Slack at HMRC Digital: Staying happy, healthy and productive during a crisis

This is the story of how HMRC, an organisation able to trace its roots back to the Middle Ages, used technologies such as Slack to meet the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In March 2020, HMRC Digital was busy—very busy.  Teams were working hard to support the acute spike of work that always accompanies the preparations for the new tax year.  Then Covid-19 hit.

In the early days of the national lockdown, everyone at HMRC Digital understood that the sudden and enforced shift to fully remote working had to be achieved without disrupting business as usual.  And just as teams were adjusting to those new ways of working, the Treasury announced an unprecedented range of Covid-response schemes (including ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ and the Job Retention Scheme, otherwise known as ‘furlough’).  Getting these efforts launched quickly and sustainably was crucial, if colleagues, friends, and neighbours were going to continue to pay their mortgages and feed their families.

The award-winning outcomes HMRC Digital delivered during that strange and difficult period depended on teams being able to collaborate effectively while physically separate.  A major part of achieving this relied on getting the most out of HMRC Digital’s tools of choice, one of which was Slack.

Separate but Together

When Covid-19 forced the country into lockdown, HMRC Digital  was already using Slack. This was a crucial rock on which to build effective remote-first ways of working. Indeed, preserving the human element of work was deemed essential for HMRC Digital to succeed.  

Slack had helped HMRC Digital colleagues – 60 teams comprising some 1,500 people across eight locations – move their conversations out of siloed email inboxes into shared channels, thereby creating an archive of discussions and decisions. Tapping into the collective knowledge of the organisation had become simple and seamless. And when the pandemic struck, communities were strengthened despite physical separation. Slack enabled colleagues to react to good news around the organisation in real time, and celebrate shared successes, regardless of where they were in the country.  And throughout the public health crisis, HMRC Digital used Slack to collaborate with its external partners in shared channels at the right time, in the right way—and that included Equal Experts,  which introduced Slack to HMRC Digital in the first place.

Busy Bees

Equal Experts is a leading software consultancy, and an enthusiastic user of Slack since 2016. In its most popular channel there are now over 2,000 users, which is all the more remarkable because it only employs 800 people! Slack is the glue that binds together the organisation’s complex network of employees, associates, clients (past and present) and external partners.

Part of the value Equal Experts brings to its engagements is the cross-pollination of best practice. In that spirit, it shared with HMRC Digital its experiences with Slack, including advice on how to get the most out of the tool, such as establishing:

  • “Ask” channels, so people can request help and advice
  • “Temporary” channels, so people can gather around an urgent idea or challenge 
  • “Community” channels (e.g., by location or by tool), to help people share news and connect with one another
  • “Public” channels (the default at Equal Experts), so people can freely share knowledge, celebrate  successes, and even tell jokes!
  • “Private” channels, used when sensitive information is being shared

When HMRC Digital made the decision to adopt Slack, Equal Experts gave the organisation one last piece of advice: rely on your people to self-organise. That is, colleagues should be trusted to only join (and stay in) channels that are relevant and useful to them. While writing lengthy guidelines on using Slack can prove handy, and every once in a while it might be valuable to nudge people toward or away from certain channels (or behaviours), the core spirit of autonomous decision-making is crucial.

After HMRC Digital started using Slack, it began to realise the channel-based messaging platform’s value in the context of its unique situation, and HMRC Digital employees made it their own. In doing so, they laid the critical foundations that they’d rely on later, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

To Infinity and Beyond

Remote first.  Peak BAU demand. New ways of working. Massive, unexpected challenges. All these factors could have combined to be detrimental to HMRC Digital’s performance over the past year. But making clever use of tools such as Slack has helped keep the teams safe, happy and productive. In fact, the teams at HMRC Digital have excelled across the board, achieving outcomes for the nation above and beyond expectations. They’ve won multiple awards, including the ‘Best Public Sector IT Project’, and were highly commended for the ‘Best Use of Cloud Services’ by the BCS (The Chartered Institute of IT). Furthermore, the platform team earned a 97% satisfaction rating from customers, prevented billions of pounds of potential fraud, and received personal notes of gratitude from both the Prime Minister and the Treasury.  That is a remarkable good news story, and we all need those now more than ever.