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Tomorrow’s office is already here; it’s fun and effective

Lockdown forced us all to reconsider the way we work, when going to the office was suddenly no longer an option. Some businesses were better placed, having already adopted a collaboration tool, Slack, that's become their virtual office, writes Peter Bale in the first of a sponsored content series on the collaboration platform

William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer which was an influence for The Matrix movie, is well known for saying that “The future is already here — it's just not evenly distributed”.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated trends that had already emerged in businesses of all sizes: a need to genuinely collaborate on projects, coordinate work from locations across town or across the world, and harness the power of multiple software packages.

Slack has won a reputation as the tool to make those three aspirational ideas – collaboration, coordination, and coherence – real.

When WFH is really working

The experience of working from home during the lockdown in New Zealand has reinforced the value of collaboration tools such as Slack. It’s probably kept some businesses going that might otherwise have failed. Others now realise it's essential if only for business continuity. Fans know it can transform effectiveness and culture across teams.

"Slack's absolutely essential"

For some, that future of connected collaboration is already familiar. Early adopters have lessons for those who may have hesitated to use Slack or another collaboration tool, but now realise they need it even after lockdown and certainly if they run multiple locations.

“Slack is not just useful, it’s absolutely essential,” says Natalia Antelava, founder of news service Coda Story based in Tbilisi, Georgia and New York. With contributors and editors scattered in multiple locations and time zones, she says: “I don’t think we would exist without Slack.” 

Antelava and her team run complex reporting missions on some of the world’s most critical subjects. In the same way that software developers use Slack to keep track of input from multiple locations, Coda uses Slack to assemble journalism from around the world. It might be reportage from one location, editing in another, images or video elsewhere, and the final decision to publish. 

That ability to genuinely collaborate, to work together to solve problems to create products – not just swap non-committal and hard-to-track e-mails – is at the core of Slack. Slack tends to become “the office” and because it’s on your desktop or mobile it doesn’t matter whether you are present in the physical office, you’re sharing virtual space and connecting with colleagues as easily as walking over to their desk.

On Slack means “in” the office

“Slack has become the universal tool,” says Michael Stratton, Global Experience Design Director at King, the maker of Candy Crush and other games. “For example, it’s the only tool that helps us bridge marketing and product teams," he says.

Complex projects are managed and discussed within Slack – commitments are made and obligations agreed – all in “channels” devoted to a project, topic, or team. You can also form “threads” which like channels are akin to the “feeds” familiar to anyone who has used social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter. (Read more at about how channels can help you organise inside Slack).

Unlike tracking emails, the history of a channel is visible to a team or around the world – for example allowing someone in one time zone to see what has been agreed or done in another.

Software developers have historically used that process of discussion, commitment, agreement, and checking-in their work but the principle has spread across the business at King by using Slack, Stratton says. Marketing, design and customer experience teams knit together all parts of a project from conception to delivery. 

Slack can also have cultural benefits. For example, introverts can be more comfortable and contribute more in Slack than in video conferences. Ideas and requests for help tend to find each other in threads and channels devoted to specific subjects to which domain experts gravitate.

King has grown and merged with gaming companies Activision and Blizzard. Stratton says Slack has been vital in breaking down barriers and finding knowledge and collaboration across the wider company.

“With Slack, we have the ability to engage with teams on World of Warcraft or Diablo, we can reach out to a designer and ask what research they have on a specific topic. I get access to far more research than I could do on my own,” Stratton says.

The enterprise is now on Slack

Dan Cohen builds complex software products to solve knotty problems for a big consulting firm. A veteran of Microsoft and other workplaces he's seen workflow and business process shift into collaboration tools.

“Ten or even five years ago the heart of workflow was email and a second estate was instant messaging and there were messy file storage and different collaboration tools all over the place. About three years ago the heart of the enterprise became Slack,” Cohen says.

Other collaboration tools are available but users often say Slack has an edge in creating a climate which can be informal and familiar but effective. It combines social media features such as emoji, the idea of a scrolling news feed, and threads, with rigour and chains of decision-making and transparency about obligations.

The ability to integrate other applications – from Microsoft Office and G-Suite, Zoom and Skype -- to more specialist tools like project management software Trello or the software task management platform, Jira, is central to the Slack promise to connect people and applications. More than 2000 applications are available to integrate into Slack through the Slack App Directory(Learn more on about integrating other applications).

“On any new project, we will spin up a Slack workspace. What’s astounding is that people will have maybe 100 integrations built into that workspace within an hour,” says Cohen.

It's true that some discipline is necessary to avoid excessive numbers of channels and to decide how free conversations are in what is still a work environment. Tutorials for unfamiliar members of staff can help and it’s important to show users – particularly leadership -- how Slack helps achieve company goals and prove it isn’t another social network encroaching on office time. (Learn more on about how to get started with Slack.)

Fun but effective

“We have Slack best practices as part of our on boarding,” says Antelava from Coda. She says she will occasionally respond to an off-topic or inappropriate message in a thread with a police car emoji police_car to gently nudge another user to stay on topic.

"I can see what decisions were made"

When you're working across time zones the Slack channels and threads allow you to pass on commitments and instructions to others not yet online and know that they will see them and understand what they need to do in their workday: getting rid of email send, wait, response.

“When I start my day, I can see what decisions were made, why were they made and what do I need to do about them,” Cohen says.

Senior executives often take a little time to embrace Slack and its inherently democratic methods of operating. In some cases, they still prefer to send top-down “voice of God” broadcast emails. If so, they are missing out on the mood, culture, and hidden intelligence in their teams.

"It breaks down barriers.”

“What I’ve noticed is that email has become a space to create documents in the form of transmittable messages. Slack is the place where you collaborate and interact with people,” says Cohen.

At King, Stratton thinks Slack makes a difference to the culture that reinforced the core mission: “We’re a game company, we should be more fun. It breaks down barriers.”

* An earlier version of this story said William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer “became” The Matrix. It didn’t but the book is widely seen as an influence on the movie.

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