Working remotely for trade unions

The coronavirus crisis and our response have caused huge changes for all of our society, but it also brings new ways of working. Unions are having to keep on doing the same things they’ve always done but in a really different context. And they’re having to add some new things on top.

This is going to be the new normal for months. And it could change some of the ways we end up working after that too.

So we’re really keen at the Digital Lab to understand the situation and the challenges facing unions, work out where there’s good practice, and discover where there are new areas we might come together to plot a way forward.

We held an introductory chat between staff from a dozen TUC unions, to document what we’d noticed so far, and what issues unions were grappling with. Here are some of the things we found:

Ways of working from home

  • Many unions have moved to video conferencing already and are adapting pretty well to holding meetings this way. For those not so used to it, a conscious choice to hold online events more regularly at first is helping everyone get experience of the tools more quickly.
  • The same goes for those who have moved to cloud office systems like Office 365, so can access many of their usual tools and files efficiently from home.
  • There’s a big divide in ease of adoption here for unions in sectors where members are already likely to work from home sometimes (such as academia), or network online between remote sites. Some unions are also trying to piggyback employer systems, which members will already be familiar with using. 
  • Union staff didn’t all have union-provided kit to work on at home, so the range of devices and set ups has changed a lot as staff use their own computers where union ones aren’t available.
  • There is a drop-off in informal information sharing when people don’t see each other face to face. It’s harder for people to pick up the background to an issue. There’s more likely to be duplication of effort, and fewer synergies if people don’t know what each other are working on day to day. 
  • As people have been used to using technology in addition to general human contact, there can be a feeling when working remotely that you can only use the tech for formal work. 
  • For those unions already using Microsoft Teams, it’s proving useful to get informal chat going. Other tools like Slack may be able to fill this gap, but it can be hard to get a new culture of communications going once you’re already into the need for it.
  • It’s important to be aware that if you’re using a technical fix for informal contact, some staff will feel more engaged, but others who are less comfortable with it may feel cut out.
  • It’s important not to rush adoption of newer technological solutions when some people aren’t fully across the basics yet. The weakest link can break anything, so focus on supporting people with poor technology or fewer tech skills. 
  • Unions need to be careful about the proliferation of new systems. Union organisers and activists are often very autonomous, and many are used to innovating for themselves. But the ease of signing up for new online services can result in a mess of different systems being used in different parts of the organisation. This can hamper efficiency if not kept on top of – as well as exposing the union to data protection risks.
  • Documentation is an issue. For example, one union had moved to using Skype for Business for telephony for those staff who sometimes worked remotely and all the early adopters were happy with it. But when it suddenly became the mainstream, everyone needed to catch up to the same level. The organisation had been using it for years and grown into it without ever really documenting it to make it easy for the last staff to come on board.
  • Consider how you’re managing onboarding of new people – it can suffer if they can’t build up informal connections through meeting people around the office or workplace. This can be a frustrating time for someone who’s a new starter with the union or new to lay leadership. 

Central functions

  • Advice lines have been hit particularly hard. Some unions have call centre infrastructure that couldn’t work remotely, and as offices have been closed, central contact centres have had to close too. There’s been a need in some cases to build up new call centre systems working from home, and supporting staff for new ways of working to run them remotely, as well as reallocating and training other colleagues to help provide capacity.
  • However this is coming at a moment when contact demand from members is at a high. Some unions have had to suspend or clarify certain contact services in order to be able to manage and meet contact expectations from members (eg turning off online chat temporarily when the load is too great for the queue of enquiries to be answered whilst people are waiting).
  • For some unions social media has been an important channel for answering and circulating advice questions important to members.
  • And focusing on self-service advice content is important in getting the load down and freeing more staff to help complex questions. Find out what people are asking most often, document it and get it up front on the site where people are contacting you, to help handle enquiries as efficiently as possible.

Branch functions

  • Some branches are really running with this stuff, which is great. In some unions, organisers are encouraging branches to do it more.
  • In some cases, branches that were inactive have become more active now that they’re able to do union work in ways they prefer. Facebook Live events have been started up as people felt they needed the connections and communications with each other, and these are good at bringing in those members who may have been less engaged with physical meetings in the past. 
  • There’s a balance here between using enthusiasm and keeping branches safe. Some are using a lot of initiative and running ahead of the union’s centrally recommended tech stack. They can be less concerned or well-informed about data protection, quality and accessibility. A union may also end up paying for loads of little licences for an online service such as Zoom, rather than a more efficient larger scale account centrally.
  • Our local ways of working could change forever here as people get used to doing more digitally. Things that were only done in a few branches are about to become the norm.

