Smartphone apps. Image: Jorg Greuel / Getty Images

How can unions choose which tech tools will work for them?

Over the course of the pandemic, every organisation has had to come up with new ways of getting things done. For unions, that’s meant a lot of hard thinking and experimentation about ways to organise workers without them being able to meet face-to-face.

While this isn’t a completely new trend (as William Gibson famously said: “the future’s here, it’s just not very evenly distributed”), these moments of great acceleration can leave organisations looking back at their former selves, wondering how they were ever the way they were.

Suddenly, everyone working for a union has had to use new tools and behave differently to do their work. And bringing a much wider range of new tech tools into the organisation so quickly has had lots of wider implications for unions.

Among organisers, another quote (this time from management guru Peter Drucker) is apt: “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. In a moment of crisis, in the absence of time to develop a “strategy”, people use their organisational culture to guide their actions. 

As one organiser put it: “Organisers are going to organise. They’re going to use whatever tools they have to hand. Lock them alone in a room and they’ll find a way to do their work.” 

So, when it came to February/March 2020, suddenly locked down at home, that’s what they did. 

The TUC Digital Lab session on October 26th 2021 explored the technology side of these experiences, but also the personal and organisational aspects. In doing so, we considered the trade-offs involved in moving quickly, and often independently, and looked at how the gains made might be sustained into the future.

How things changed

In response to lockdown, a number of key challenges and associated adaptations emerged:

Getting timely, expert information to people

In the early days of the pandemic, when so much was unknown and the news was changing hourly, UNISON simply doubled down on using its website and social media to help members understand what to do. Based around getting updates online as soon as possible after the daily Government press conferences and building comprehensive, dynamic resources about what workers should actually do, the union ripped up their existing publishing model and moved to a war room footing. 

The concentration on a few channels also allowed UNISON to get the best advice to everyone at once: “We really focussed on getting our subject matter experts in front of people. Having to do everything online helped us put our best people in front of members as much as we could and scale up their impact. This even extended to getting speakers from abroad, whom we might not previously have even approached.”

Setting up virtual events

In a similar vein, to serve the urgent need for information and coordination among members, the NEU described how they were suddenly running online events with tens of thousands of participants Zoom-ing in from around the country. 

Unions widely report that at a local level virtual meetings attracted attendances that were much more representative of the membership than a traditional meeting, allowing new faces to be seen and voices to be heard, often for the first time. Branch meetings, chaired by reps mostly over Zoom, grew in size and activity. 

Improving internal coordination

Many unions were already switching to tools like MS Teams, but the need to coordinate internal work sped this up further. It also brought about new connections, such as Prospect’s decision to create a new “Digital Organiser” position, in part to lead on new campaigns, but also to help colleagues explore new ideas and get trained up for a world where the canteen or break room was no longer accessible. 

We have heard stories of increased online collaboration, with people working together on co-authored plans and documents. Cloud based software like Office365 or Salesforce also enabled digitisation of old, and often paper-based, processes through automated workflows.

Turning office-based work into remote work

Lastly, the purely operational side of having to do things differently was discussed. There was a big investment in the tech unions needed to work remotely. UNISON told us: “the central IT function was working on keeping everyone going, sorting laptops, webcams, video conferencing, internet connections. All the stuff that just keeps the operation going.” 

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Some things are more complex to migrate to a remote-first world: “Our Helpline, which is run from our call centre, took a few weeks to start operating remotely. This meant we were unable to offer that service initially.”

What didn’t go well

Not everything about creating a new approach to technology and organising in the middle of a global pandemic was successful. Unions experienced:

Fracturing across services

Participants reported that, for the most part, there was an obvious tool for a particular job (there are reasons why we “Whatsapp” or “Zoom” – services that have become verbs are always a reasonable default), but that wasn’t always the case. For example, one union, while part way through an organisation-wide migration to Teams, found that the other half was using Slack to meet exactly the same needs – a mess that later had to be untangled.

This adds in problems of support as well. Union IT teams are often under-resourced, and there is no way they can add effective support for a portfolio of tools that is constantly changing. Staff and reps making use of new tech tools are therefore often doing so “on their own”, without organisationally provided training and tech support. That can bring risks in inappropriate or insecure use of software, or in wasted time trying to solve tech problems that arise. 

GDPR compliance

Data protection law remained a big concern. Participants reported feeling occasionally paralysed by concerns about what would happen with member data split across tens or hundreds of laptops, phones and services. 

This is one of the biggest risks on the TUC’s own digital risks register – that blossoming use of new tech tools in different parts of the organisation might create new silos of personal data, separate from core systems. These might not even be known by the data protection team – and are therefore much less controlled should an urgent issue arise. 

Whilst it’s clear that data in services used by union staff or reps (such as old survey responses in a SurveyMonkey account) falls under the union’s overall data protection responsibilities, this can be hard sometimes for people to identify when signing up for a new service. There were also interesting discussions about “whose data” things like Whatsapp group conversations actually were. Are they the union’s? Or the members? Or does each message belong to the person who wrote it? 

