At face value, the concept behind Slack is a simple one: it’s an instant communication tool used by teams both large and small. But with 2.7 million daily active users, a $3.8 billion valuation from a recent $200 million raise, and even customers like NASA, the question about what exactly makes this communication tool so appealing becomes more interesting. What exactly is it about Slack that has its users swearing off email, and — with some companies creating channels as serious as business development to as fun as Cute Dogs and Yoga — even shaping company cultures around it?
Slack descended upon Toronto for its second stop at its Amazing Teams Tour, an event meant to look at how teams can use Slack to its full potential to optimize productivity, and encourage effective communication and culture no matter how much the team grows.
“We have wacky hair brain ideas; some are straightforward, some may take us years to accomplish.”
– April Underwood
The event kicked off with April Underwood, Slack’s VP of Product, who talked about what the company has in store for the future to keep it ahead of the curve. Currently, the company is beta testing voice communication, and working on a more unified directory to make it easier for large teams to communicate. While she didn’t get into too much detail, she confirmed that the company is working with machine learning experts in order to help organizations make sense of the large conversations facilitated through Slack.
“We have wacky hair brain ideas; some are straightforward, some may take us years to accomplish but help you harness the sum total of information you have on your team,” she said.
Hanging out at the @SlackHQ #amazingteams tour event today. @NASA uses Slack!! Amazing!! #Toronto pic.twitter.com/JpUSlz187C
— Tara Wilkins (@TaraEWilkins) March 31, 2016
Slack is also experimenting with shared channels, where organizations can work with teams even outside their own company. “We’re exploring what it would look like to bring the same benefits of using Slack within your own team, and perhaps you can use that with your PR agency with whom you work with every day,” she said. “What we typically do is listen to feedback, take a crack at what the best approach is, and we try it out internally.”
After Underwood’s talk, Slack’s director of accounts AJ Tennant moderated a panel with Shopify head of culture, Konval Matin, FreshBooks co-founder and VP of operations, Levi Cooperman, and Cineplex Digital Technologist Mike Lucas. The varied backgrounds of the panels was meant to showcase how companies at different stages of growth not only use Slack, but how they also maintain or evolve their workplace cultures once a company grows.
“I didn’t even know what culture was, but as I started to get into peer recognition, onboarding employees, and hack days to stay creative, all of these things became culture for us.”
– Konval Matin
“When we started it was a few of us in a basement and things were slow going, but as we grew and started hiring more people, we hit 40 people and that was the inflection point. Not everyone knew what everyone else was doing, and people got uncomfortable and it was a real challenge,” said Cooperman. To tackle this Cooperman and co-founder Mike McDerment had to sit down and define their corporate values. “We paused for a bit and thought about what’s going on here; it’s a known thing as companies grow. We decided we need to bring on key leaders to help us get past this, assign specific roles and trust each other and set up corporate values system,” he said.
Matin, coming from a company that has 1,000 employees, said that whether companies are conscious of it or not, there’s someone who’s working on fostering the culture, and it’s important to be purposeful about it.
“I didn’t even know what culture was, but as I started to get into peer recognition, onboarding employees, and hack days to stay creative, all of these things became culture for us. And as we grew more and more, we realized culture is more than just the shiny stuff. But it really can’t shock your employees, they need to be bought into it, so a lot of it is communication,” Matin said. At the same time, it’s important not to fight the culture that happens organically; at first, Shopify tried to keep its offices consistent throughout while its employees tried to customize their spaces, but ultimately elected to embrace the subcultures within the company.
Great panel on growing culture and how Slack makes it easy & fun. pic.twitter.com/r7Wd20W3pP
— Product Hunt Toronto (@ProductHuntTO) March 31, 2016
“We noticed that each room and team is different. because it’s the shared beliefs of those people,” Matin said. “It even shows up in Slack because if you pop into the Montreal or Toronto channel, you see different inside jokes.”
Coming from the largest company of 13,000 employees, Lucas said that in such a large organization it’s important to create a space where everyone can feel creative and that their ideas are valuable. Of course, in traditional organizations, not everyone is adept at adopting communication tools like Slack that can facilitate communication, which presents a challenge.
“It’s about creating a space where everyone can share their creativity. One of our corporate values is about empowering people to give thoughts and ideas. It’s daunting in a large organization because people feel like you’re a small person and no one will like your idea, so you have to make it open and transparent,” said Lucas. “Especially in an organization that large with 168 theatres, it’s making sure that everyone feels connected and understands what’s happening across the country.”