A Q&A with Man Group's CTO on its rapid switch to remote working with Slack and Webex

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright July 3, 2020
How does a 200-year-old financial services company make the switch to remote working - and is the change permanent? We asked Man Group's CTO of Core Tech Tom Price

Dollars flying into digital globe © fgnopporn - Fotolia.com
(© fgnopporn - Fotolia.com)

The rapid switch to working from home has led to a surge in the use of digital teamwork tools in the enterprise. One standout story highlighted by messaging platform Slack is global investment firm Man Group, which rolled out Slack to help its 1,400-strong global workforce move to remote working in just two weeks in March. This is a 200-year-old company — it served its first clients in 1783 — in a highly regulated industry that is hyper-conscious of compliance and security. Its story holds valuable lessons for other established businesses with similar concerns as they move to more distributed patterns of work.

Man Group has since published its own account of the move to remote working, which emphasizes how well prepared the group already was for supporting remote access, using Citrix and Cisco VPN technology. Nevertheless, moving to full remote working required a slew of new tools. Alongside Slack, the team also fast-tracked the roll-out of Cisco Webex, Jabber and Adobe Sign, and implemented Teamviewer for remote support.

In two weeks in the second half of March, the number of Slack users soared from just under 600 users in the technology teams to more than 1200 across all functions of the business. By mid-May, more than 984 public Slack channels had been created within the company and almost 1,000 Webex meetings now take place daily.

I had the opportunity to drill down behind the published Slack case study by putting some further questions to Tom Price, CTO, Core Technology at Man Group, via email. The original plan was to wrap this all up into a conventional story, but his answers were so thoughtful and thorough, I decided to let them speak for themselves. You can read them, unedited, below.

The rapid switch to remote working

  • Technology: Was everything already cloud-based or were there some other challenges in equipping people for remote working?
  • People: Were people already working from home either occasionally or frequently?

All of our staff already had remote access, and it was something everyone had to use once a month or they'd get chased, but a lot of people hadn't performed all aspects of their work from home. Some would only use it during evenings or weekends, some would use their days working from home to catch up on reading or writing documents. The difference this time was that people would need to work from home for a prolonged period of time, so they had to be able to do everything.

We conducted two ‘Working From Home' tests in the weeks leading up to lockdown where we told people in critical roles to stay out of the office for 3 consecutive days. That helped people perform a more comprehensive test and to identify what they needed to be able to work productively from home, not just to get by. We allowed staff to purchase monitors, webcams and headsets so that people weren't trying to work off 13-inch laptop screens, instead they had similar tools to those they used in the office.

We are migrating more and more commodity services to the cloud but the bulk of our applications are internally developed and hosted in our own data centres. That meant we were dependent on traditional VPN and desktop virtualisation tools to enable our staff to connect back to services. Both of those platforms have performed well but as more applications move to the cloud we will be overhauling our external network connectivity to better support a hybrid infrastructure.

Change management

  • Presumably the training emphasized some key guidelines that were important for people to follow — can you give some examples of some of the most important/novel habits that you wanted people to adopt? 

We rolled out a number of new tools, including Slack, the day before the UK Government asked business to work from home. The team had planned a series of in-person training sessions at our London offices and overnight they had to pivot to performing them online. In that first week we had over 200 people attend the remote sessions.

For Slack we wanted to encourage the use of public channels by default rather than private channels. There are always internal, private discussions that shouldn't be visible to all, but the value of a collaboration platform is that it breaks down barriers and allows people to find information. If all discussions are in private channels it prevents that. We also wanted to retain the informality of Slack, compared to the formality of email. Slack had been in use by the technology team for almost a year and we did not want it to turn into a centrally managed, locked down communication platform and lose a lot of the value.

We also wanted to encourage people to use video on our conferencing systems. We were replacing an existing telephone conferencing platform with Webex and we wanted to make the transition to people using it for video rather than just dialling in from a phone. Being able to see our colleagues and clients has been really important through the lockdown period.

Security and compliance

  • Were there any factors to consider when connecting Slack into your identity and access management infrastructure?

