Co-operantics guide to co-operative online meetings

Meetings are the life blood of a co-operative. They are where information is shared and discussed and where decisions are taken. Where members can get updates on progress of the various jobs and tasks that have been delegated and where people are mandated to take action.

It seems it is going to be a while until we are able to meet together f2f (face to face), thanks to the coronavirus attacking our communities, so here are some techniques and tips to help you make your online meetings as effective as possible.

While it’s true that f2f meetings are valuable, it’s also the case that online meetings can be extremely effective, since participants can be highly focused and can collaborate in ways that are not possible in face to face meetings. However there are a few potential hiccups and obstacles, including technical issues and poor facilitation.

Technical issues

Here at Co-operantics we’ve been using Zoom for a couple of years for our catch-up meetings, and I don’t remember ever having any issues with it. We find it easy and intuitive, as do many others. However there is potential for misunderstanding and people can be anxious about using an online technology they aren’t familiar with.

There are lots of platforms including Google Hangouts, Skype, Microsoft Teams etc.  Whichever online platform you use, it’s a good idea to have a short familiarisation session for people new to it, or encourage them to have a play. Once people start using it they will relax and start to play with the various options, especially when they discover you can choose to appear onscreen with different backgrounds such as the beach or outer space!

Most platforms allow you to join a meeting via a website, but many allow you download an app to your laptop to connect more quickly.   Most tablets or smartphones will require an app to be installed.

Online meetings can be quite tiring, so we recommend 1.5 hours max. Many platforms offer a free facility with some restrictions (e.g. Zoom allows up to 100 people, but for only 40 minutes at a time) However during the current coronavirus crisis, they appear to have extended that time period.  If there is a time limit, you can build in breaks and start each session as a ‘new meeting’, e.g. for a 1.5hr meeting you could talk for 40 minutes, take a 10 minute break then set up a further 40 minute meeting.

Role and responsibilities of the Facilitator

The facilitator has a responsibility to ensure that:

  • a link to the meeting and an Agenda, are circulated in good time before the meeting, along with any technical guidance or ground rules
  • someone has agreed to be the Tech monitor
  • other meeting roles are agreed and delegated at the start: someone needs to agree to take Minutes, time keeper* and temperature checker* are useful roles, (the latter especially if decisions are controversial)
  • the meeting starts on time
  • participants are welcomed, and have the opportunity to introduce themselves
  • if anyone has technical issues, these are sorted out quickly by your Tech monitor (maybe using a Chat facility, or in worst case scenario via a phone call)
  • everyone knows how to use other facilities they need for the meeting: mute, screen share, etc. If you have the time it can be a good idea to allow a 15 minute window before the meeting starts for new users to familiarise themselves with the platform.
  • The meeting starts with a check in – e.g. a brief go-round to give participants the opportunity to share anything that’s going on for them at the moment – recent achievements, successes or issues that are currently a problem. (Depending on the nature of the meeting)
  • there is equal participation, we recommend using rounds, i.e. participants speak in turn, while everyone else is muted
  • people stay on topic
  • discussions are developed
  • agreement is checked and any decision repeated clearly so it can be minuted
  • responsibility for carrying out tasks is clear and minuted
  • the meeting has breaks when necessary
  • there is a meeting check-out (e.g. a brief feed-back on the process of the meeting, what worked well, what could we do better next time)
  • a date and time for the next meeting is agreed
  • the meeting ends on time

Additional roles

  • Tech monitor: Assists the facilitator by keeping an eye on technical issues and resolving them so that a problem with one individual’s tech doesn’t hold up the entire meeting. Can also monitor any Chat or Q&A functions.
  • Time keeper: to help everyone stick to the agreed timings, remind the meeting from time to time how much there is left to get through and how much time is left. Might prompt the facilitator to ask if people can stay longer, or if not, to decide which items to drop.
  • Temperature taker: some teams like to have someone to watch out for unhelpful behaviour or to suggest a break if tempers are getting high around a particular topic

In a small meeting, the Tech monitor could fill all 3 functions.

