In March, as the UK first went into lockdown, emergency relief group Re:Act established a National Voluntary Coordination Cell (NVCC) at its headquarters in Wiltshire and deployed regional liaison officers to engage and collaborate with the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership (VCS EP), Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) and the British Army, in a coordinated effort to support the NHS and communities.
Using their expertise in disaster response and situational awareness, Re:Act volunteer liaison officers reporting to the NVCC helped to build a common operating picture of national unmet needs, which were then fed back into the VCS EP to ensure those needs were quickly met with the best available resources.
As part of its response, Re:Act put out a call out to the UK’s veterans to assist the nation. Almost 5,000 stepped forward to volunteer.
During the UK-wide lockdown, the Slack platform played a big role in helping Re:Act bring in ex-British Army veteran volunteers around the country, as Chris Lyon, head of technology and innovation at Re:Act explains.
“We use Slack for pretty much all internal communications. Before Covid-19, we operated in disaster areas around the world, so having a central place for all communications across some very complex topics has been ingrained in our way of thinking from the start.”
For each emergency response, Re:Act sets up a number of specific Slack channels. For instance, for the Covid-19 response, Lyon says the “#op_re_act_ops’ channel was set up for on-the-ground communication, such as staff and volunteer movements and updates, and inter-team low-level questions and collaboration. “We also use a specific channel for our trained volunteers when they are deployed on a task to allow them to send us daily situation reports,” he adds.
According to Lyon, the nature of thread-based communications in Slack is similar to what people with a military background are accustomed to.
“During my time in the military, we used a communication system that has similarities to the thread-based structure of Slack,” he says. “It was only used for very specific operations and to pass on key information, but at the time I always thought that the foundational structure could be used far more effectively as an internal comms tool, as well as a priority information alert system.”
Filtering out the noise
When asked why a collaboration platform like Slack works better than using email for pushing out such communications, Lyon says: “Emails need manual prioritisation, but with Slack our team can quickly get to the information they need for the relief effort they’re working on and mute the channels that aren’t focused on the immediate problem at hand. At the same time, our team back at headquarters has visibility over everything and can ensure everyone is in the loop when they need to be.”
Chris Lyon, Re:Act
In Lyon’s experience, Slack allows individuals at Re:Act to make their own decisions about what information is relevant to them.
Email is also not an instantaneous form of communcation between people, he says.
“I wanted to break away from the endless internal emails I had experienced in the military, especially when emails tend to take a long time to get a response. My civilian job previous to Re:Act had been in employee engagement, so I understood the need for effective internal communications. I decided that we would have a strict ‘no internal email’ policy, and do all of our communications live and collaboratively in Slack, thus speeding up communication and preventing information silos.”
He admits that moving away from email is not straightforward, and people joining Re:Act often have their preferred ways of communicating. “While Slack itself is an incredibly user-friendly and intuitive tool, we have also had to work on promoting a culture of transparency and openness for our team to maximise its potential,” Lyon adds.
“We provide regular training in the best way to use our systems, but more importantly we support them every day to use Slack and other tools more effectively. Ultimately, our users know that the better we communicate, the more people we can help.”
Along with Slack, Re:Act has information stored in numerous other systems, which are used for specific analysis or planning. These can be plugged into Slack. Lyon says this means there is no longer a need to provide team members with updates on information they do not have access to or to provide alerts when there is something important happening outside of the platform.