The mobile functionality was a big part of the benefit of Slack compared to our previous internal 1:1 instant messaging apps. That said, we have strict rules regarding access to our systems from outside of the corporate network to limit data loss risks. We use a mobile device management platform that supports both corporate devices and personal ‘Bring your own devices'. For enterprise customers, Slack provides a special version of their mobile app under their enterprise mobility management (EMM) program that prevents users accessing Slack using the normal app. We can then use the MDM platform to ensure devices meet our required security configuration before we deploy the EMM version of the app — we essentially control the keys to accessing our Slack.

  • Were there other notable elements that were crucial to get right from a security, compliance or data privacy point of view?

Man Group is a regulated entity and we therefore we need to ensure that we are able to effectively and efficiently monitor any communications platforms. Slack's support for this was surprisingly mature and it was a relatively easy process to onboard them into our existing compliance monitoring tools.

Workflow automation and integrations

  • Please give one or two examples of workflows that you've built or brought into use, and how they've proven useful

In Man Solutions, we've built a number of integrations with our quant research platform as well as some other data sources. They help with automating the production of fund performance reports, which used to be emailed. Using Slack helps to generate conversations around the content of the reports, and the asynchronous nature of the discussion also helps with the geographically dispersed investment team. The bots can also be used to ask questions regarding specific equity exposure or to search external sources for share price news, all from a single command interface.

On the technology side, we've also built a number of integrations with our virtualised technology environment and with our IT service management tool. In certain Infrastructure channels we have bots that reply to mentions of server names with links to the virtualisation management and monitoring page for that server. We also have bots that help with the change management process raising changes, chasing approvers and updating channels as the change is implemented.

  • As people adapt to remote working, do you expect to use more workflow automation? If so, please include one or two examples and how they'll help

We believe Slack can be transformational when it comes to process automation, whether that's because people are working from home or just in different offices or countries. We are keen to explore how it can support the investment and supporting operations processes which span multiple teams and departments. We also plan to review all workflows that are currently generating automated emails and consider moving them to Slack. Putting all that information in a single channel — and providing the ability for all teams to be informed of related discussions — highlights the benefits of persistent chat over email.

  • Integration to Webex is an obvious one as an ability to switch into face-to-face conversation is super important when remote working. Are you looking at or already using integrations to streamline business processes? Again, examples would be great.

The Slack integration with Webex has been great for escalating a discussion that starts in Slack into a video conference. Slack also has some impressive integrations with cloud-based tools that we're already using across the organisation. Some of our more generic business processes are already well supported by existing solutions.

Wellbeing and culture

  • Has Slack been instrumental at all in maintaining wellbeing among staff who may be isolated or facing other challenges at home?

Very much so. I talked earlier about a desire to maintain the informality of Slack and we've seen that in a number of our channels over the last couple of months. Our charity #mankind channel has most of the company in it as people challenged their colleagues to post pictures of meals they'd cooked in quarantine with an accompanying donation to local food banks. These non-work channels have helped maintain relationships and wellbeing as a reasonable replacement to catching up over lunch or while making a cup of tea.

  • Is there any evidence of people working less in silos and doing more knowledge sharing (while respecting compliance constraints of course) as a result of so much communication now being in Slack?

A great example during lockdown was in our tech support channel where we saw a flood of queries in the first few days as people were working from home. When our support engineers were busy, other people would step in with help — saying how they'd seen that issue too and how they fixed it.

The new normal

  • Will the current phase of remote working lead to more permanent changes to how Man Group operates — for example will everyone ever go back to the office in the same way as before?

The workplace will definitely change and the role and size of central offices will diminish. I think it's too early to predict that companies will commit to fully remote working but we've certainly seen an increase in staff saying they'd like to work from home more than they did. Across the firm, we have always encouraged flexible and remote working where possible, with many departments having staff who worked remotely 1-2 days a week, and I expect that to increase across our departments along with the number of days people are working from outside the office.

A lot of technology solutions that support remote or flexible working also support our global workforce that is already not all in one location. For a company like Man Group, with offices in London, the US, and Asia Pacific, investment in new collaboration tools will support and benefit both outcomes.