David Swan

Email won’t die any time soon, but there are new (dig­i­tal) ways of talk­ing to each other in the of­fice

The Australian - The Deal - - News - David Swan

On the ‘other’ email

It’s been widely dubbed an email killer but Slack, the US com­mu­ni­ca­tions out­fit led by charis­matic en­trepreneur Ste­wart But­ter­field (pic­tured), is more fo­cused on re­defin­ing work­placew col­lab­o­ra­tion than plot­ting the demise of email.

But­ter­field’s con­cept of col­lab­o­ra­tion isn’t a con­ven­tional one. Rather than stick to a rigid, cod­i­fied process, punc­tu­ated by meet­ings, But­ter­field, who re­cently vis­ited Aus­tralia, en­vi­sions a seam­less stream con­nect­ing mul­ti­ple teams, one which you can dip in and out of as you please.

That’s pretty much Slack’s mis­sion state­ment and But­ter­field reck­ons it’s the way wew will work in the fu­ture. As for email, But­ter­field bears it no ill will but says its role in work­places is des­tined to come to an end.

“It’s an id­i­otic way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing in­side a com­pany,” But­ter­field tells The Deal. “At a work­place where the pri­mary means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is email, you start at that com­pany with an empty in­box. There are tens of mil­lions of mes­sages that might have been ex­changed be­fore you ar­rived but you have no ac­cess to them. That’s lu­natic when you think about it.” But­ter­field says in­ter­nal trans­parency is a key part of what Slack de­liv­ers to a work­place.

“With us you can see what’s go­ing on across the whole or­gan­i­sa­tion no mat­ter what area you’re work­ing in,” he says. “We push the con­cept of a chan­nel; mes­sages gen­er­ally aren’t ad­dressed to in­di­vid­u­als. The chan­nels can be around projects, groups, func­tional ar­eas, what­ever.”

Slack’s sense of fun can be traced back to its in­cep­tion. Its found­ing team, in­clud­ing But­ter­field, were video game de­vel­op­ers in a com­pany called Tiny Speck, which made a mul­ti­player game called Glitch. Slack en­cour­ages not just col­lab­o­ra­tion on projects but also so­cial chan­nels, for things such as Fri­day night drinks or mu­sic sug­ges­tions.

Harper Reed, the chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer of Barack Obama’s suc­cess­ful 2012 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, noted how odd it was for an app such as Slack to be­come so trusted by work­ers so quickly. “It’s very, very, very quick for any­one who in­ter­acts with Slack to con­sider Slack, the en­tity, their friend. That’s su­per-weird,” Reed has said.

The en­thu­si­asm to drive in­ter­nal col­lab­o­ra­tion isn’t lim­ited to Sil­i­con Val­ley. Lo­cal tech dar­ling At­las­sian, which made a big splash on Wall Street last year, of­fers HipChat as one of its key prod­ucts. HipChat started as a chat tool for soft­ware de­vel­op­ers but in re­cent months has gained more trac­tion out­side the tech sphere.

The man in charge of HipChat is Steven Gold­smith, who says col­lab­o­ra­tion al­ways starts with a con­ver­sa­tion, which then turns into ac­tion. “Chat is just much closer than email to how hu­mans ac­tu­ally com­mu­ni­cate,” he says. “Step­ping in and out of a con­ver­sa­tion nat­u­rally is much more com­fort­able. What we’ve found with work­places is that con­ver­sa­tions turn into meet­ings, and they then want to be able to have that very quick con­ver­sa­tion and bring in things such as video and au­dio if they need to.”

Like But­ter­field, Gold­smith doesn’t see email dy­ing and says killing email wouldn’t solve any of the world’s prob­lems. He says email will re­main stan­dard but prod­ucts such as HipChat will be­come the de­fault for col­lab­o­ra­tion within a team.

At­las­sian’s se­cret sauce is that HipChat in­te­grates func­tion­al­ity prod­ucts from other soft­ware mak­ers, in­clud­ing Adobe, Face­book and Twit­ter. Graphic de­sign­ers can send their team a mock-up, get feed­back and ma­nip­u­late it in the HipChat win­dow, rather than email­ing drafts back and forth. Sim­i­larly, chat rooms can be con­fig­ured to lis­ten in to cer­tain Twit­ter feeds, so teams can quickly take ac­tion if some­thing arises.

Other com­pa­nies are bet­ting big on this new way of work. One of Mi­crosoft’s big­gest prod­ucts, Of­fice, has trans­formed in re­cent years from be­ing a stand­alone desk­top prod­uct up­dated every three or four years to Of­fice 365 – a cloud­based col­lab­o­ra­tion pow­er­house where users can jump in and out of doc­u­ments, leave com­ments and talk over Skype and Yam­mer.

A work­place is more than its soft­ware, of course, and the busi­ness-wide push for in­no­va­tion is play­ing out in of­fice de­sign. Co-work­ing spa­ces are the em­bod­i­ment of work­place col­lab­o­ra­tion, en­cour­ag­ing con­ver­sa­tion and cross-pol­li­na­tion be­tween busi­nesses through open plans and shared kitchens and ping-pong ta­bles.

Cul­ture an­a­lyt­ics soft­ware start-up Cul­ture Amp is one of many that cred­its shared workspace with its suc­cess. Di­dier Elzinga met his co-founders Jon and Doug at In­spire9 in Rich­mond, Mel­bourne, where they were all work­ing on dif­fer­ent things but sat next to each other every day. “We just had this weird mo­ment where we looked at each other and said ‘we should be work­ing to­gether’,” Elzinga says. Co-work­ing spa­ces also host events, with meet-ups and launch par­ties al­most every night of the week where en­trepreneurs can net­work and share war sto­ries. Many of them end up busi­ness part­ners.

We’re still feel­ing our way around this new way of work­ing, but But­ter­field thinks it’s a jour­ney that will lead to big suc­cess for his com­pany. “I know it makes us sound like wankers, but we have am­bi­tions to in­crease the pro­duc­tiv­ity of the en­tire world. I know that sounds big and lofty, but I think we can do it.”

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