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Email at work is old hat

Coordinating people in the workplace day to day sucks up a lot of time. Mark Jennings takes a look at 'Slack' - a rapidly-growing communication tool making email seem dated.  (Partner Content)

Chatting to people at work is usually not a problem. Getting the information you need to get the job done often is.

We’ve all heard the old refrains: “I didn’t get the memo”, “they weren’t at their desk”, “I’m sure I sent you that email”.

If these phrases are still floating around the office, the bad news is you are either working for, or running, a business living in the dark ages.

Companies where one department doesn’t know what another is doing are rapidly-approaching the end of the runway unless they’re monopolies or somehow insulated from market forces.

Instant communication and knowledge-sharing between employees, teams of employees, and in many cases with customers as well, is now regarded as “indispensable” by many of the world’s leading companies and the people who work for them.

The software vendors that offer instant messaging platforms have moved quickly to integrate video, email and conference calls into their products. Artificial intelligence is increasingly being added to automate mundane tasks.

Effective collaboration at all levels in a company is now seen as the ‘Holy Grail’ in terms of driving increased productivity and keeping younger workers engaged, happy and committed to the ‘vision’.

Facilitating communication, or collaboration, in big businesses is now a big business in its own right.

In 2018, the global market for instant messaging platforms - or collaboration applications, as they are known in the digital world - was about $4 billion. By 2023, leading US digital research company, Gartner, predicts it will surpass $7.3 billion.

IDC, another US research firm, says the market grew 24 percent in 2018, up from 21 percent the previous year.

According to Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of Slack: “We believe whoever makes it easiest for teams to function with agility and cohesion in an ever more complex world will be the most important software company in the world.

"Humans are very hard to coordinate. Consider how much of our time is spent coordinating. You walk around any office and just look. This activity accounts for 30, 40, 50 percent of people's time.”

Slack, like the team collaboration market, has grown very quickly in a short space of time. It’s first in a whole new category – which it created – that is leading a generational shift in the way people work together.

Launched in mid 2013, Slack now has over 12 million daily users in more than 150 countries. Half of its daily users are outside North America. Among its paid customers, users spend more than nine hours per workday connected to the service, including spending about 90 minutes per workday actively using Slack – which adds up to more than 5 billion actions weekly on average,

Slack is an acronym for Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge, and was conceived by video game developers who wanted to communicate between offices in Vancouver and San Francisco.

Glitch, the game they were developing, failed, but the communication tool it spawned created something much more.

Outside North America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand are fast-growing and important markets for Slack.

Slack informally found its way into many antipodean companies when it was adopted by small groups, often technical or IT departments, within major corporates. These ‘rogue’ groups used a free version of the product but turned into evangelists for Slack when their employers began looking for enterprise-wide solutions.

Grant Foster, internal applications specialist at accounting software juggernaut Xero, is one of those evangelists. In fact, being all things Slack was Foster’s sole job at Xero for a number of years.

“It was bigger than we thought it would be. It is a behemoth of a product and it needed a face and I became the face of it at Xero. Helping people get onboard and get the most out of it. It is such a unique tool that allows you to put communications into separate channels. It has greatly increased communication in the company.”

According to Foster, Xero currently has 3000 public channels operating, which everyone in the company can communicate on if they want to. There are additional channels that operate on an invitation basis.

“Previously we had a lot of silos in the company. People used Flow docks or Yammer or Google Hangouts. Our aim was to reduce the number of products we were using and break the silos down.”

Foster says he is in about 200 channels, but most of Xero’s 2700 employees are in 40 to 50 channels.

“Everyone is able to start a channel and when we are pushing out a new product or tool we open a channel. It has allowed us to get products to market faster and I know it has saved us lots of money.”

Foster also points to Slack’s integration with thousands of apps as an important feature for Xero.

“We have 600 apps that we operate at Xero, for instance we have an internal polling app that we use a lot to get the views of staff so the integration is vital for us. The other major change for us is that Slack has hugely reduced the use of internal emails. I don’t think I get any internal emails at all now.”

Slack executives see the displacement of email with channel-based instant messaging as part of a natural evolution in workplace communication.

“Email was created 30 years ago and it wasn’t really created for the work environment,” says Arturo Arrarte, Slack’s Head of Growth – Asia Pacific.

“If you look at the roots of email it came from a military need and then it moved into work and personal lives, but what it did really well was allow for one-to-one and one-to-many communication. What it did inadvertently was create silos because at the end of the day you don’t decide if you receive an email. Someone else decides to send one and you are simply the recipient. It is a push model.

“One of the trends we are seeing in the workplace today is that more and more decisions are being made in a consensus approach with more decision-makers involved.

“What we are seeing today is that those who have worked in an organisation that has used Slack find it very difficult to move to an organisation that uses email only.”

There is general agreement amongst company executives and industry commentators that the type of businesses adopting instant messaging platforms share certain cultural characteristics.

Arrarte says it is not necessarily companies with younger executives that lead the charge, but those that emphasise openness and team work.

“They tend to be more transparent with flatter executive structures. There is less information-hoarding and the management teams tend to want to provide employees with the tools they wish … rather than mandating what they have.”

Xero’s Foster says the way staff collaborate through Slack has helped it maintain its tight-knit culture through a period of rapid expansion.

“I don’t think we could have grown as quickly as we have and kept our tight-knit culture without Slack. Our culture is built on an informality, and having everybody able to connect so easily builds on this culture.

“It can be really simple things like which floor of the building might have free food today. We also have a channel where staff can post pictures of their pets and discuss them.”

If this sounds like employees mimicking social media behaviours, it is. But according to Gartner’s vice president of research, Craig Roth, that is a positive and not a negative.

“Digital workers turn to tools that are common in their personal lives to get work done. Real-time mobile messaging is quite common in support of enterprise endeavours, as are social media and file-sharing tools.

“The use of such tools effectively blends workers’ personal experiences and their work experiences.”

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