Beyond email: could startup Slack change the way you work?


Two million people are using Slack to chat, send emojis and encourage creativity at work. Nasa and Harvard are on board will your company be next?

Erica Baker likes poker. So did many of the engineers she spent 10 years working with at Google, in the California headquarters of one of the worlds most valuable technology companies. When she was eventually invited to a poker night with other engineers, the group of white, male colleagues fell silent as she walked into the room. That did not feel good, she says. I get that its comfortable to be around people like you, but its also pretty important to be around people who are not like you it helps one grow as a human being. That was the point where I started to get fed up with Google.

Around the same time, in late November 2014, Baker joined a local Black Lives Matter protest after the shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer. When she posted a photo to Twitter, Stewart Butterfield, the co-founder of Slack, a new chat tool for use at work, sent her a message: Stay safe. She says, I just thought, Holy crap thats a tech CEO! She left Google to join Slack as an engineer in May 2015.

Silicon Valley has developed plenty of folklore around tech CEOs; like Page, they tend to start out in a garage, drop out of college, and within a few years metamorphose from boychild prodigy to omnipotent genius.

Butterfields story is a little different. He was born on a hippy commune in Canada and christened Dharma Butterfield. He studied philosophy at Cambridge University and, after various design and product development roles, accidentally came up with the photo-sharing site Flickr while trying to build a game. (Slack came up in the same way, a side project of a game called Glitch.)

Slack is part of a wave of technologies trying to change the way we communicate, enabling continuous, fluid, more natural conversations to replace restrictive and time-consuming emails. Already, more than 2.3 million people use it every day, sending 1.5bn messages every month. Despite being just two years old, Slack is already valued at $2.8bn, a figure that makes it the fastest-growing business-to-business company in history.

Its important to be around people who are not like you, says engineer Erica Baker. It helps one grow as a human being. Photograph: Winni Wintermeyer for the Guardian

Cut the formality

When I meet Butterfield, wearily hunched over a meeting room desk, he swears hell never attempt to design another game. The California sun is pouring into Slacks spacious, quiet office, the odd emoji balloon hovering above the desks.

Perhaps unusually for a CEO, Butterfield doesnt think a business should be all about making money: People dont work for money. Its a way of establishing the health of the machine, of diagnosing how the machine is performing, but its not necessarily the goal. They get a lot of purpose and identity from work, yet most people are unhappy there. They feel work isnt taking advantage of everything they have to offer, that they are more resourceful, intelligent, creative or capable. The formality of how people speak to each other is a constraint, so their job doesnt let them be their whole self.

Slack is sometimes described as an email killer, which might be as much an ardent prayer as anything else. Research by the Radicati Group estimated that nearly 2.6 billion people used email worldwide as of 2015, each sending and receiving an average of 122 emails a day at work alone. Email is frequently cited as a major drain on productivity; Slack claims its users report receiving 48.6% less internal email after they start using the tool.

Dr Leah Reich, a sociologist and Slacks user researcher, argues that email represents an older generation of workers and an outmoded way of communicating: Email is hierarchical and compartmentalized, and great for political maneuvering. Blind copying, or the bcc, is an example of that: your boss could be silently copied into an email chain. Email allows the sender to choose who to send information to, and who to exclude. It is also loaded with letter-writing conventions, expectations that we must reply and include a formal greeting. We should cut that formality and replace it with fast exchanges of ideas, Reich says. How often is there deep collaboration and sharing on email? That weird overlapping feeling of ideas and iteration and design thinking? Thats still new to a lot of people. Its radical collaboration, a different way of working and thinking.

The formality of how people speak to each other is a constraint, so their job doesnt let them be their whole self, says Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield. Photograph: Winni Wintermeyer for the Guardian

Reich has been using online chat since 1992, when she inhabited some fairly niche chat rooms on the east coast dedicated to raves. She argues that the workforce today includes a generation who are used to less hierarchical communication and very good at chat. They are simply not entrenched in email the same way we are, she says. Companies realize they need to have the tools people are used to using.