Meeting behaviours, ground rules and guidance

Distribute any ground rules and guidance for how to improve the session before the meeting.  Things to consider include:

  • Will all participants be muted upon entry? This is advisable for larger meetings such as a community business AGM but not necessary for a small worker co-op
  • How will people contribute ?
    • In a round, one at a time
    • Or indicating they wish to speak by clicking on the ‘hands up’ facility on the platform (remember to check with anyone joining by phone if they wish to speak)
    • Or by physically raising hands on camera (won’t work if some participant are joining by phone, of course)
  • If votes need to be taken, (for example at an AGM) how will they be counted?
  • Make sure there are no disruptions like a noisy TV, radio or conversations in the background. If disruptions are unavoidable use a headset.
  • Check your audio settings
  • Try to limit the number of other people /devices in the building using your WiFi connection for the duration of the meeting
  • Close applications on your computer that you won’t need.
  • Turn off the video camera if you have limited internet connectivity – this will improve the signal for the audio feed
  • If possible, pick a location with a simple background behind you, good light in front of you and then adjust your video settings
  • Have refreshments to hand

and enjoy! online meetings can be fun as well as highly productive!

March 2020                                                                                                               

from Conflict to Co-operation revisited

It’s hard to believe it was over 10 years ago that I wrote these booklets, together with the excellent cartoonist and illustrator Angela Martin and our patient and knowledgeable editor, Sarah Alldred (then at Co-operatives UK) now at the Co-operative College.

I’d started thinking some time before that helping co-ops set up effective democratic governance structures wasn’t enough – that within ‘flat’ organisational structures, different behaviours are needed. I realised that would-be cooperators will bring their own assumptions about the way work is organised and about the way decisions are taken, based on previous experience – in private enterprise, local government, education, or the charitable or voluntary sectors. Such assumptions if unchecked could lead to conflict or at the very least undermine attempts to establish a ‘co-operative culture’ in the workplace.

I’d also been working on conflict resolution in co-ops, and thought it would be useful to have an accessible and fun resource that people could dip in to for tips and techniques for handling conflict.

So the idea of ‘from Conflict to Co-operation’ was born. There are five booklets:

Booklet 1 encourages us not to be afraid of conflict but to welcome it as a symptom of the wealth of experience, skills and knowledge that exists in our team. It includes an explanation of how conflict arises, an exploration of five different typical responses to conflict and a script for helping us defuse tensions that may arise in the workplace.

Booklet 2 outlines some basic communication concepts and looks at steps we can take to improve communication, including avoiding misunderstandings arising from cultural or gender differences. We discuss the importance of assertive behaviour for good communication and highlight how the enterprise will benefit from maximum participation by members.

Booklet 3 describes how we can make meetings more effective. How to make them reasonably short and enjoyable, with good decisions taken and with everyone coming away with a clear idea of who’s doing what. We also look at a range of different decision-making methods and the implications of their use.

Booklet 4 explores the tensions that can arise as a co-op develops and to identify tools, techniques and approaches which will help as the co-op experiences growth and change. We look at managing change, policies and procedures to address issues such as recruitment, induction and appraisals or personal reviews. We also discuss a participative approach to strategic planning and summarise four strategic planning tools.

Booklet 5 addresses the vital role of the board. We look at the different roles that board members can adopt, the relationship of the board with day to day management and what to do if you are a board member as well as an employee – which hat do you wear when?

I’m delighted to be able to launch the revised from Conflict to Co-operation booklets in #CoopFortnight 2019. The booklets have been updated and additional material added (especially in Booklet 4). They are designed to be read online, so we can add new material and keep them updated. I hope you will find them useful and enjoy reading them.

