ASLEF journal and website

What does the new normal look like for digital change in unions?

In my role at ASLEF I’m a campaigns and communications advisor, which includes digital comms. It will be familiar to colleagues that having digital in your job often means you’re seen as the best person to ask about anything with an on button. That’s particularly common in small organisations.

When I started in this role in 2019 I very quickly became a bit of an agitator for tech in the union. We had some really old tech – a website with a very difficult back end and a membership database in dire need of an upgrade. None of it really worked together or in the way anybody wanted or needed it to.

This was a feeling across the organisation so towards the end of 2019 we had some great leadership from the top and commitment to roll out a new digital system.

We set off on this project and then three months later, the pandemic happened.

How did the pandemic affect our ways of working?

We’d just got approval for this new system project, and then we had to switch to pandemic mode. A lot of our existing processes were paper-based so we had to change a lot of the ways we operated, right across the union.

ASLEF is a completely member-led union, with the rule book sacrosanct. Both of these things are exactly as they should be. It did, of course, mean that we needed some temporary rule changes to do things differently while we were working remotely. Internal elections switched to email nominations, and circulars moved online, for example.

Our members are train drivers. They’re key workers in a safety-critical industry. They were out driving trains right through the pandemic. We therefore needed to be able to communicate effectively about all the negotiations and decisions that were being taken with the industry to keep our members safe.

So there was no time to spare in finding new ways of working and communicating. With branches unable to meet, we started a new all-member email, which had the essential updates from the Executive Committee as well as guidance from organisations like the rail regulator and TUC.

Unions often find it difficult to change direction, but everyone worked really hard and we managed to get things up and running pretty quickly.

Again as the person with ‘digital’ in their role, I did find myself training people on some of the new tech. We all learned how to share documents with Office 365, how to send out mass emails and membership packs on MailChimp, how to host meetings on Zoom. Not my role, but that’s how these things go and a little flexibility goes a long way in digital change.

The digital change project during Covid

Back to the digital systems project, having committed the spend and the project time, we couldn’t just pause the rollout of a massive new membership system and a brand new website. So we ploughed ahead, doing it all remotely during lockdown. 

We had two consultants helping us on the project, and they did a lot of the work engaging with our membership. This all took place on Zoom meetings, which was a new thing for most of our members. We then had to shortlist and choose a supplier via Zoom calls too. That was the first time we upgraded to a Pro account!

Internally, the next part of the project was to make sure staff were on board and able to participate. This was a real challenge for us as the project team, not because staff didn’t want to get involved but during the pandemic we were all already working beyond our comfort zones and adding a huge new project like this was a lot.

Colleagues who were more keen and confident shared their ideas and demonstrated how we can work online effectively, and that really helped to bring everyone along. After workshops and training sessions, and a lot of screen-sharing demonstrations we were ready to go live.

We rolled out our new Salesforce CRM system in the summer, only a few weeks past our original schedule, which for a project of that scale delivered completely remotely was pretty good. The CRM links up with our brand new website too, which is much easier to use and looks better too.

What are the challenges in change as the pandemic passes?

So we did achieve our main project: we rolled out a new Salesforce CRM system for the union and got it to take over our most important processes, without anything falling over. People are able to use it and can do the things they used to do on the new system.

There are also a lot more things that a world-leading CRM system can potentially do, far beyond what we were already doing as a union. But to get there, firstly you have to know what it can do, and then want it to do those things.

So this is our next challenge. We’re back to working in the office and that’s a great opportunity to share our knowledge with colleagues and help everyone feel confident with the new tech and start making more use of it.

Our next steps will be to understand what we can do next, which might be engaging members of the public in our campaigns, or making more use of the data we are now able to collect and manipulate.

Of course, being back in the office does take away some of the urgency. We can go back to our paper processes. So another challenge is to keep moving forwards and maintain the enthusiasm.

The union’s rule book does allow for digital processes to make things easier, and the experience of the last year and a half has demonstrated what can be done to stay within the rules but make use of technology.

If elected members do decide to make rule book changes, that’s a process that goes through the union’s annual conference, so it does take time but as a staff team we can also continue to work with the executive to make sure the rule book is interpreted effectively to keep moving forward with the efficiency that digital tools can offer.

ASLEF has been a strong and effective industrial union for 140 years thanks to the hard work of our members and reps, and using digital tools well means we can build on that and maintain our strength into the future.

– Jen Thornton is ASLEF‘s Campaigns and Communications Advisor

Download the report

For more on the digital challenges for unions in adapting to the post-pandemic world, see the TUC Digital Lab report: Adapting to the new normal for trade unions