How Slack enables frictionless teamwork at digital bank Monzo

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright November 23, 2018
How collaboration platform Slack supports the entire business in cross-functional. frictionless teamwork at fast-growing digital bank Monzo

Monzo logo and mobile app - composite of Monzo images
Fintech startup Monzo is a fast-growing digital challenger bank in the UK. Founded in 2015, the mobile-only bank has built its core systems cloud-native on AWS, and already has 1 million customers, a $1 billion-plus valuation, and over 400 employees. A crucial factor in scaling that growth has been its use of the Slack messaging platform from the start for team communication.

For a long while I've argued that digital collaboration is a core pillar of the new model of frictionless enterprise that's emerging in the digital era. Monzo showcases the distinctive collaboration patterns of this new organizational architecture — and their impact on the business. Here are seven key takeaways from my conversation with Monzo's CTO Meri Williams during the Slack Frontiers conference in London last week.

1. A culture of transparency

The fast-paced, always-on messaging that Slack enables wouldn't work without what Williams describes as a "philosophy of openness in the organization." With half of Monzo's executive team being software engineers, this is a style of working that's deeply embedded in the company's DNA. Agile development has always had a culture of transparency, because as Atlassian president Jay Simons once explained to me, teams on an agile project can't move rapidly if they don't know what other teams on the same project are up to: "The practice of agility and being more iterative is accompanied by the practice of openness."

At Monzo therefore, Slack channels are open by default "unless there's a really good reason not to," says Williams. The few exceptions include HR topics such as disciplinary or salary discussions. Even the startup's recent investment round was managed in an open channel, where anyone within the company could keep track of progress and the back-and-forth with regulators.

That openness leads to cross-fertilization of ideas and sometimes talent, she reveals:

All of the work that happens, [it] happens in public or in an accessible way. So people can go and choose to pay attention if they want to.

We've definitely had people move from customer operations into engineering roles, and part of how they've done that is to start reading the RFCs [request for comments] on design documents, to start understanding more of what engineering are working on or dealing with.

Unlike established organizations adopting these new collaborative structures, Monzo has had them from the beginning and therefore when it recruits it can make sure there's a culture fit, she adds:

It's something we interview for. We hold it very dearly as a cornerstone of our culture and so it's something that is part of even the selection process for people.

2. Cross-functional teams

Once you have rapid, open communication as a default, it then becomes much easier for people to work in cross-functional teams, bringing together different skills and expertise for a specific task. Once again, agile developers have been pioneers of this style of working, especially in the field of DevOps. But at some companies, including Monzo, this pattern of teamwork becomes the default right across the organization. As Williams explains, it spans everything from product development and marketing to back-office functions such as finance and HR:

Most teams are multi-disciplinary. A very common pattern you'll see is having product, design, engineering and data analysts all in together, and then the relevant kinds of analyst for a specific function. So the financial crime team has got a mix of experts and analysts. with engineers building the right things ...

We have embedded [software] engineers in our finance team now, so even the finance team are multi-disciplinary — the marketing team are already multi-disciplinary — so you've got what used to be functional silos and specialisms automatically having more people involved.

Teams can also involve outside contractors, advisors or consultants, who are brought into one or more channels as guests.

3. Rapid decision-making

This combination of transparency and teamwork means that decisions can be taken very rapidly and therefore Monzo can move very fast, says Williams.

It's certainly one of the organizations I've worked at with the most rapid decision-making that I've seen.

Slack's digital messaging channels remove the need for many of the meetings that take place in more traditional organizations, she explains:

In the past, you had to wait for a meeting where everybody was available and everybody to be okay with it. [Using Slack] if someone says, 'I propose we do this,' and you have ten thumbs-up and one 'I've got a question' and nobody's saying no, you can deal with the question in the moment. Give it 24 hours, everybody sees it, and then you're good to go. Gavel, done, move.

A lot of hiring decisions are now made this way, she adds:

With our talent team, we used to default to doing a debrief about a candidate. Now there are times when we do that in Slack, when interviewers are very aligned about a candidate. When you have the room very split, you still want to get on a call and talk about that.