Kate Whittle


Peer appraisal in worker co-ops

– or “how do you tell your co-worker their work is crap?” (Hint: You don’t)

Many moons ago, at a worker co-op conference, someone asked me: “how do you tell your co-worker their work is crap?” Good question, I thought, but I hadn’t the slightest idea how to do it. Except I thought then – and still do – that you should never tell your co-op co-worker their work is crap!

Worker co-ops are run for the benefit of the employees – their members – so of course the very last thing you want to do is fire someone. But you do need a way of providing support to your members – and a means of getting everyone on board with quality, timeliness and commitment to your mission and aims.

Appraisals provide members with support as well as providing a structure for holding them accountable. Any kind of business with employees (or volunteers) needs to carry out regular staff appraisals. But it’s how it’s done that interests us here.  In a worker co-op you will find a flatter, more democratic organisation. You may find that all the employees are Directors and you may find a variety of organisational structure – management by General Meeting (GM) or Management Committee, which may have delegated powers, or be representative of different teams or departments. There is also a growing body of worker co-ops adopting Sociocratic tools and structures. So we are not looking for a ‘one size fits all’ solution.

In a private enterprise an employer worth their salt will hold regular employee appraisals so that employees have the confidence that they are doing a good job, and the employer gets to know when people need training, or need new software or equipment, or when she needs to recruit more staff or give more hours to existing staff.

So in a flat, democratically-managed workplace, it’s just as important to have this information, and there are a variety of ways you can do that. You don’t need a hierarchical structure with a line manager responsible for holding appraisal exercises with staff, there are other approaches and this is what this paper aims to explore. Continue reading “Peer appraisal in worker co-ops”

Check Your Principles!

We were really pleased to see that the Co-ops Unleashed report from the New Economics Foundation, commissioned by the Co-op Party, referenced co-operatives undertaking a co-op principles audit every 5 years.  We have long advised co-ops to take a look at how they put the principles into practice, offering DIY guidance and an audit service (which provides external validity).  We also frequently deliver training sessions which include a section on the Co-operative Principles. As recently as last month, we delivered workshops with co-ops to discuss and understand what the coop principles mean in their co-op, and how they could be better put into practice.

Who’s afraid of leadership?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to co-operative leadership, because there are so many varieties of co-operative, depending on co-operative type, organisational structure, and sector of the economy.

In a consumer retail co-operative for example, the hierarchical structure pretty much dictates who holds what power and while of course there are opportunities for career development and promotion, there is less flexibility and those at the top of the tree can control the way authority is delegated to those below them.

I often remember an early lesson in co-operative leadership – or the lack of it!  I was a member of a co-housing group, run as a co-operative and we held an event to promote the co-op and recruit new members. All the members – eight or nine of us – turned up at the community centre to arrange the room and get ready for our audience. Continue reading “Who’s afraid of leadership?”

Co-ops Collaborating for a Sustainable Future 12th October 2017

Next week (12th October) Co-operatives South East is hosting a regional co-ops conference and AGM in Brighton entitled “Co-ops Collaborating for a Sustainable Future”.  It is focusing on how co-operatives can forge trading partnerships to reduce unnecessary waste and carbon emissions while boosting their trading activity.  Nathan from Co-operantics is going to be helping facilitate the day, as an outgoing Board member of Co-operatives South East.  He has served a 3 year term in a regional federal body for co-ops as part of our commitment to the 6th co-operative principle (Co-operation among co-operatives).  The full programme can be viewed here and if you are late to booking, use this form. Did we say it’s free?

So what’s it all about?

Sustainability has multiple meanings: Continue reading “Co-ops Collaborating for a Sustainable Future 12th October 2017”

Multistakeholder Co-operatives Manchester 30th September

Stir to Action  in collaboration with The Co-operative College, is hosting a one-day workshop on multistakeholder co-ops on 30th September 2017. The workshop will be held at Holyoake House, Hanover St, Manchester M60 0AS and will be run by Kate Whittle of Co-operantics. If you cannot get to Manchester, you can follow the workshop via a webinar.

