Over the course of several meetings, members of the informal co-op communications committee have drafted a set of recommendations. If implemented, we feel these recommendations would help the co-op thrive financially and culturally and improve the working environment for the benefit of the board, staff, and membership.
The co-op’s striking past success (which may seem puzzling given its lack of financial precision and management framework) can be attributed partly to the market niche it filled, but also in a large part to the enthusiasm the co-op’s mission inspired in its members, staff and management.
This enthusiasm is a valuable business asset that requires attention and care to maintain. Falling employee morale and member commitment are a problem of the same order as uncontrolled staffing costs and product margins: tangible, negative business impacts are the result. Unlike margins and costs, though, there are no straightforward ways to repair disaffected staff and customers. On the other hand, policies that improve the staff and member experience without adding costs are a clear win-win – more productive and engaged employees, more enthusiastic members, and a more pleasant environment for all.
The recommendations fall into three broad categories:
- Communications flow and quality – Adopt an organization-wide respectful communication protocol, establish a staff consultation process, and enhance membership communication through an online discussion forum or member surveys.
- Policy clarity and consistency – Establish an accountable and morale-building performance review process, establish a well defined incremental staff discipline process, and clarify the current operational arrangement inlight of the co-op rules.
- Organizational development – Undertake strategic planning, and encourage opportunities for staff, board, and members to interact in a relaxed fashion outside the normal workplace context.
1. Communications flow and quality
1.1 Adopt a policy to promote respectful communication within the co-op. Higher co-operative morale leads to better productivity, a more pleasant working and shopping environment, and ultimately a stronger organization with better staff retention, volunteer commitment, and customer loyalty. Fearful, personally negative, and ad hominem communications among staff, board, and members undermine this organizational culture and damage morale. To help prevent this, the board could adopt a resolution that specifically encourages good professional communication and provides mechanisms for avoiding harmful communication. This could be particularly effective if the process included co-op staff as well as the board, facilitating a commitment to more responsible communication throughout the organization.
1.2 Establish a formal staff consultation process for board and managerial decisions. Co-op staff have considerable experience in the local retail environment and detailed first-hand knowledge of the co-op’s operations. To help make this knowledge accessible, a staff consultation process could be implemented in which pending board and management decisions are circulated amongst affected staff and an adequate time period is given for comment and discussion before the decision becomes final. This would not only provide greater knowledge to support management and policy decisions, but it would also ensure that the staff feel that their experience and expertise are not being wasted, and that they can contribute to important co-op decisions.
1.3 Add a discussion forum or other interactive features to the co-op web site. An online forum could facilitate open, responsible discussion of co-op subjects among members, provide a channel for customers to suggest products and comment on product selection, and give an additional way for the board to assess the needs and wishes of the membership. Moderation and a no-anonymous posts policy could prevent inappropriate content from degrading the forum. (Note: Adam McKenty has offered to set up and moderate this forum on a volunteer basis if approved by the co-op.)
1.4 Solicit the membership’s views through a quarterly ‘Progress Report Card’ or other quantifiable means of membership input. As a democratic organization, the co-op benefits from input from the membership. Results from a membership ‘Report Card’ or survey could help to focus the board and staff’s efforts on things that are important to the membership, and give a sense of how the co-op is performing from the members’ perspective. Categories could include: membership benefits and product value; product selection; customer service; store atmosphere and aesthetics; and general co-op direction and philosophy. Members could rate the co-op on these items and also rate the relative importance of each of these categories. Communications committee members have agreed to help draft the report card questions and assist with implementing a quarterly membership input mechanism.
Section 2. Policy clarity and consistency
2.1 Establish a system of peer review and objective performance assessment for co-op staff. As human resources professionals have discovered in the larger business world, well balanced and constructive performance reviews can be highly beneficial for both the worker whose work is being assessed and the organization as a whole. When conducted well, outside feedback can provide directionand a clear framework for ongoing progress and performance improvement, and heightened morale. Conversely, if negative feedback regarding productivity or competence is delivered without appropriate context and constructive framing or with personal bias, the opposite result is achieved: damaged morale and unhappy, unproductive staff who hesitate to invest their work with full enthusiasm and energy. To help encourage the former and discourage the latter, the co-op could consider adopting an official performance review policy, either based on a peer-review system (where workers anonymously give feedback to their co-workers) or a ‘360’ review that includes staff, management and board. Here are a couple of articles on performance reviews that may provide useful starting points:
2.2 Review current hiring and decision making process in light of the co-op’s Rules. According to the co-op’s Rules, at least 50% of the directors are to be staff, there is to be a ‘management committee’ of staff members that shares hiring and management responsibilities with the board, and staff are only to be hired who have already worked for the co-op on a volunteer basis. Section 18 of the Cooperative Association Act stipulates that the co-op’s Rules are binding on all the members to the same extent as if they had been signed as a contractual covenant.
It may be that these rules need to be altered, or do not represent an effective management framework forthe co-op’s current size and complexity. Whether the rules need to be changed is something that has to be decided by a special resolution voted on by the membership. In the mean time, the board and staff could present some kind of a statement regarding the terms under which the co-op is operating outside of its Rules, whether this is a short term arrangement, and what plans are in place for either proposing an amendment to the Rules to the membership or bringing the co-op’s policies into compliance with them in the future.
2.3 Establish a well-defined staff discipline process. In order to reduce time and energy wasted on dramatic and unpleasant repercussions from staff discipline efforts, a policy could be adopted that lays out a sequence of disciplinary actions that are to be taken in cases where inappropriate staff behaviour comes to the attention of the board or management. This could start with a conversation to let the staff member know that there is an issue that requires attention and find out his or her perspective, then go on to more formal notifications or letters of reprimand if necessary.
Section 3. Organizational development
3.1 Undertake strategic planning. As noted in Marty Frost’s summary report from June 2011, the co-op would benefit from a clear strategic plan that reflects the mission of the organization and informs the decisions of the board and management. This could be developed by bringing together board, staff, and membership representatives in a facilitated planning process under the guidance of Marty Frost or another experienced organizational development professional, with an aim to produce a coherent strategic plan that will serve to guide the co-op and give it a solid sense of long-term direction. Strategic planning would likely be an approved use of funds that need to be spent under the CDI grant agreement.
3.2 Encourage opportunities for staff, board, and members to interact outside the day-to-day coop context. Stronger personal relations amongst staff, board, and co-op members could help put co-op-related friction and challenges into a larger, more forgiving context. Meals, work-bees, and other social events that include staff, board, and co-op members could help facilitate informal communication and greater common understanding and shared direction amongst all those involved in the co-op.