Conferences and governance

  • We’re in the middle of the annual union conference season and unions have had to cancel physical conferences. 
  • NUS are trying out a digital conference with voting soon. Unions will be interested to see if that could be viable for them too. Could we run national or sectoral conferences as online events, within our capacity, skills and rules?
  • Others have streamlined committees temporarily, with a subcommittee of ec (quite small) given powers to make significant decisions. 
  • Key committees are meeting remotely in many cases using Zoom or Skype for Business. Members of EC want to meet together though and that will be much harder (many access needs and tech types)
  • There are big questions around union responsibilities to the Certification Officer. Will unions be given leeway on their rules for governance? In many cases, government advice will have directed us to not follow our rules on conferences and committees.
    • Initial approaches to the Certification Officer for this seem to indicate that whilst they won’t change the letter of regulation and relax unions’ responsibilities, they may consider changes forced by the current extenuating circumstances when adjudicating on any complaint brought against the union for not following rules. Unions should approach them to explain the reasons for any necessary change.
    • Unions are able to run indicative ballots online but not statutory ballots. One union already had to postpone a senior leadership election because sending postal ballots to work addresses wouldn’t have worked.

Messaging for members / staff

  • Members can be left feeling abandoned in this period when unions are still adapting to working in new ways. 
    • For those unions that have not already done so much to put remote working in place before the crisis, visibility to members is a big concern. The channels between the union and member comms are much slower.
    • However members are very engaged where we can get the right information out to them. WhatsApp groups in some unions are becoming very active.
    • Members wanting to get involved are responding well to online campaigns, especially where they’re directly involved. Eg Prospect/Bectu MP email campaigns on support for self-employed workers, or Unite branch-run petitions on worker safeguarding at specific employers.
  • Some unions are trying new things to address this:
    • Supporting branches to help deal with members’ enquiries whilst contact centres are overloaded. This may make the union more effective in general.
    • Slimming down member comms to make them clearer. Focus on what members want to know at the moment. Many other things that unions usually report on might take a back seat for most members.
    • Doing more online briefings, using Zoom. Creating 45 minute walkthrough sessions, such as health and wellbeing, which are proving popular for signups in advance. 
    • Working to repurpose existing content from briefings or magazines into short webinars, eg  “10 top tips on working from home”. Diverting magazine editorial staff whilst magazine production suspended.
    • Using consultation tools like ThoughtExchange to share top tips. For example getting members who are working parents to share and vote on each others’ tips for managing kids and work.
  • Many unions are producing excellent guidance for members on sector specific concerns during coronavirus. But keeping that up to date is difficult, in such a fast moving situation. 
    • It’s helpful to appoint editorial responsibility for maintaining pages to subject experts. Checking what’s new and deciding what is best to be written up and managed by the union, and what is best done by giving links to official sources that will be updated there. Sign-off and publishing control should be with the website editor to help coordinate the process.
    • Make it clear if you can when pages will be or have been updated. Members will be checking for current info in a fast moving situation. That might mean timestamping it or issuing updates on weekends too. Think of how external timings might affect this process – eg don’t plan to update content just before PM is going to announce new measures or it may only be current information for a few hours.  

What next? 

Please get in touch if you’ve got other ideas for things you’d like to work on together. Here are a few potential starters we came up with so far.

  • How can we link people together to share this information ongoing? Is there demand for a Slack channel or similar?
  • We could possibly organise digital drop in sessions to follow up on different areas. Based on different union functions, as people won’t have time necessarily for wide-ranging discussions.
  • Several unions have Office 365 already, so they have access to MS Teams but haven’t really used it much yet. It’d be good to find out who is doing well with Teams, and share insights.
  • Can we run a session on setting up and running webinars? These are likely to be useful for many unions to do more of.

Tech stack for unions working remotely

Here’s what we found unions are currently using to power different parts of their remote working.

Telephony and meetings
Skype for Business, Zoom, GotoMeeting, MS Teams

Online events
Zoom, Facebook Live,

Team communications
MS Teams, Slack

Business tools
Office 365

Activist & member comms
WhatsApp, email, ThoughtExchange

Further resources:


Online events: