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Slack’s new product is a think tank

September 1, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC

Back when Slack was small enough, its handful of employees had a ritual of ambling down the street to get a cup of coffee every day around 3 p.m. Of course, being Slack, the caffeine run was announced by a bot that posted a coffee emoji into Slack’s Slack.

The San Francisco–based maker of collaboration software has since gotten an espresso machine—or two or three—not to mention gone public. But the seemingly trivial decision to purchase a coffee maker wasn’t taken lightly by its management team, led by cofounder and CEO Stewart Butterfield. How would the presence of an espresso machine—and the absence of the afternoon coffee run—impact company culture, wondered Butterfield? 

The way products and, more specifically, technology impact culture has always been top of mind at Slack. Its core business, to be sure, is all about how tech can bring about change (in this case, increased productivity). Slack is a communication tool for office workers, designed to all but replace email. The more companies embrace this shift to a more modern way of working, the more Slack sells its product—not that it doesn’t have intense competition. (Looking at you, Microsoft.) 

It’s no surprise, then, that the company is now taking a bigger stab at becoming a thought leader in matters of the workplace of the future and the tools and cultural change that will enable it. “You have to rethink not just technology but culture,” says Brian Elliott, the former head of platform at Slack and VP of Future Forum, a new Slack-led consortium that aims to rethink the modern workplace.

According to Elliott, Future Forum is an idea that has been brewing at Slack for a while. “I remember having conversations with Stewart the second month on the job, January of 2018,” says Elliott. Both execs got busy running the fast-growing company, though, and reconvened on the idea only after the pandemic hit and forced everyone to talk about how the workplace was changing. “We started talking to other companies grappling with the same problems,” says Elliott. 

How do you bring people together socially? How do you get them to collaborate best remotely? What’s the job of middle management in this new, distributed workforce? Those are just some of the questions Elliott says he hopes to be able to tackle and find solutions for via the new initiative. 

At launch, Future Forum will exist as a startup incubated at Slack. But the plan is to spin it out once it is up and running. Other partner companies could include global consulting firms, specialists in human resources and diversity and inclusion, even designers who are thinking about the future role and physical layout of the office. Original research and case studies will also be part of the initiative, as well as an ongoing event series down the road. 

Slack is already publishing preliminary findings of a study that explores how knowledge workers are adapting to remote work, with the full findings expected to be released in October. One of the standout stats? About 65% of white knowledge workers agree with the statement, “My manager is supportive when I need help,” compared with 46% of Black knowledge workers. Pamela Hinds, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, plans to work with Slack’s new consortium on future research projects that could explore similar questions that have to do with the intersection of culture and work. (Hinds wasn’t involved with this particular survey.)

“Different groups are differentially affected,” says Hinds. “It highlights the inequities.”

Elliott agrees that balancing the needs of different employees is the hardest part of managing Slack’s current workforce. Unlike some other tech players, cushy, in-office perks were never the software company’s big appeal to workers (espresso machines are table stakes in Silicon Valley). And Slack’s employee base was already up and running on its collaboration software and many other tools that enable remote work. But that doesn’t mean that the transition to a work-from-home workforce has been easy for Slack. “Things are not going back to normal,” says Elliott. 

Future Forum is likely to be just one of many attempts at making remote work, well, work. And Slack is smart to ask for partners in the quest. (On that end, Elliott says competitors would be welcome in the consortium too.) Just how collaborative can collaboration software makers be in this new reality? And how fruitful will the products of a remote think tank be? We’re about to find out.