Facebook Messenger, Google Chat, WhatsApp and many other messaging applications have changed the way we communicate; WhatsApp alone has 1 billion monthly users. Research in 2014 by Pew found that 49% of teens used texting as their primary way of talking to their closest friend, compared with 20% on social media and only 13% by phone. Texting and chat messaging may once have been the domain of the young, but those teenagers are growing up and companies want to look progressive to attract young talent. Slack aims to create a new norm for how we communicate at work: a ubiquitous, informal chat that feels like an extension of the reflexive personalities we construct on our social media accounts; all that is seeping into work now, too.

Slack is nothing like conventional work software; it is bright, fast and stuffed with emojis. Most users receive an invite from someone else at work to join a team, and once they have Slacks app on their desktop or mobile, theyll see channels dedicated to different topics, private channels for invited groups, and direct messages. There is typically one main channel that acts like a common room, and offshoots for groups or projects. Slacks own corporate team has 1,064 channels for its 356 staff, including the novelty channels #happyplace for pictures of cute animals, #theoldgodsandthenew for Game Of Thrones and TV chat, and #socks for pictures of the days footwear. Users can also send files and emojis, and add any of the 280 tools that can be plugged into Slack, including proofreading, to-do lists, calendars and Skype; you can even order an Uber through a chat message.

Ardent users praise Slacks warmth and humor, credited largely to editorial director Anna Pickard, a former Guardian journalist who has used her masters degree in dramaturgy to specialize in giving things a voice. From its marketing and advertising to error messages, Slack has a gentle, accessible humor that isnt topical or ingratiating, and doesnt use in-jokes. One error message reads: Weve seen this problem clear up with a restart of your browser, a solution which we suggest to you now only with great regret and self-loathing.

Breaking the boys club

The technology is gaining popularity largely because curious, tech-inclined people start using it, and convince their bosses to pay for an upgrade the whole firm can use. This bottom-up strategy looks risky on paper, but is working beyond anyones expectations. Clients now include the Wall Street Journal, Samsung, Harvard and Nasas Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Sociologist Dr Leah Reich thinks we should cut the formality of email and replace it with fast exchanges of ideas. Photograph: Winni Wintermeyer for the Guardian

Despite being founded by four white men, Slack has defied Silicon Valleys self-reinforcing recruitment patterns to create probably the most diverse company in techs top tier. It feels like a company run by grownups; there is no ping pong at its San Francisco HQ, and its brand of conscientious, thoughtful culture has attracted staff such as Erica Baker.

Baker is very active in promoting diversity; she requested that Slack remove the requirement of 10 years experience from job specs because it has been proven to deter women from applying, and pushed for the inclusion of emojis with different skin tones. Baker has been working in technical roles for 15 years, and now advises the Bay Areas Hack the Hood project on helping kids from low-income families work towards jobs in technology, and is a mentor for Black Girls Code.

Butterfield is well known in the tech industry for being a charismatic CEO, but less well known for being propelled by a team of formidable women. Anne Toth, head of Slacks people and policy, was the first person in Silicon Valley to be employed to work on the complex legal and policy issues around privacy back in 1996 at Yahoo. She met Butterfield in 2005, when Yahoo bought Flickr. He now says he regrets selling, his eyes rolling when he talks about Yahoos corporate culture, in his view rife with executives consumed by power battles. He stayed running Flickr until July 2008 and then spent eight months on a break; his LinkedIn profile of the time says Unemployed person the great outdoors. Many Slack staff have similar stories of enduring unhappy or unfulfilling work environments, but Toth says they have shaped how they wanted the company to grow: We want to build the kind of company we want to work at. To show that you can break a mould and be successful.

When she joined, Toth encouraged the executive team to make a plan about company values, which might seem like the kind of nauseating marketing exercise no one takes any notice of, but which Slack has done with great sincerity. When you walk into a company and see words such as excellence and integrity on the wall, it doesnt feel authentic, Toth says. We didnt want it to feel like marketing. Slack was recruiting rapidly and needed to define a sensibility that, until then, had been osmotically transmitted from the personality of the founders; they came up with craftsmanship, courtesy, playfulness, thriving, solidarity and empathy. Those ideals inform how management makes decisions every day, from prioritizing broken code (craftsmanship) to making sure everyone leaves work on time (thriving).

