Slacking – A new way to win?

“Slacking” takes on new meaning as companies get serious about the distributed workplace.

THE DEBATE

Teleworking and telecommuting have long been heralded as magical cures to the ailments of pollution, lost time and other ills of commuter culture, but concerns over communications inefficiency, decreased project and team continuity and questionable employee productivity have caused many employers to pause. Marissa Mayer famously banned a preexisting teleworking program soon after taking the helm as CEO of Yahoo! Inc, emphasizing that people are “more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.”[i]

ENTER SLACK

While these risks of historic telework arrangements are real, several companies are actively building platforms that seek to capture its tremendous benefits while sidestepping potential costs. An innovative leader in this space is Slack, a cloud-based communication and collaboration Software as a Service (SAAS) platform, which employs a freemium pricing model and has attracted millions of ardent followers. And the model seems to be working – as of last month Slack had 1.25M+ paid users, 5.8M weekly active users and 33,000 paying teams, which amounts to $100M in annual recurring revenues.

Fortune 100 companies aren’t the only major organizations using Slack.  The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory staff use of the software to help coordinate projects, both within and across shifts. Slack’s website highlights that “a lot can happen during a shift. Slack allows staff coming on to track and search the communications that have occurred during the day.”[ii] This applies to a globally distributed workforce as well. By organizing each conversation subset as a unique “channel” that is easy to join and leave, or share files or search for previous communications, or to pass specific information to individuals, subgroups or the entire team – Slack enables workers to elect to receive only information that is relevant to them. This keeps their efforts focused on critical tasks and helps them avoid ‘clutter’ so they can quickly synch up with the projects’ latest developments when their day begins.

CORPORATE HQ’S DISAPPEARING? PLANNING FOR CHANGE

Kristin Bellstrom goes so far as to predict that 2017 will see a Fortune 100 company shifting to a completely distributed workplace, offloading the overhead costs of large office spaces without losing workflow continuity.[iii] While perhaps extreme, the mere idea that corporate headquarters as we know them may soon disappear is fascinating. A world without physical HQs would free up a tremendous amount of office space, reduce traffic congestion, practically destroy the Otis Spunkmeyer muffin market, etc… but those are topics for another post.

Before making such a transition however, large firms must be sure how the new model will benefit corporate operations. Global Workplace Analytics is a firm dedicated to addressing such concerns and “conducts primary and secondary research on how new ways of working can impact people, planet and profits.”[iv] Their research has shown significant increases in telecommuting, including a more than 100% increase in employees working from home (excluding those who are self-employed) over roughly the last decade. Strikingly, that increase is comprised in part by a nearly 425% increase in Telework by Federal Government employees.

RISKY BUSINESS

Despite surging interest and some clear successes, not all companies or employees are so enamored by the benefits of teleworking. Data security, for example, remains a risk of great concern to companies, employees and stakeholders. With so much information being shared across, controlling for data security is no easy task. This risk compounds in cases where employees access work communications and files from personally owned devices.

Also of concern is the impact our modern “always-on” work mentality is having on employee work/life balance, and the subsequent impact on morale and performance. With instant access to every communication, resisting the urge to engage while out of the office can be excruciating or temperamentally impossible. As it now stands, 31 percent of men and 19 percent of women “allow work to interrupt time with family and friends.”[v]

WHERE THERE’S A WILL… THERE’S SLACK

Companies considering a transition to a distributed work location model will need to establish healthy cultural norms that encourage healthy work-life balance. Platform providers such as Slack can help by providing time limits, off-hours message queuing and other technical supports for such efforts.  Having already partnered with IBM to leverage Watson’s capabilities to better understand and predict user needs,[vi] Slack is in position to help companies successfully transition to flexible working arrangements while avoiding many related pitfalls – a significant win for all involved.

Next time you hear that someone is “Slacking,” it might not be a bad thing!

Word Count: 737. Just like the Airplane.


[i] Tkaczyk, Christopher. “Marissa Mayer breaks her silence on Yahoo’s telecommuting policy.” Fortune.com, April 19, 2013. http://fortune.com/2013/04/19/marissa-mayer-breaks-her-silence-on-yahoos-telecommuting-policy/, accessed November 18, 2016.

 

[ii]Balakrishnan, Anita. “It will be years before Slack goes public, CEO Stewart Butterfield says”. CNBC.com, October 26, 2016 http://www.cnbc.com/2016/10/26/it-will-be-years-before-slack-goes-public-ceo-stewart-butterfield-says.html, accessed November 18, 2016.

 

[iii] Bellstrom, Kristen. “Prediction: Big Companies will Start Giving up Officers in 2017” Fortune.com, November 15, 2016.  http://fortune.com/2016/11/15/work-remote-from-home/?iid=sr-link5, accessed November 18, 2016.

