Slack CEO on How Return to Office and Remote Work Will Co-Exist in the Future

Anjali Sundaram | CNBC
  • Stewart Butterfield, CEO of messaging technology and Salesforce subsidiary Slack, says he can't see full-time in-office work ever returning and companies that push too far will lose talent.
  • But this doesn't mean he discounts the value of in-person work: a breakfast with Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon opened the Slack CEO's mind to situations in which in-office work may be required.
  • Nevertheless, the messaging app's relatively new and "fastest adopted feature" is designed to recreate the experience of an in-person setting.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield is a little more flexible on return-to-office than you might expect. His company, whose messaging technology has become a big part of the remote work lifestyle, has spent a lot of time studying the future of work and he is a big believer that hybrid is here to stay. His latest data backs this up.

The Salesforce subsidiary's Future Forum, a research consortium, released the latest in its ongoing study of workers earlier this month, and found that among employees who have returned to offices five days a week — accounting for more than a third of knowledge workers globally — work-related stress and anxiety are at their worst levels in the study's history.

Butterfield says CEOs who want workers back in the office — a popular position on Wall Street — are likely showing their age more than anything else, and "decades of experience built up around office culture" within conservative, more regulated industries like finance.

"Two-plus years in, and people who think we are going to go back, any day now ... I just can't see that ever occurring," he told CNBC Work at a virtual event on Wednesday. "We've hired thousands of people in locations where we don't have offices and to most people the idea of a Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, is the thing they want least."

But Butterfield has a slightly more nuanced view of the debate over return-to-office and remote work. A breakfast with Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, who has called work from home "an aberration," helped to inform this evolution in his own thinking.

"I had breakfast with David Solomon a year ago and he made a compelling case," Butterfield told CNBC.

For one, the thousands of interns that start every summer at the investment bank need the experience of meeting with partners, and Goldman also hires an enormous incoming class of employees, many of whom it expects to lose to consulting firms and banking competitors. But as the Slack CEO said Solomon explained to him, the "network of relationships" formed by in-person collaboration is a factor that Goldman and its talent and business pipelines rely on into the future.

This doesn't mean Goldman would be correct to make software developers come in to work five days a week. Among those workers, "no one is going to choose" that inflexible offer, Butterfield said. But as the world of work goes through a massive change and many workers begin coming back on new schedules, Butterfield is learning about what works and what doesn't across the emerging employment and collaboration models.

He shared some of his top lessons so far with CNBC Work.

The fastest-growing Slack tool ever

One of the biggest distinctions being made in the new world of work is between synchronous and asynchronous work. Employees can collaborate on a document across days in a remote context, and it is a collaboration that relies on written communication that colleagues can access and add to on their own time.

But "the fastest-adopted feature in the history of Slack," according to Butterfield, is Huddle, which is designed to recreate the spontaneity of in-office, quick meetings, or in some cases, physical team settings like sales teams that tend to work together all day long.

"Huddles is a big opportunity for us," he said.

The technology — which has been compared to a "Clubhouse" or "Discord" audio chat app for workers — has caught on with smaller teams, the Slack CEO said, such as groups of five to eight people, some of which even leave the Huddle open all day, for example, an online sales team for an e-commerce company.

While Slack has long had a call feature, Butterfield said the Huddle tool leads more people to join, and also not worry about being sucked into a meeting vortex.

"If all you have is this hammer of a 30-minute call, then everything feels like a nail," he said. "If you have a 30-minute meeting, people will use all 30 minutes, but sometimes, it is 90 seconds ... and that can increase the pace of work."

Workers value flexibility in time more than location

Slack's latest data shows that when it comes to flexibility, time is even more important than location.

While 79% of workers it surveyed indicated flexibility in location was important to them, even more, 94%, cited flexibility in schedule.

"That's the biggest issue," Butterfield said.

Some people may enjoy the reading or podcasting time they get during commutes, he conceded, but for the majority of workers, the time they have to spend with kids or exercising and the routines that have become ingrained over more than two years are not going to change.

"Now that they are used to that ability, it's hard to take away," he said.

Butterfield includes himself in this category. "For me, personally, I have an 11-month-old, and there was no 'I've got to get the 6:08 train to get home' ... and I would not trade that for anything," he said. 

Forcing workers back five days a week right now — and Butterfield noted that many companies have a chance to win workers who have moved to changed jobs during the Great Resignation but are now disenchanted with new positions — would be a big mistake. "The churn is real ... and it would be really foolish to put one more straw on the camel's back," he said.

Remote-first, not remote-only

There are examples of tech companies that have succeeded as remote-only companies, most famously GitLab.

Slack is "remote first" Butterfield said, but not "remote only."

"There is real value for people getting together in person and building relationships," he said. But he added that office real estate should be thought about as a place for teams to advance their work as opposed to being square footage mostly devoted to "desk-age for people to sit and use laptops."

He is hosting an offsite in New York with his executive team soon and while it is not necessary to get back together every day, these in-person meetings do deepen relationships, establish trust and allow Slack management to make decisions in a real-time environment. "But most day-to-day work doesn't require that," Butterfield said. 

Hybrid work hasn't even really begun

To date, the Slack CEO says the idea of hybrid work has received a lot more talk from companies than actual experience. Indeed, during a separate session at the CNBC Work event, Ford's chief people officer Kiersten Robinson said its hybrid work policy formally began only this month, and the data it is able to gather from the experiment is just beginning to be collected and analyzed.

"So far, it hasn't really materialized," Butterfield said.

The people who have been coming into the office to date? According to the Slack CEO, for most, it's likely a matter of space. Their apartment is too small, or there is not enough room in their house for them to do video calls. "They are not coming in to collaborate," he said.

When video cameras should be off

Slack has its own live and recorded video features, and Butterfield has learned one basic lesson about a remote work video etiquette issue that still frustrates many: when employees should turn cameras off.

While there is a high degree of tolerance for people turning cameras off for many reasons, from kids wandering into the room to eating, one formal policy that Slack "stumbled" into through practice, Butterfield says, is that all cameras should be off when a document or presentation is being first shared. All workers should turn their camera off to read the document or review the presentation and only turn the camera back on when they are finished. "It's so much more effective than 15 minutes at the top of the meeting when someone is reading slides," he said.

Where Slack, and every company, isn't investing enough

Even as Slack has risen to a prominent position among technology-based communications tools, its CEO criticized "how little we invest" in manager communication skills training. And that's an issue he sees across all companies.

Middle managers, in particular, Butterfield said, have seen job satisfaction plummet. They are in a much tougher position than many top executives, managing people working from home who are blending work and life and stress. "They are almost having to be social workers and counselors," he said.

These skills, much more on the "soft" side of management, are an area in which Slack is now investing more in training and support, Butterfield said, as part of the much broader effort that is just beginning during the hybrid work era to teach people how to effectively use all of the tools now available.

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