding customers year by year, but he believes the focus must now turn to the firm’s own people if this expansion is to continue.

Davis says Honest Burgers’ growth strategy is “happy people = happy customers = happy business”, but like many hospitality companies, staff retention is a key pain point.

“We’ve spent 10,000 hours recruiting, onboarding and training new starters at Honest Burgers in the last year, only for them to walk out of our business within the first 90 days,” he says.

“It’s a huge challenge to tackle, especially considering the external factors – the impact of Brexit on the supply of fantastic European applicants, increasing costs and the pressure this puts on stable pay, plus the overall perception of our industry as a place to make a great career.”

Commenting on one key reason why Workplace by Facebook was introduced at Honest, Davis says: “We think we need to do everything we can to make it easier for everyone in our business to do their jobs.

“We want to remove the barriers that frustrate and undermine, and ensure we create an environment where staff can have a voice that is listened to when things aren’t right.”

Big choices

Many retailers continue to use collaboration tools such as Microsoft Office’s SharePoint or Google G Suite’s offerings which are provided as part of their wider enterprise software package investment and are subject to regular updates. Some are integrating separate apps into the main software suites.

Russell Thompson, retail operations manager for Paul Smith, says the designer fashion brand has used SharePoint for many years and it is still the “primary mechanism for moving content around the retail estate and across different time zones”.

“A softer tool for communicating information across the business is our rewards and recognition platform,” says Thompson. “We partner with Reward Gateway, which has a portal that allows us to blog, and upload content – official or unofficial.”

Jo Graham, a technology director at supermarket chain Morrisons, told Computer Weekly last year that Google Communities was gaining traction within the company. News on product quality, IT glitches or work events, for example, can be shared across departments, and the platform opens lines of communication between the shop floor and business leaders.

“It is linked to my Gmail, and I’ve organised my desktop to separate it from my normal email,” says Graham, adding that Morrisons previously used Facebook’s business platform before phasing it out.

“For me as a technology director, it’s a really good way of seeing what’s going on in our world,” she says.

Communication shift

According to the Workplace by Facebook research, 95% of business leaders said they recognise the value of collaboration tools, but only 56% have rolled them out, showing significant growth potential in this segment of the technology market.

Back in 2014 when Slack came into existence, its website and marketing message trumpeted: “Imagine all your team communication in one place, instantly searchable, available wherever you go. That’s Slack.”

Thanks to collaborations, acquisitions and an open application programming interface (API) approach, that proposed scenario has become a reality for a plethora of businesses using the technology, including many retailers and hospitality companies.

About the same time as Slack emerged, its co-founder, Stewart Butterfield, said: “The world is in the very early stages of a 100-year shift in how people communicate, and we are determined to push the boundaries.”

Five years on, and after a period of major technological change and a host of new collaboration tools coming to market – not to mention the recent hullabaloo over the Slack flotation – he may just have had a point.

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