 

[iv] GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, accessed November 18, 2016.

 

[v] Staff. “Work Life Fit Linked ot Employee Engagement, Motivation and Job Satisfaction” American Psychological Association, September 3, 2015. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2015/09/work-life-fit.aspx, accessed November 18, 2016.

 

[vi] Walchuck, Zach. “Easy Slack integration for Watson Conversation.” IBM Watson blog, October 28, 2016. https://www.ibm.com/blogs/watson/2016/10/easy-slack-integration-watson-conversation/, accessed November 18, 2016.

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14 thoughts on “Slacking – A new way to win?

  1. I’m a big fan of telework, and platforms such as Slack (we used HipChat at my last job). But as nice of a benefit as it is, developing relationships with coworkers and broad conversations have been crucial for a high functioning team. Slack certainly enables visible, immediate communication and is a necessary component to making telework productive. The problem is, it’s not enough. Mayer’s words ring true to me and I think the really difficult task is to bring people “together” when they’re hundreds of miles apart. Hopefully Slack and others will grow more sophisticated and develop ways to do so.

    1. DK – I absolutely agree that this model will not replicate every aspect of workplace communication, but the upsides of bias elimination (one may not be able to see or hear teammates on a project) could give greater voice to people who would otherwise garner less respect. This could dramatically level the playing field in a competition of ideas and afford women, elderly employees and people from various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds the opportunity to co-work on projects while bypassing the pitfalls of bias and culture barriers. This is a bit of an idealized view, but we should keep in mind that, for many people, working physically “together” can be a hindrance as well as facilitator of their (and the teams’) success.

  2. I’d be curious to learn more about the data security aspect of Slack. At my prior job, we had an impossibly slow, largely internally-controlled VPN in large part due to data security concerns. While it was effective at keeping data internal (well, usually, anyway: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/23/mitt-romney-bain-capital-leaked-documents_n_1825466.html), it was so difficult to work with that I hated teleworking.

    Based on our section experience with Slack, I imagine the corporate version of the platform is also very speedy and simpler to work with than my prior teleworking service. Yet I wonder whether all major companies are comfortable working with a 3rd party provider for these services given the data sensitivity? Have there been any hacks or leaks historically? Is it just a matter of time?

  3. I echo Andrea’s concern regarding security. Even for large corporations with highly secured networks, often times the weak link is with the employees who may not have been trained or care about security best practices. This may come in the form of how they use their computer/the internet (do they always click on random links being send to them?) or physical security (are they cognizant of where they leave their work computer?). A great example of this is the 2014 Sony Picture Entertainment hack where hundreds of terabytes of data was stolen by hackers after they were able to gain access to the company’s building through employees inadvertently letting them in (jury is still up on whether the employees knowingly did this or got tricked). I recognize this issue is also applicable to other similar type services, but it would be interesting to know what efforts Slack is putting into being a gold standard for data security.

  4. Similar to DK, we used Hipchat and later Slack at the startup I worked at for three years.

    Slack certainly makes communicating with coworkers easier, but I found that the results of easier communication were not entirely positive. Your article correctly mentions the “always-on” mentality Slack can foster. We also found that Slack lead to lower quality communication between employees because the barrier to sending a message was so low and response time was so fast. With Slack, employees would fire off messages impulsively without thinking critically about what information they actually needed and without any regard to the recipient’s time. This problem was particularly pervasive with cross-functional communication between engineers and businesspeople.

    Do you think there are features Slack can add to ensure that communication quality does not erode within organizations?

  5. Interesting debate and article. It’s interesting where the culture of working is heading and I think it’s important that we build flexibility into our work days as many of the best employees need exactly that. I think it’s incredibly powerful to have the tools that can enable that. I always wonder though where is the line drawn?

    Many scientists agree that 93% of all communication is non-verbal and relies on tone of voice and body language and a lot of that (if not ALL of that if it’s not a video chat) gets lost through teleworking and various platforms like Slack. While we may be saving on some sort of efficiency, at what point do we start losing on the quality of the business and ideas?

  6. Luke, thanks for writing. As a bit of a Luddite, I’d never actually engaged with Slack prior to HBS. It’s really interesting to learn more about the history of the product and the role it might play in teleworking. I’d be curious to also learn about how company’s are adopting performance evaluation and compensation schemes to an increasingly teleworking society. Corporations are very used to hourly wages and the notion of “clocking in” and “clocking out.” In FRC, we still even think about labor costs by building up from hourly wages. Do you think as we move towards teleworking we’ll have to abandon the hourly wage and come up with more productivity based compensation schemes? Or is it feasible to “clock in” and “clock out” remotely and trust that employees are productive despite being outside the office?

