Email has long been the go-to tool for internal communications. But ensuring the right information gets to the right employee can be challenging – particularly for companies with thousands of employees across different locations.
At TD Ameritrade, email was central to corporate and team communications – and workers sometimes felt bombarded with messages not particularly relevant to their jobs, according to Neal Obermeyer, senior manager for digital workplace and channel effectiveness for the company.
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At the same time, employees sometimes missed out on important conversations going on via email, with “choke points” getting in the way. “Information in email is essentially useless to anybody who is not in the conversation,” said Obermeyer. “As far as our organizational intelligence goes, information in email might as well not exist.”
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Hoping to bolster communication and cut down on email annoyances, the financial brokerage firm rolled out a company-wide move to chat-based collaboration tool Slack – effectively shifting information-sharing and conversations from email to public channels.
Following a pilot project involving a few hundred staffers, Slack was pushed to the entire workforce at the end of 2018, replacing numerous disparate collaboration tools. (TD Ameritrade, which announced last week that it is being acquired by the Charles Schwab Corporation, has workers distributed across the U.S. at 10 corporate offices.)
In the past year, the company has quickly seen improvements to communications and a dramatic fall in the volume of email, according to TD Ameritrade CIO Vijay Sankaran.
“Since adopting Slack, we’ve seen about a 30% decrease in sent emails,” said Sankaran. He noted that the reduction is likely even greater once calendar messages such as invites and RSVPs are stripped out. “So, it’s safe to say a large amount of our communications have moved out of email and into Slack.”
Sankaran said communications sent in channels are more effective in engaging employees. Public channels, essentially chat rooms for conversations or announcements, are a key feature of Slack; any discussions and related information posted are viewable by those in a given workspace.
“Now, when we share announcements and other items, employees are able to engage in Q&As and real-time conversations that would previously have been impossible to facilitate by email,” he said.
From email bottlenecks to public channel transparency
With Slack’s Enterprise Grid, information can “flow more directly and more transparently” across the company, said Obermeyer. That makes it easier to flag important content that might otherwise get buried in an employee’s email inbox.
“We can separate out the business-critical information from things like leadership perspectives, or employee engagement information or system alerts,” he said.
Obermeyer noted that the company used Slack to highlight an internal talent search – the kind of process likely to trigger questions from workers. In the past, email discussions about a job opening would have generated a conversation available to only two parties, and “that question and that answer don't have any value to the organization,” he said. But by using TD Ameritrade’s “announcement-all” channels, the information was viewable by all.
“With the talent search announcement, we had an associate that asked a question in the threaded comments and that was answered right there. So, boom, all of a sudden 11,000 people had access to the question and the answer. It was right there for all to see.”
Why Enterprise Grid?
Obermeyer stressed that the adoption of public channels got a major boost by TD Ameritrade’s decision to roll out Enterprise Grid.
Slack launched Enterprise Grid in 2017, offering the kinds of admin, security and compliance features sought by large companies. Among the companies now using Enterprise Grid are IBM, Capital One and Condé Nast.
“Enterprise Grid was designed as a platform that can support very large deployments and be compliant with enterprise requirements for privacy and security,” said Raúl Castañón-Martínez, a senior analyst at 451 Research. "This has positioned Slack against much larger competitors such as Microsoft, who clearly take them as a serious contender in the space.”
A key feature of Enterprise Grid is the ability to create and manage multiple independent workspaces. TD Ameritrade currently has 21 workspaces in use; aside from two organization-wide workspaces (one for company information relevant to all employees, another for social interest groups), all are aligned to existing business areas.
“It just felt like an extension of how we are already organized,” said Obermeyer. “We are able to share channels as needed across workspaces, which works great for the cross-functional collaboration. But in terms of keeping workspaces relatively clear and clean and focused, Enterprise Grid was a good way to keep that content organized in a meaningful way.”