As Slacks senior staff recruited, they wanted to challenge any unconscious bias, Toth explains. Some people think you make better products if you have a more diverse workforce, some think you get better business results with a more diverse workforce, and some think it is more a matter of social justice, that it is our obligation. Rather than reinforce the notion that an engineer looks like Mark Zuckerberg, we can introduce four powerful women who happen to be black. It changes the idea of what an engineer looks like.

The companys latest diversity report showed that 43.1% of the staff are female, 43% of senior management are female, 13% of staff identify as LGBT and 7.8% of staff in engineering roles identify as black. Its not designed to be self-congratulatory, they say, because these numbers still dont reflect the real world, but it is a significant improvement on the biggest tech companies: Google, Facebook and Twitter all report that 1% of engineers are black.

Slack may be small less than 1% of the number of employees of Google but its slightly older, more experienced management team is instinctively challenging recruitment processes they know havent worked. Merci Grace, Slacks group product manager for growth, recently worked alongside an external recruiter who asked which three colleges she should recruit from. I had to explain that we dont do that, because all you are doing is pulling people out of a funnel of privilege. We want people who are kind and empathetic and smart. Grace is one of many senior Slackers with an arts degree, and started her own games company. She felt ground down by the implicitly masculine culture, she says; one hiring manager said he hadnt given a job to a woman because he wanted an alpha dog. Along with many others on the staff (Slack typically hires people in their early 30s rather than their 20s), Grace has been through the phase of working 18-hour days and sleeping under the desk, and come out the other side. Yet the pervasive culture of working extreme hours persists. Just because your ass is on a seat doesnt mean youre working. If youre brain dead after 6pm, go home. You can work like that for only so long.

When people come here, we expect them to have a life, says Anne Toth, Slacks head of people and policy. We hired someone from Facebook and he couldnt believe that the place emptied out at 6pm. Photograph: Winni Wintermeyer for the Guardian

Part of that process of recruiting has been gently to pick at the valleys culture of machismo. There are no rock star developers or ninjas at Slack. They do not crush it, and they do not call everyone guys, because not everyone is a guy they prefer the term sibs, as in siblings. Ali Rayl, Slacks director of customer experience, points out that Slacks work hard and go home culture is also better for women. It allows them to say, I can do this job. I can emulate the founders in the way I work and not get punished for it. And I can take care of my family. When people come here, we expect them to have a life. We hired someone from Facebook and he couldnt believe that the place emptied out at 6pm.

What comes next?

Slack is high on the giddy enthusiasm of Silicon Valley investors and early adopting techies. But everyone is painfully aware that this is a very young company in a very aggressive industry, and things could all change. Many of the staff are unusually candid in describing this intense pressure; Rayl says its a constant low-grade terror that I might screw something up; Butterfield tells staff it will never get better than this. Slack is the flavor of 2016, but could it become more than that?

Anil Dash, a writer and entrepreneur who has followed Slack since it began, says one of its biggest challenges will be navigating the ordinary dysfunction of large companies. Having used Slack to co-ordinate projects with 20 different companies, Dash observes that companies in crisis typically use more private messages and less open discussion. Rather than shape the way we communicate, technology reflects our existing insecurities and behavior. The more confident workers feel, the more happy they are to engage in discussion and collaboration out in the open.

Entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernan questions whether software could ever solve what is fundamentally a human problem. We have an education system that encourages people to think of themselves as soloists their success actually requires someone elses failure. These soloists create friction and competitiveness, she says, which often takes precedence over collaboration.

Slack needs buy-in from corporate America if it is to succeed, and while Silicon Valley has always been hugely influential in working culture, from open-plan offices and standing desks to free perks and bonding sessions, is the business world really ready to upgrade its social skills? Isnt radical collaboration one step too far?

Erica Baker doesnt think so. I ask her what she might tell her nieces about her work in 50 years time. Id say your auntie helped change an industry. And that she doesnt have to work any more, she says, with the confidence of a woman who senses a public offering over the horizon. Well, were the fastest-growing enterprise company in the world, so theres a good chance. Thats just honest.

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