Slack chief plans to save home workers from endless Zoom calls

Butterfield has plans to greatly expand the messaging service's features as part of the battle against Zoom and Microsoft Teams

Credit: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

Like the rest of the world, Stewart Butterfield is suffering from “Zoom fatigue”.

“I want to be careful not to give the impression that I think meetings are intrinsically bad,” says the chief executive of Slack. “But we probably should have many fewer of them than we have today.”

Pre-Covid, the 48-year-old Canadian might reasonably have regarded himself as the king of remote work. Long before Zoom was a household name, let alone a curse word, Slack was taking Silicon Valley firms by storm with its bright, zippy workplace chat service that grew out of a video game.

Now it is locked in a duel for the crown against Microsoft, with both companies betting that “normal” will never return.

“People complain about meetings all the time, just like they complain about email and they complain about phone calls,” Butterfield says. “Because communication is hard, and it’s taxing, and it’s cognitively expensive. So what are the alternatives?”

Slack claims to have the answer. Since going public in 2019 with a market capitalisation of $19.5bn (£14bn), it has won about 169,000 paying customers even as the pandemic’s lift to its share price lagged behind that of Zoom.

Last year, it agreed to a buyout offer from San Francisco enterprise software maker Salesforce that valued it at $27.7bn, although that deal is still awaiting approval for US regulators leery of yet another Big Tech consolidation.

Its biggest problem by far is Microsoft, whose rival Teams service now has 145m daily active users and will be bundled directly into the next version of Windows.

Yet it, Slack and Zoom are all pitching the same vision to their customers: a “hybrid” future in which many staff only partially return to the office and others stay remote forever. In that sense, their biggest competitor may be reopening itself.

“We’re [not] going to net out to fewer jobs, but the nature of many people’s jobs will change,” says Butterfield, who set up Slack in 2013 after founding the photo-sharing website Flickr and selling it to Yahoo for $35m.

Speaking to The Telegraph from New York City, he argues that tools such as Slack will obviate or upend existing roles that exist to pass and collate information between employees, who can now more easily post and access it themselves.

“No one has figured that out, no one is training people to do it, no one has it mastered yet,” he says. “And in the meantime, there’s a lot more confusion.”

Office backlash

That confusion helps explain why even tech giants, with all their online nous, are battling to bring their staff back to plush campuses. While major British employees such as Aviva, Deutsche Bank, Lloyds and Deloitte have embraced virtual working, Amazon has been forced to walk back suggestions that it would “return to an office-centric culture as our baseline” after an internal backlash, while Google has capped its fully remote staff at 20pc.

Apple has also faced the stiffest resistance: at least 2,800 employees have joined a Slack channel called “remote work advocates”, and 37pc of survey respondents said they might quit if they are forced back.

Part of this trend, Butterfield says, may be driven by middle managers who are struggling to feel that they are still in control of employees.

“For some of them, absolutely, that’s about breathing down people’s necks,” he says. “But a more generous interpretation for a lot of them was that they just have to find a new alternative to ‘let’s grab a coffee or have lunch’, or wandering over to desks to check in. It’s really easy to do that, and it’s hard to figure out what the alternative should be.”

Virtual meetings are a perfect example, which Butterfield believes we have come to rely on for too many types of conversation.

Butterfield envisions Slack and its features as part of a new “virtual HQ” that replicates all the functions of a physical one

Credit: CARLO RICCI PHOTOGRAPHY

“It’s just Zoom call after Zoom call after Zoom call… it’s really tough when you are on camera for eight hours a day, which wasn’t the experience [in the office],” he says. “We should have a broader vocabulary, or a bigger repertoire I guess, of possible ways of collaboration.”

Hence Slack’s recent announcement that it would let users share pre-recorded video, voice and screen recordings in an attempt to cut down on pointless group calls.

Like text chat messages, these will be “asynchronous”, avoiding the need to coordinate a time that works for everyone.

The company is also launching Huddles, quick ad hoc audio chatrooms designed to “recreate spontaneous and informal discussions’’. Users can start one with a click, either in a group channel or a one-on-one messaging thread, and others can drift in and out as they like.

Butterfield compares them to taxi dispatch radios, always on in the background but requiring little from their listeners most of the time. “You’re tuned in, and if someone says something, you hear it, but it’s not like a phone call where you’re either there or you’re not.”

Stewart Butterfield CV

‘The great resignation’

He envisages teams working together on big projects, such as marketers launching a new website or recruiters organising a job fair, to have “a dozen little two-minute conversations” without needing to arrange a time that is perfect for everyone.

In the long run, he views Huddles and several other new features, such as an org chart called Atlas, as part of a new “virtual HQ” that replicates all the functions of a physical one.

That is the carrot, but Butterfield also offers a stick. He says companies that are inflexible about hybrid working will end up shedding employees and struggling to hire new ones amid what Texas professor Anthony Klotz has dubbed “the great resignation”.

Klotz argues millions of people who hung on to their jobs during the pandemic will be spurred by reopening and their experience of global disaster into seeking new ground. “The ultimate answer will be determined by the market,” says Butterfield. “Being together in person is fantastic, [but] it’s less necessary than we thought… no individual person, no CEO, gets to decide. We’ll collectively figure it out, and employees will vote with their feet.”

All of which sounds very similar to Microsoft’s brave new world. It too has announced a “virtual HQ” platform, called Viva, and chief executive Satya Nadella has said there is “no going back” and that “flexibility” will be key. The company has even commissioned research finding that 40pc of workers worldwide are considering quitting this year.

Butterfield claims that he has not been paying much attention to Microsoft lately due to the demands of his new nine-week-old child. Still, he acidly describes the decision to bundle Teams with Windows 11 as “indicative of their preferred set of tactics’’.

He sees it as a return to the monopolistic Microsoft of the 1990s, when the Seattle-based behemoth was hauled before US courts for bundling Internet Explorer into Windows and reached a settlement forcing it to open up some of its systems. “They are very aggressive,” says Butterfield, “and I think they recognise the long-term importance of this virtual headquarters [idea].”

Even so, he doesn’t rate Microsoft’s chances. He pooh-poohs the vast difference between Slack’s user numbers and its rival’s, pointing out that less than half of Office 365’s paid users also use Teams, despite them being bundled together. Windows 11, he predicts, will have the same result, leaving Teams as bloatware – pre-installed software that users do not want – on many computers.

A spokesman for Microsoft responded that people "love" Teams’ integration of different functions, and characterised Slack and other competitors as in pursuit, saying: "Its success is a big reason why competitors are working to combine their services to create a flexible offering that stacks up to what Microsoft offers today." 

Butterfield is unconvinced. “Instagram didn’t need to be pre-installed on [iPhones] to get big,” he says. “Competing in terms of the value created for people, or the benefits that customers realise, is going to be a better tactic in the long run.”

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