Kate is a founder member of GO-OP, a multistakeholder co-operative whose constitution is based on the Somerset Rules model, which was developed by Alex Lawrie at Somerset Co-op Services.

Instead of single stakeholder organisations — such as worker or consumer co-ops — the multistakeholder model extends ownership to different types of stakeholder. GO-OP for example has three classes of member: Users (passengers and employees) and Non-users (investors).

With this more inclusive model, more people have a direct interest in the success of the enterprise, and can be represented on the board of the co-operative. Ed Mayo of Co-operatives UK, has argued that this model suits enterprises within the Transition movement, “where the single-constituency member models don’t seem quite to fit.”

Another example of a good fit for a multi-stakeholder co-operative is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). The aim of the CSA is to share the risk between growers and consumers, to help growers and horticulturalists survive the risks and challenges of growing food. So the CSA will have different groups of stakeholders with different short term interests but a shared long term interest. The multistakeholder model presents an ideal structure to ensure the interests of both groups are clear and taken into account.

Where large amounts of capital need to be raised in order to get the co-operative business off the ground, the multistakeholder model can work well. The co-operative will have two types of members, Users and Non-users, with the Non-users providing the capital and receiving a modest return on their funds as well as the satisfaction of knowing that they are supporting a member-owned and democratically controlled, sustainable enterprise. Control of the co-operative is always in the hands of the Users however.

If you’d like to find out more about the model, join us on 30th September to develop a good understanding of what a multi-stakeholder co-operative is, the advantages offered by this model and some of the complexity. We’ll be exploring some examples of multi-stakeholder co-ops, and there will be a practical exercise thinking about the design of a multi-stakeholder co-op.


Webinar participants will be able to stream live video of the workshop, view presentations and put questions to the facilitator. For a full explanation of attending via webinar, please email

Contact Stir to Action with any questions, or if you would like to pay via alternate methods including cheque or bank account transfer

Away Days – love them or loathe them?

The Away Day – love it or loathe it, it’s an essential element of collective working, but if it’s not properly planned and well facilitated it can undermine all your efforts to work together effectively as a team.

It can be a jolly, a social get together, a chance to stand back, review progress over the last year and plan for next year, or a look at the longer term. It can be an opportunity to review organisational structure, or a space for looking at the way you work together – at processes rather than tasks. But not all at once! It can be tempting to try to cram as much as possible in to the day, but that’s a mistake. When people are taking time out from day to day operations to look at issues in more depth, it’s a frustrating waste of time if important topics can only be touched on briefly.

This is a precious time – after all if there are say 10 of you out of the office or warehouse or shop for a whole day that is a cost of 10 person-days to the co-operative. So make sure you spend that time wisely.

In our experience there are a variety of ways in which it can go wrong:

  1. Lack of consultation with members about aims & content (people will not feel ownership, so will not engage)
  2. Agenda with too many aims &/or lack of prioritisation
  3. Lack of planning
  4. Wrong venue (too small, not enough wall space, inadequate seating, too dark, no outside space)
  5. Too many presentations, not enough discussion (does not encourage participation, boring)
  6. Too much time spent in whole group discussion (ditto)
  7. Pointless ‘team building’ exercises or inadequate exercise de-briefing
  8. Lack of a final feedback session (missed opportunity to learn which sessions worked well and which did not)
  9. Running over time (cardinal sin, people have got lives, and other commitments)


Ideally the Away Day will be a regular event, so that over time you will learn for yourselves what works and what doesn’t, but first of all you need to agree what you want to achieve:

  • Do you want to involve all your members in thinking about the future?
  • or celebrate the achievements and identify the challenges of the past year and share members’ expectations, hopes (and maybe fears) for the coming year?
  • or find out if the structure is working effectively? Are people clear about who has what authority to take decisions, where one role ends and another one begins, member rights and responsibilities?
  • or discover if your appraisal or peer support system is working effectively? Do members feel supported? Are you missing opportunities for people to share their training needs or ambitions for career development?
  • or review policies and procedures, for example is there an effective mechanism for dealing with conflict when it arises?

