Clocking on

Co-op Food: A big shift in how rotas work

Co-op Food – Co-op Group’s local supermarket chain – has enjoyed a facelift in recent years, with revamped stores providing a more welcoming, inviting experience to shoppers.
One aspect of the business that continued to escape attention, however, was its colleague rota system.
Co-op Food employs some 45,000 colleagues throughout the UK, and until recently they were reliant on a paper-based rota system to manage their shifts. While there was an IT system in place to manage rotas, it was unwieldy to use, and only accessible to managers; so rotas would be printed, photographed and shared via Whatsapp groups.
There were several problems with this low-tech method. For one, staff couldn’t be sure the rota always reflected the latest situation. It also meant there was little consistency from store to store, or transparency around who got which shifts.
Staff rotas – and the process used to organise them – are an emotive topic, because they so directly affect the lives of staff. At Co-op Food, many colleagues are on part-time contracts, and have many other demands on their time that these hours must be balanced with.
Providing suitable hours for all staff is not straightforward, and with the old rota system proving so unwieldy and time-consuming to operate, it’s no wonder the colleague/manager relationship could be strained over the issue. Indeed, (not) getting the right shifts was a common complaint raised by those choosing to leave the business.

Fixing the problem

To improve the situation, The Co-op evaluated a number of off-the-shelf products, but each introduced new complexities (the existing system did one very important job: feeding the payroll). To replace the system with one of these would have been an extremely invasive and expensive change.
What was needed was something to augment the existing systems, to address the gaps and be accessible to all colleagues. User research revealed that many users didn’t use a personal email address, but that smartphone use was prevalent.
So, Shifts was conceived: a webapp with the lowest possible barrier to entry, accessible by all Co-op staff, that would put control of scheduling into the hands of users. The delivery team’s vision: to transform the culture and relationships between colleagues and managers by making scheduling simpler and more transparent.
Shifts provides a brand-new front end to a complex existing system. Managers using the old system couldn’t dream of operating it from a mobile device, with screens crammed with tabular information and elaborate menus. Fortunately, the supplier of the back-end system provide an API, so we could get at the data. Shifts makes that data simple to understand and interact with, for all staff.
This solves numerous issues. Before Shifts, if a colleague had any doubts about their payslip they’d have to rely completely on their manager’s word, as only managers could access the control system. Colleagues could raise queries with managers, who could check and report back, but colleagues were always one step removed from the data.
With Shifts, every user can see exactly when they punched-in and out, and a weekly summary of scheduled hours, eliminating the need for many conversations.
The Manager view in Shifts, meanwhile, cleverly assembles pertinent information alongside relevant calls-to-action (for example: a list of team holiday requests with accept/decline buttons alongside, or late clock-outs with options to accept/reject overtime payments).
Previously, managing all this was a laborious process, requiring users to be sat at a desktop. With Shifts, these processes take mere moments – freeing up valuable time to further improve staff and customer experience.

Working together = better product

Shifts is an example of the enterprise-scale collaboration required to put elegant tools into the hands of real users (appropriately, for an app seeking to enhance collaboration between staff and store).
Co-op Digital (Co-op Group’s IT division) worked with Co-op Food (customer and product owner) to deliver the project vision. The agency UsTwo was engaged to deliver detailed user research, and the alpha: an early prototype that was given to 600 users to prove the concept. This 6-month process brought forth a huge amount of validated learnings about what users really wanted.
Over the next 6 months, Equal Experts was engaged to ‘productionise’ the app – re-engineering the alpha from the ground up to provide Shifts as a beta service, ready for rollout to thousands of users.
As it stands, the resulting beta service is still optional and requires colleagues to use their own mobile device and data – but they clearly feel like it’s worth it. Five months after we made the service available nationwide, we have users in every single one of the nation’s 2,600 Co-op Food Stores.  80% of store colleagues and 95% of store managers already depend on Shifts, which has become a vital component of store operation before we’ve even delivered half of the planned functionality.
This was an ideal case study of how multi-supplier engagements should work, with all involved finding something to learn from the other. Co-op’s supplier choice worked well; UsTwo is renowned for its UX expertise, while Equal Experts tends to be recognised for its engineering prowess (although we should point out we have a good number of highly experienced UXers within our number too!). Both these elements came together in the Shifts beta.
Our engineering know-how saw us working with all aspects of the Shifts app to create a product that could eventually be used by all of Co-op Food’s 45k+ colleagues; security, performance, feature set, scalability, and total cost of ownership were all thoroughly examined.

Improving the situation, winning over staff

Now that Shifts is being used by large numbers of users, the reaction remains unanimously positive – from managers and shop-floor colleagues alike. We’re seeing colleagues use the site at least once a day, benefitting from functionality that simply wasn’t available before. For example, colleagues on holiday can use the app to see their hours for the following week; before Shifts, they’d have to text colleagues to ask them to check.
As a result, managers report improving attendance rates, while colleagues appreciate the added control Shifts gives them:
  • “The changes so far have been AMAZING and I for one absolutely love the [Shifts] app! It has been a godsend!”
  • “I love this app, it’s definitely the way forward”
The success of Co-op Shifts has also been acknowledged in industry awards; so far it’s won Best Mobile Application, Best User Experience and the Anthony Wilson Award (decided by the special guest each year, in this case Martha Lane Fox) at the 2018 Big Chip Awards.
More importantly, Shifts will help Co-op Food save millions. Working out rotas now takes a fraction of the time it did before and eliminates confusion, reducing no-shows.
So worthwhile has Shifts proven, in fact, that Co-op is looking at ways to market the product as software-as-a-service. It has the potential to be useful to all kinds of organisations that rely on rota systems, within the Co-op Group and beyond. It’s a good job we built it to be highly scalable…