The ability to create independent workspaces helped encourage workers to communicate in public channels, he explained. “When people are in a massive workspace with a large population, they tend to be a little more timid in terms of their willingness to use things like public channels,” said Obermeyer. “Given that one of our objectives was transparency and scalability of information, comfort with public channels is something that we absolutely wanted to encourage.”
The shift has shown measurable benefits. For example, moving announcements and newsletters aimed at retail division staff over to a dedicated public channel has led to better engagement.
“Most of those emails would be hovering around a 50% readership rate, but those analogous channels are now getting from 80% to near 100% activity rates,” said Obermeyer. “So the engagement with content is higher than it was in email.”
A new way of working
Adopting a new way of doing things in the office can be challenging, and some employees require more support in moving away from familiar tools like email. TD Ameritrade has been proactive in supporting those users.
“We have seen a lot of folks really dive right in, and others have needed more hands-on support,” said Obermeyer. “The biggest challenge is helping people through the mind-shift that this really is a way of working differently. Once we can illustrate that for people and help them see how their needs can be met in a better way, the light bulb goes on.”
There are a variety of measures to support staffers in the move to Slack. This includes offering tips and tricks on how to use the app, as well as an “ambassador” program to encourage adoption. The company also created a Slack bot, dubbed the “on behalf bot.”
That bot was put into use by corporate communications staffers, who often had to draft and send out important news and company-wide announcements on behalf of senior executives. In the past, that process was typically carried out in email.
“We knew that we needed a comparable requirement in Slack to ease that transition,” said Obermeyer.
With the bot, a communications team member can post messages under an executive’s Slack username, with the messages scheduled in advance or in real-time after they’ve been approved.
While TD Ameritrade executives frequently use Slack themselves, the bot helped to ensure timely and consistent communications. “That was critical in getting a lot of our business communications migrated from email to Slack,” said Obermeyer. “We have a lot of leaders who we had to send messages on behalf of in the early months who are now very active on their own. So we needed that bridge to get them there.”
Another bot – the “Better Bot” – has been created to answer tech support questions, helping to reduce some of the burden of routine work for service desk workers. There are plans to update the bot with natural language understanding capabilities to make interactions simpler for staff.
The focus on ensuring that all members of staff are supported in an organization-wide move to Slack is the key to success, said Castañón-Martínez.
“The experience of TD Ameritrade is not atypical, but it should be noted that it represents a successful deployment that resulted from careful planning and execution,” said Castañón-Martínez. “In other words, companies should realize that they can achieve similar results, but this will not happen [simply] by bringing Slack into the workplace.
“It is notable that their project leader emphasizes that [it’s] more than a new tool; the company is introducing a new way of working, and … some employees will require more support than others to make the transition.”
Team collaboration across departments
In addition to using Slack for corporate communications, the application is also a key part of interactions at a team level. This includes supporting the legal and financial teams that work together on earnings call preparation using private channels.
“Teams across TD Ameritrade use Slack to collaborate on a wide range of activities, from our earnings call preparation process to product launches,” said Sankaran. “Slack provides a secure channel for key stakeholders to share information in real-time, ‘pinning’ items to avoid version control issues, and even using emojis to indicate whether a message has been seen, read, or is being currently being considered.”
A key factor in TD Ameritrade’s decision to turn to Slack is access to more than 1,800 third-party app integrations through Slack’s app store, said Sankaran. “One of the things that helped differentiate Slack from other tools in the collaboration space was the sheer number of third-party integrations available,” he said.
At the company, Slack is already integrated with Cisco Webex, allowing conversations to shift from chat to voice when necessary using slash commands to start up the app. And there are plans for further integrations. Once Workday’s HR and finance tools and Microsoft’s Office 365 suite are rolled out later in this financial year, Slack will integrate with them. (There are no plans to use Microsoft Teams – a rival to Slack – within TD Ameritrade, however.)
“As our organization continues to integrate Slack into our respective daily workflows, I imagine our use of the platform will only become more sophisticated,” said Sankaran.