4. Everyone achieves more

The instant visibility in this culture of openness also speeds communication of decisions once they've been taken, says Williams.

The lag [from] decision making to everybody knowing is extremely short at Monzo because everybody knows, by default, we should be clear with everybody on our thinking.

All of this is good for someone like Williams, who can stay abreast of much more than in a traditional enterprise setting:

I'm in multiple teams. I've got the exec team, I've got my peer team, I've got my own organization. There's obviously a huge amount of collaboration between product, design and technology altogether.

If I think what being on any one of those teams looked like five years ago, if I was trying to be on three, I'd never do anything other than sit in meetings. This is a new world where I can engage where needed and keep up with what's going on — but not have to be in dozens and dozens of meetings just to be able to keep in sync. It's removed a lot of the information sharing and moved lots more meetings to be discussion, challenge, decision.

5. Onboarding at scale

Monzo is growing so fast that the engineering team alone doubled in size from 50 to 100 between the end of June, when Williams announced she was joining, and early September when she took up the job. Automating the workflow using Slack has seen a welcome sixty-fold reduction in the time taken to onboard each newcomer. When they arrive on their first day, their machine is already pre-loaded with everything they need and a Slackbot guides them through the setup process. Williams observes:

Everywhere else I've worked there's some poor IT support person sitting with you going, let me look away while you change your password and I don't look at your keyboard.

Automation is also coming to other HR processes at Monzo, with automated reminders in Slack to fill in engagement surveys and more in the pipeline.

6. A system of record

One striking feature to an outsider is to see how Slack is used almost universally in place of email, says Williams:

It's pretty much the replacement for email, almost all conversation happens in Slack.

The only internal emails that Williams still sees are occasional reports. Monzo CEO Tom Blomfield often writes lengthy updates for the whole company explaining his current thinking on strategy, for example. And each team, in the agile tradition, compiles and circulates 'weeknotes'. In keeping with the philosophy of openness, any emails sent are copied to a mailing list to provide a searchable archive, following the example of Stripe.

Slack itself acts as the main system of record for decisions and actions. That includes highly formal processes, for example recording every instance of when code is deployed to production. It's important that Slack provides an audit trail that can be shown to the regulator, says Williams:

Obviously we're a bank, we're regulated by the FCA [Financial Conduct Authority] and the PRA [Prudential Regulation Authority]. And so there is more responsibility for keeping audit trails proving that we're following our own policies and procedures, making sure that we can audit when decisions are made on Slack.

7. There are still a few rules

For all that Slack encourages an informal style of communication, there still need to be guidelines for how it's used. Part of the onboarding process in the first few days for new arrivals is training in "How to Slack at Monzo." This covers topics such as conventions for naming channels, and also the meanings of various emojis. For example, a red dot means an action that's urgent, while a blue dot has a due-by date, and a gray dot is non-urgent.

Since Slack acts as an audit trail for regulators, it's important that compliance processes are understood and verified. But they can still be intuitive and convenient, says Williams, with sign-off and approval often signaled simply by a thumbs-up emoji. It's constantly evolving, she adds:

One interesting convention I'm seeing at the moment at Monzo is people use the gavel emoji for, 'Right, decision is made,' [for example] when we have the discussion about what offer a candidate might get when we're hiring.

We've even been talking about whether we build a little plug-in to note the decision, every time somebody gavels something.

My take

Monzo is a business that operates in a way that simply wouldn't have been possible just a few years ago, using the open, digital communication of Slack to enable very rapid distributed teamwork. While it's true that it's also a startup delivering a form of banking that wasn't possible just a few years ago, that doesn't mean that more established companies can't adopt similar team patterns. In fact, banking giant ING started rolling out DevOps-inspired teams across its Netherlands operation two years ago.

What I've described here at Monzo is equally applicable to any enterprise — and I'd argue that every enterprise that hopes to survive in the emerging digital economy is going to have to learn to adopt this style of frictionless teamwork.

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