Neither of these were totally new concerns, but they were amplified by the need to move quickly. There was a generally recognised need for further, “always on” GDPR training for a wide range of union staff and reps. Improving the awareness of processes around data protection can also help. This might mean checking new services’ data protection agreements are compatible with GDPR before signing up. It also means keeping data asset registers, to at least know where data is stored and how it can be accessed quickly if needed for something like a subject access request. 

Zoom fatigue

For many used to in-person organising and meetings, the switch to virtual settings was tolerable, but only for so long. A long Zoom meeting can be more exhausting than a face-to-face one. Repeated day in, day out, managing this burnout became more pressing (and the yearning for the ‘normality’ of the past became stronger). 


With the proliferation of Zoom meetings came the proliferation of Zoom accounts run by officials, branches, activists and more. Many new services are priced on a tiered basis for personal accounts, with different parts of the union signing up for their own contracts. As well as the fragmentation of shared aspects of the service (like union wide contact lists) and the fragmentation of data assets, this leads to a fragmentation of costs. 

Rather than specifying tools under a central IT budget, different teams can end up renting new tech for themselves, solely for their own areas. Though many cloud-based tools charge only a few pounds per person per month, those costs can really mount up over the scale of an entire organisation. Often a large number of low-tier personal accounts can end up costing the union more than combining into an enterprise level account, which also often adds considerable functionality too. 

For NASUWT, the proliferation of new Zoom accounts at a branch level was a concern. They reached out to Zoom, who helped them identify, collate and unify their accounts, bring them onto a single domain and saving them money. Zoom also offered dedicated training sessions for staff and branches using the shared account. Combined with the union offering to pay branch costs centrally, this became a big incentive for branches to switch to the union-wide plan. For NASUWT, it was clearly worth acting early to nip this in the bud from a cost perspective, but it also helped the union standardise around support to branches and on data protection.

It’s also worth considering that whilst many tools are provided free of charge, there are compromises that the union may have to make to use them, as discussed above. A free tool that causes issues elsewhere may end up having a higher overall cost to the union than picking the right paid one. 

The blurring of professional/private lives

Many spaces that union staff now commonly find themselves in – groups, chats and so on – require the use of personal accounts to access them. Sometimes this is also true for emails and files, which end up mixed up within personal accounts. This creates a tension between things that seem private, and the things needed to do the job. Organisers particularly report this in terms of things like shared work and personal use of community tools such as WhatsApp and Facebook groups.

Alongside this, the “always on” nature of these venues made it hard for some Lab participants to switch off from work. Everyone has their own degree of tolerance for this, but it’s clearly worth establishing some firm boundaries where possible. As with the sense of “Zoom fatigue”, a digital-first way of working isn’t a panacea – we are all still learning the best ways to look after ourselves as we do more and more of it.

What’s being used?

We gathered a snapshot of tools being used across unions who took part. Here are just a few of the tools that unions might be using at different levels of the organisation and in different stages of union organising:

(Finding workers and getting first contact with them)
Forms – Web survey software in MS Office 365
Survey Monkey – Web surveys and polls
Jotform – Web surveys with interactive features
Typeform – Flexible web surveys with integrations
Facebook – Organic and paid social campaigns
Eventbrite – Event sign up and ticketing
(Building members’ connection to the union)
Zoom – Video calls, meetings and webinars
Mailchimp – Email broadcast
Teams – Video meetings in MS Office 365
CallHub – broadcast and interactive SMS
Crowdcast – Webinars
Eventsential – Large event management
Mentimeter – interaction in events
Slido – interaction in events
VideoScribe – Animated video creator
YouTube – video publishing
Canva – tools to create templated marketing
(Helping members to take action)
Action Network – Campaign CRM with actions
iParl – Email and petition campaign tools
DoGooder – Email and petition campaign tools
Megaphone – TUC petitions and email actions
ThruText – Peer-to-peer SMS campaigns (helping activists text members at scale)
(Helping members work together)
Teams – Community and messaging in MS Office 365
Jamboard – Basic online whiteboard
Miro – Advanced online whiteboard
Google docs – Collaborative document creation
Google drive – Shared file storage
DropBox – Shared file storage
Sharepoint – Shared file storage in MS Office 365
Monday – Workflow tools for teams
(Networking members together and building leadership)
WhatsApp – Mobile group messaging
Facebook groups – Social media group subscription

Shadow IT

If the pandemic had hit even a decade ago, the ability of individuals and organisations to adapt would have been far less.

The existence of this wide range of cloud-based SaaS (software as a service) tools allowed unions to support members in greater numbers and in a deeper way than would previously have been possible. These tools don’t require the purchase and installation of software on a user’s computer. You can access their functionality anywhere, and from any device. It’s often free or very cheap, and anyone can buy it. As such it can blur the boundary for organisations, resulting in the emergence of a “shadow IT” system.