  7. Jumping on the Luddite bandwagon with Sam, I also never used Slak before HBS, so I was not familiar with all of its different uses before reading. The idea that Slack could eventually remove the need for a physical corporate HQ is fascinating, not just for the reasons you mentioned, but because it would remove another barrier for companies trying to attract talent. If your company is based in Midland, MI, are you really going to have the same selection of talent as a company based in NYC? If Slack is able to truly enable companies to have its corporate employees work from anywhere, it opens up a range of competitive advantages. Having said that, I’m guessing we’re still pretty far from that reality.

  8. Luke, thanks for choosing this topic. I think about the future of work all the time. Particularly when it comes to the costs and benefits of telework, I wonder how it may help society unlock productivity and overall potential. Many families, as they start to have children, have a decision to make as to who will stick around the house to take care of the kids at least for the first few months. Telework, and tools like Slack that can push for a productive teleworking environment, may lead families to take very different decisions.

  9. To both SLHarland and JL, I absolutely agree that compensation and quality control remain critical areas that a company considering all-telework model will need to figure out. In order for this to be resolved, productivity must be measured on a qualitative scale, but the measures to be used are as yet undefined in this context. That said, most corporate HR departments have set evaluation criteria for employees – and rarely do those criteria measure “hours worked” – so the existing model may be more suitable for application to a telework model than it may now seem. If compensation structures can be linked to these assessments, companies will have no reason to be concerned by working hours.

    Data security will be a challenge for as long as humans interact with IT systems. In the words of my first IT class instructor “The only secure computer is one that is unplugged and locked in an impenetrable safe.” The US Military uses parallel networks in order to protect classified information. One network is connected to the internet, the other is a functionally closed-loop system. Instances of leakage do occur when users intentionally or accidentally share the information, but overall the system works. Companies may need to consider splitting corporate data onto multiple systems as well – to create hard barriers between proprietary/sensitive data and general communications. User habits and self-discipline then become the greatest concern and vulnerability, but restricting access to vetted and experienced personnel is a feasible way to reduce that risk.

    Also to JL and to Brian, the human factor certainly still must be managed. I’ve participated on many projects that were conducted from distributed locations but entailed pre, mid and post-project in-person meetings to develop, maintain and harvest the group rapport and learning experiences in order to make the most of the project for the organization. With that time to demonstrate in-person goodwill and learn each others’ temperaments and personal style at the outset of a project, subsequent e-communications can be interpreted through the readers’ learned lens for the applicable sender. I don’t think telework can be done well without such meetings except for projects that only require cut-and-dried technical piecework.

  10. This is certainly an interesting topic. I love the ways platforms like Slack are working to improve and facilitate communication, and consequently helping re-think how we work moving into the future. While I embrace these new innovations, I wonder whether they will go (or are even intended to) replacing corporate centers. Additionally, I think that tellecommuting is beneficial for some industries, but not all, so I don’t believe that Slack, and other similar platforms, will be able to dramatically change work dynamics for all workplaces. Moreover, I am not sure if it would be wise (will able to) to move to a model where teleworking becomes the norm, as I believe that human interaction in teams will always be needed to be effective.

  11. Thank you for addressing this very important topic Luke! I find the changes to the workplace that technology has introduced have had overwhelming results and I couldn’t agree more with your assertion regarding the importance of adapting new cultural norms that reflect today’s workplace. It is simply not enough to implement new technologies without taking a critical look at how they may have a negative impact on employees. An example from my previous workplace was how company cell phones were treated. Employees did everything they could to avoid getting a company phone since there was a (somewhat justified) perception that once you had one you were on call 24/7. This led to lower productivity, particularly on business trips as employees tried to avoid using their personal phones and had no alternative. Without the proper norms established, slack and other platforms could simply turn into “noise”.

  12. Thank you for writing on this, Luke. I am a Slack power user. I have used it for 3 different early stage companies and have found it to be incredibly effective in sharing up-to-date information to appropriate parties and enabling those parties to respond back efficiently and effectively. I echo the risk shared by E3PO in that the process of writing an email is much more formal than that of a Slack message, which can affect the quality and depth of thought of the message conveyed. That said, I think Slack and its users are highly cognizant of this trade-off and would argue that they may actually embrace it. Slack has enabled me to be much more organized with information and lowers the barrier to sending information. Said another way, most organizations and people do not struggle to be effective because of over-communication, but face challenges due to under-communication. Slack promotes over-communication, which to me, helps improve organizational and personal effectiveness. That said, I do not think that Slack is a complete replacement for email, nor do I believe that it replaces the effectiveness of all individuals being in the same room pounding out or “white-boarding” a project.

  13. Excellent post Luke. I wonder if Slack is just the beginning of newer ways to accommodate large groups of people. Question of course is anonymity–which will be a very real problem if we don’t assert our rights.

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