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).