The tools being used in unions now have often been chosen informally and vary from union to union. Many were picked after a rapid assessment of members’ and organisational needs, usually meeting them on terms and tools they were already using. For the most part, necessity was the mother of invention. 

This is different from how many of us think about organisational software – the “big ticket” items like a membership database, or the standard office software installed on computers across the organisation. As such, shadow IT often doesn’t get the same considerations in its specification or purchase. 

Giving people the flexibility to choose the right tools for the job can bring great benefits, but it can make it much harder for the wider organisation to deal with the repercussions.

Tech stacks – A way forward?

The challenge that results is about finding ways that help the union deliver on its responsibilities when using new software, without stifling innovation and flexibility. There are different paths to achieving this, but they share some common characteristics.

1. Defining your organising tech stack

A “tech stack” is the agreed suite of technologies that an organisation will use for a particular purpose. Standardising around a smaller set of common tools for different tasks helps minimise the problems we’ve identified above. 

To do this, get together with organisers and reps and work out what they need to do, what they think the best tools are for each function and why. 

This will help you identify where it might be possible to standardise around a particular tool for that function, making it part of your own stack. Where a tool is not sufficient, agree and document why, before deciding on another.

Suites of complementary tools, usually produced by a single company, can be particularly useful here and you may want to consider the trade off between the potential functionality of one standalone tool versus the sustainability and integration of a suite. 

For example, the comprehensive survey tool Survey Monkey offers far more sophistication in survey design and logic than the more basic Microsoft Forms. However, Forms is sufficient for most surveys that the union might run, and has the bonus of being integrated within a central Microsoft 365 Office suite, so your IT administrators can check and clear data where needed, or manage who can access the tool and data.

After doing this, you’ll likely end up with a list like the one above, though hopefully a lot shorter!

2. Mitigating risks

Next, spend some time working out the risks that new software might bring. Check which stakeholders are affected and include them in evaluating whether the mitigations you’re suggesting are viable.

Here are just a couple of examples of risks that we discovered in the workshop:

RiskPotential mitigations
Member data exposed through incorrect sharing settingsPeer training, to ensure colleagues how to make a tool private, public, or available only to those with the correct link.
Tools being used not GDPR compliantData protection training for all reps and staff.
Users to provide copy of data protection agreement to union DPO before subscription.
Waste and duplication of costsRoute requests for new services through IT to check for existing accounts. 
Promote the tech stack widely across the union so colleagues know which tools are already in use.
Losing track of accounts when people leaveRequiring backup admin users. 
Keeping an asset register. 
Using suites of tools where possible.
Unprofessional use of publishing tools may risk union reputationBranding guidance and training for users.

3. Selling the benefits

Defining a tech stack doesn’t mean imposing it.  The union has a choice of whether to try to stop the use of tools not on the list. That’s the “stick” approach. Or it may be better to use a carrot – offering training and support in the agreed tools and bringing people into a common licence that is covered from a central budget.

Publishing the tech stack in the form of a catalogue of services can help people work within it more effectively, while introducing them to other ideas and use cases that expand the options they have available.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that for every early adopter in the union, there will be a greater number of people who come later to new technology. These people may be less comfortable with working out a new tech tool for themselves. Having the guide of a more obvious choice from the tech stack, with greater scope for support, will be more attractive to them.

For example, the TUC use a tool called BrandStencil. This lets the organisation define templates for users to make social graphics, posters and other creative assets. Users can quickly produce their own designs, fully within the TUC brand. This convenience was of benefit to many staff, but felt restrictive to some of those who had more design experience. Working with them to understand their needs, configure the templates and demonstrate the value of creative assets included like stock photography helped bring more people on side.  

4. Establishing sustainable processes

One key idea to share knowledge across the union is the development of a software asset register. 

This is a list of all the services being held around the union that may hold personal data. It’s even more important for unions than for many other organisations, as union membership (or non-membership) counts as sensitive personal data under the GDPR. 

Work out which systems hold what data, and who the contact people for each new tool are. Your data asset register will help you more quickly respond to members seeking to invoke their time-sensitive data protection rights, such as a subject access request or the right to delete or correct data.

Consider how you will licence products – whether you need to establish protocols for sharing limited licences to less often used tools, or how you let people register that they need a licence of their own on the union’s common account.

Provide templates and training to help anyone in the union carry out their own evaluations of the data protection implications for a new tool. A Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) is a useful document to kick off any new use of technology.

Finally, for shared tools, consider using a cloud-based password vault. Many of these allow users to tag and leave annotations on the listed tools and their logins, meaning they can, in themselves, act as a register of the software tools available to all colleagues.  

Further reading

Sam Jeffers (of The Shop) is a consultant to the TUC Digital Lab, and facilitator for the workshop series.