Slack CEO: Requiring workers to return to the office is a ‘doomed approach’

Stewart Butterfield's idea of the future of work is pretty clear cut: Don't ask workers to return to the office. It's a "doomed approach."

The chief executive and co-founder of Slack — one of the fastest growing work communication tools that was bought by Salesforce earlier this year for $27.7 billion — believes the pandemic has charted a new course for the way we work and employees are dictating much of the terms.

That means increased pressure for more efficient tech tools and flexible policies on where and how people work.

"When I see headlines about CEOs trying to lure employees back to the office, I feel like it's probably a doomed approach," Butterfield, also a co-founder of photo sharing service Flickr, said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. "Work is no longer a place you go. It's something you do."

Butterfield said he quickly learned that workers could be equally productive and creative working remotely than in-person — a learning that may not have come without the pandemic-fueled closure of the company's offices last year. The chief executive himself relocated to Colorado during the pandemic and says he was able to go skiing 76 days last season.

But he admits he didn't always see work in these terms.

"If you asked [me] in February of 2020, could the whole company go remote and maintain the same level of productivity? I would have said no. When something you thought was impossible turns out to be possible, you've got to ask yourself, what else do I think is impossible that could actually be possible?"

Since founding Slack in 2013 to provide companies with messaging tools that will help teams work together more easily, Slack has grown into a service used by millions of daily active users. The pandemic accelerated Slack's growth — before the acquisition by Salesforce, annual revenue rose 43% from a year earlier to $902.6 million — as companies looked for ways to more effectively communicate when many people were stuck at home. Slack was still in the red before the acquisition though its losses were narrowing.

For the past two years, Slack has been exploring how to improve the way people work through product development and for its own employees. Last year, it implemented a permanent remote work policy, which it says will help attract top talent and stay competitive in the industry. Slack said it has hired roughly 50% of its workers since the pandemic, and credits its flexible work policy as a differentiator that has helped lure new hires. It also is investing in helping companies create a "digital headquarters," or the digital space workers go to do their jobs.

Butterfield shares his ideas on how he sees the future of work evolving and the role he and his company intend to play in helping workers along the way. The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: What has been the key learnings from having a remote workforce? What's working and what's not working?

A: There's still very little training on effective communication or how to run meetings. The biggest upside from an employee perspective has been the increased degree of flexibility. But we're very far from the kind of global maximum effectiveness in how we're working. We probably had prematurely narrowed our view of what works at work and should think of this as a time when there's a lot of opportunity to rethink and reimagine.

Q: Are you making any changes based on your learnings over the last two years? For example, is Slack keeping its physical offices given its remote work policy?

A: We're still holding a huge amount of real estate, and I don't think that'll change. But I do think we'll end up using the space for fundamentally different purposes. Our [San Francisco-based] headquarters, which has a capacity for 1,000 plus people, has 30 people in it on a typical day, and that's mostly either small groups of people who wanted to get together in person or people who just needed to get out of their homes to get some work done. We've hired a lot of people remotely. People who have moved out of areas where we have an existing office location, we're not going to ask them to move back post-pandemic. (Slack says it will adjust employees pay based on their geographic location should they relocate.)

The changes that we haven't really gotten to yet are much more about how we equip people more fully to operate [remotely]. We're still really early in our own experimentation internally in how we work and also on the product side in thinking of new tools that we can give people that will make this time more effective. The single biggest area is supporting asynchronous work (or helping people work together on projects without having to work simultaneously).

Q: How do you think the future of work should evolve?

A: The most important thing is what we call the digital headquarters. There obviously is some digital infrastructure that's really critical to supporting productivity and collaboration. I think there are real opportunities.

The other thing that's interesting and kind of unrelated to how we work is the shifting dynamics in the labor market. The balance has shifted in such a way that the market will determine how much time people expect to be in the office, not the employers.

People who require employees to be in the office on a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday schedule are just not going to be able to hire or retain people, or certainly not hire or retain their pick.

Q: How do you define "hybrid" work and what's your take on that approach?

A: I personally really don't like the word hybrid. The number of days people spend in the office is not going to be a significant factor in figuring out the workplace dynamics or productivity. The idea that everything's going to be exactly the same as it used to be except we'll go to the office two days a week instead of five days a week really misses out on two fronts. From the employer side, you just won't have access to the broad base of talent that you have if you're more flexible. From the other side, [let's say] you have two competing job offers, and they're similar in terms of the interest of the work, the compensation, the prestige, and your belief in the company's mission or any other factors. One role says you have to be in an office five days a week and the other one says you can be in the office as much as you want to or need to. Who wouldn't take the second option?

Q: What leadership skills are needed to succeed in a hybrid work environment?

A: It's really clarity around objectives and rules, expectations from people. [Doing that] was always really demanding. This makes it harder. It's much easier to drift. We have to turn up the volume on something that we think is really important because otherwise there's a natural tendency that humans have toward disorder.

Q: In this new era of work, what do you think are some of the biggest hurdles for workers and employers?

A: One of the biggest challenges is how we build and develop relationships, and how we build trust in an environment where we're together much less frequently. It's pretty easy to develop a relationship with your peers, manager and direct reports, but the relationships that people formed when they were physically together in an office — waiting for an elevator or standing in line at lunch or sitting next to each other at an all-hands [meeting] — those kind of weak relationships are really important. But I think there's still a bit of a concern that we're running on accumulated social capital.

Q: Does hybrid and remote work help or hurt inclusion?

A: The new way of working is going to be a boon for inclusivity and diversity. At Slack, we've hired 50 percent more people from underrepresented groups in remote roles than we have in office roles [due to access to additional talent]. There's a lot of mixed research, but the consensus is that this is a little bit more of an egalitarian setup. It's easier for people to get their diverse voices heard, participate and contribute in a way that might have been more difficult when the physical presence reinforced hierarchy.

This is sometimes what people mean by hybrid: Fifty percent of the people are in the office and the other 50 percent are remote, and no change is made to the mode of working. The remote people have a real second-class experience. I think that will just evolve itself away because it's so ineffective. So at Slack, and we're not alone in this, we said to the executive team, "You can't go to the office all the time." That might sound a little strange or counterintuitive, but I think it is to avoid the scenario where people feel like they have to have a physical presence in the office to be taken seriously or to advance their career.

Q: Some workers say that Slack facilitates longer working hours and that the service's constant pings can be annoying. What's your response?

A: We at Slack feel a real sense of responsibility for how people use [the service]. We've invested a lot over the years in improvements, things like the do not disturb feature and the ability to interrupt. We're continually doing more like the ability to send messages later or to proactively suggest that you leave channels where you're not very active.

But you [the employer] also really do have to invest. You have to train people around etiquette and communication styles. We need to do a better job on the product — and we're continually evolving and iterating — but [more so] we have to do a better job in training people how to use it effectively so that they get the most out of it.

Q: What's your next big project?

A: We're working a lot on ways to create really simple workflows. If you've worked in network operations, you often have systems that monitor your systems to alert you when things have problems. People have created these systems where when an alert goes off, rather than just sending a page to someone or automating a phone call, they automatically create a [Slack] channel. It makes [the operation] much more efficient.

The challenge has been that only a certain type of person is able to set all that up. The big area of effort for us right now is figuring out how do you equip just regular people with the tools they need to create these workflows that can help guide and orchestrate the work.

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