Channeling the inevitable: Slack and the future of work

Stewart Butterfield talks about clarity, collaboration, and culture at the Wharton People Analytics Conference

Stewart Butterfield speaking at the 2018 Wharton People Analytics conference

“There’s a huge degree of overlap between what executives want and what workers want,” Slack’s CEO Stewart Butterfield said at the 2018 Wharton People Analytics conference in Philadelphia. Knowledge workers, in particular, share a common vision for how they’d like to work: “People want to move quickly and feel engaged,” he explained. “To operate in alignment and have the autonomy to make decisions.”

In a keynote conversation with Professor Mae McDonnell, an expert on organizational design and a professor of management at the Wharton School, Butterfield discussed how his responsibilities as a CEO have led him to explore the wider factors that often leave people feeling disaffected, disenfranchised, or alienated at work.

Everyone, he contends, is looking for the same foundations to their working life. They want to be trusted, and to be able to trust the people they work with. They would like to be respected, and work with people they respect. They want to have clarity around the goals and priorities, and to understand how the outcomes will be evaluated. To the extent these conditions are absent, they will become unhappy because, in addition to these prerequisites for healthy work, they also want to feel effective, productive, and like they are having an impact.

Tools alone won’t fix issues inherent to an organization’s culture or team dynamics, but they can be helpful to leaders in shedding light on common breakdowns and pitfalls, and they can spark ideas for how people can work together more efficiently and achieve more meaningful results.

You can watch the full session below, but here’s a look at a few key takeaways from Butterfield and McDonnell’s conversation.

Professor Mae McDonnell: Can you talk about how Slack fits in with the shifting nature of work and articulate its value?

Stewart Butterfield: The simplest articulation is that it replaces email inside your company. But there’s more to it than that. Email isn’t just a series of messages typed in boxes, stacked on top of one another.

Most of the information in your inbox is composed by machines: There are receipts from purchases, password reset links, newsletters you’ve subscribed to, notifications about new comments or updates on documents — it’s actually a window into all the work that’s happening throughout an organization. It’s where contracts are negotiated. It’s a file storage system. It serves a bunch of roles, none of which are particularly suited to the medium.

In this case, we literally define transparency as the opposite of opacity: People can actually see what’s going on in different departments and working groups in a way they couldn’t with email, because emails are addressed to individuals, or mainly received individually.

Slack is a collaboration hub across the company. Messages and conversations are organized into channels, which can be broken up by broad functional groups and projects. There can be channels for teams, projects and goals, office locations.

By their very nature, channels increase transparency — and I like to say that with a big asterisk, because transparency is often defined, in the business context, as bosses and leaders being more forthcoming. In this case, we literally define transparency as the opposite of opacity: People can actually see what’s going on in different departments and working groups in a way they couldn’t with email, because emails are addressed to individuals, or mainly received individually.

Take the process of closing a deal as an example. It’s incredibly complex and involves a lot of participants, from sales to legal to engineering. When I wanted an update on how work with Oracle was coming along, which is one of our biggest accounts, I didn’t have to ask anyone. I just went into the dedicated #accounts-oracle channel and I could see everything that’s been happening.

Channels have opened my eyes to the importance of alignment and clarity for people. Now someone in engineering who may not be involved with the account on a daily basis, but might be working on a feature that’s blocking a customer deployment, can go into a channel and get context behind requests and understand the potential impact of their actions. They’re not just getting a message into their inbox, dropped from the top.

MM: So, to riff on this idea of access to information being important for employees to learn and navigate complex situations, how does Slack mitigate the risk of information overload?

SB: I would say it attenuates the effects more than mitigates the risk. The nature of an organization is that it produces a lot of information. Depending on the organization’s size, the volume of information can increase by orders of magnitude — from 10 to 100 to 100,000 times more. But you don’t have to read all of it. It’s not being pumped into an inbox. With Slack, you have choice. There are channels you can elect to join or view as you see fit. We give people tools, like notification settings and comprehensive controls, so they manage what they need to see.

We’re also working deeply on search, not just in terms of the retrieval of documents, files, and messages that you already know exist. We also look at search in terms of searching for topics that you’re interested in and surfacing people who might be experts in those areas within the company, then pointing you towards the channels where they’re having those conversations. There’s a lot we can do by having this really large corpus of information to draw from.

To the extent that we are able to offload those capabilities that computers are so good at, and that human beings are fundamentally lousy at — like comparing a hundred million things all at once and finding things that are similar or remembering everything perfectly forever — we’re all better off.

MM: What do you think is Slack’s role in enabling corporate culture?

SB: I think Slack is a very powerful instrument for affecting the kind of change that leaders across the organization, not just executives, want to see happen. Because of the increase in transparency, the anti-pattern of management — which is “I withhold information as a means of exercising power or control in the organization” — becomes more and more difficult.

Imagine there’s something big happening: There’s an acquisition, a change in suppliers or organizational design. What you want in those kinds of cases is a higher degree of alignment, more clarity. If people have questions, you don’t want there to be a lot of uncertainty. You want people to hesitate less while taking more effective actions. So you want decision-making to be enabled at all levels and for people to feel empowered and autonomous.

In that sense, Slack is a very effective way to get people the information that they need, but it’s also an effective place to put information so that the right people and decision makers can participate.

I hope that the net impact for organizations that move from email as their primary means of communication to Slack is that, whatever the cultural goals or aims that they have, they’re easier to achieve as a result of using our product.

MM: What are some of the ways AI and machine learning will empower workers in the future versus extinguishing their jobs?

SB: There was a time when “calculator” was both a job title and a computer. Benedict Evans, an investor in the Bay Area, wrote this essay where he has a couple of stills from the 1960s movie The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.

Jack Lemmon’s character works at an insurance company, and he has an electromagnetic adding machine on his desk and a typewriter, and there are all these people pushing carts and handing him sheaves of papers. He literally reads over data, does some calculation, types up the results, then hands it off to someone else. The whole floor operates like a worksheet. And what is he? He’s a cell on a spreadsheet.

Nowadays, insurance companies probably employ just as many people, but once you give them actual spreadsheets, they can do a lot more things: Financial planning and analysis becomes a subdiscipline. You can do all this kind of sensitivity analysis with the modeling that wasn’t possible before.

Similarly, I remember when it became mandatory to start buying calculators and bringing them to math class, when before that we were focused on long division to solve complex math problems. But suddenly we could do trigonometry on our calculators and we could move up the stack in terms of the kinds of calculations that we were performing and the kind of math we were expected to do. I think we’ll see much more of that.


Slack is the collaboration hub, where the right people are always in the loop and key information is always at their fingertips. Teamwork in Slack happens in channels — searchable conversations that keep work organized and teams better connected.