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