As we said above, if you try to do all these things you will end up feeling rushed or disappointed that there are topics which have not been properly explored and discussed, so it’s important to focus and identify those issues that need to be addressed as a priority.

5 ways to ensure that your strategy day doesn’t go wrong

  1. AIMS: Decide and prioritise what you want from the day, involving all the members in agreeing Away Day Aims. What is your priority right now?
    1. Team building
    2. Strategy development
    3. Policy development
    4. Review progress in previous year
    5. Review processes – the way you work together

Don’t try to cram too much in.

  1. VENUE: Find a venue which is accessible, big enough for you all to sit in a circle, with space for smaller group work, with an outside space you can use (weather permitting), with a kitchen and an urn for making hot drinks; order lunch and cake (cake is essential) from a local co-op or social enterprise .
  2. PLAN: Make a plan, starting with start and end times, including 15 minutes morning & afternoon breaks & at least 45 minutes lunch break. Also a 15 minute feedback session at the end of the day. This will give you an idea of how much time you will have to achieve your aims, probably around 5 to 6 hours. Develop a timed Agenda and circulate in advance. Write up on a flip chart so that everyone can see how much time there is for each topic.
  3. PARTICIPATION: Plan the day so that you alternate high-participation activities with less participative ones. High participation = small group discussions, exercises; Less participative = presentations, whole group discussions.
  4. FLEXIBILITY: Be prepared to drop an exercise if you can see or are told it isn’t working; have alternative ideas up your sleeve, be prepared to let a discussion go on longer than anticipated in the plan if it appears to be exploring something important or if people are saying we need more time for this. Remind people of the Agenda, more time on this topic means less time for the next one!


We think this is such a great opportunity for people to work together in a very different way to the day to day operational tasks, so it’s important to invite all the stakeholders. If there are probationers or volunteers who are willing to put in the time then they should be there.  If there are Board members or Directors who are not involved in the day to day work they should be invited too. It should be made clear that this is not a decision-making forum, but that decisions arising out of the Away Day will be taken at the next members meeting or AGM as appropriate.

A well planned, inclusive, participative and well facilitated Away Day will provide a strong foundation for your work together. Members will be motivated, communications between different departments or teams will be more effective, working practices will be improved, decision-making will be more efficient and the co-operative or social enterprise business will benefit.

We have run Away Days for co-operatives and social enterprises many times, and we’d love to help you run yours! We are experienced at planning, facilitating and evaluating Away Days, ensuring that they are effective, participative and fun.

Contact or

and we will get back to you for a chat about your needs.

Chairing (or facilitating) meetings – whose turn is it to speak?

A colleague highlighted an important issue when she asked about the order in which the Chair allows people to speak. Normally when you are chairing or facilitating a discussion you note (you can write it down) the order in which people are raising their hands and invite them to speak in that order.

However, what if one person is asking for information and another person is giving that information, but the next person to raise their hand wants to speak about something else? As my colleague rightly pointed out, if the Chair sticks rigidly to the order in which people are raising their hands, the flow of the discussion can be interrupted by questions or comments relating to a totally different issue.

So what’s the answer?

I refer you to this great quote:
“Let’s cherish each other and listen to each other like jazz musicians do”, Richard Holloway (former Bishop of Edinburgh)

We know that although it’s the Chair’s responsibility to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate, it’s the responsibility of everyone in the meeting to support her or him in that. So if your question doesn’t relate to the current issue, don’t raise your hand until you can hear that the discussion has moved on. We all need to take responsibility for the meeting being fruitful and effective, so we need to think – is my contribution helping this discussion?

So it’s not always about rules – the rules are there for a reason, they’re a structure but they are not the answer to every situation. We can make all the rules we want but in the end people’s attitudes and awareness are more important.

Here’s a link to an excellent TED talk on precisely this topic, I think it’s wonderful!