Slack’s CEO pinpoints the problem with the return to office: ‘People don’t want to be told what to do’

Stewart Butterfield, Co-founder and CEO, Slack
Photograph by Stuart Isett for Fortune Magazine

Despite more workers being back in office than at any point since the pandemic began, bosses are still failing to get all of them back at their desks.

The trick, says Slack cofounder and CEO Stewart Buttefield, is to make workers feel like it’s their own decision. That involves valuing them.

“People do want structure, and people like boundaries,” Butterfield told Fortune editor-in-chief Alyson Shontell during a panel this week on Connect, Fortune’s education community. “But they don’t like to be told what to do, so I think the secret is to not make them feel like their autonomy is being denied or that their ideas aren’t important, while still giving some structure.” 

That structure, he went on, is much harder to pin down. He said he appreciates the frustrations and challenges among managers and employees alike. “But I think in both cases, it really is an opportunity to reimagine, and that’s what people really want.”

That’s all coming from the CEO of a company whose entire purpose is making a distributed workforce more feasible.

Slack’s business hinges on enabling teams to work productively from across the globe, and for Butterfield, grasping the limits and possibilities of that is paramount. Slack itself embraces asynchronous, location-flexible work, bolstered by its own data and research. In September 2020, it launched think tank Future Forum, aimed at providing insights to companies trying to master the new digital-first workplace. 

Recent research from Future Forum has found that 80% of employees want flexibility in where they work, and 94% want flexibility in when they work. “It’s not just being able to live somewhere else, though that’s important,” Butterfield remarked to Shontell. “It’s the flexibility.”

He recounted a recent conversation with Slack’s head of North America sales, who signs off from work early every Thursday to coach his son’s 4 p.m. little league games. 

“He never would have been able to do that [pre-pandemic],” Butterfield said, noting that he himself has a one-and-a-half-year-old, with whom his relationship would have been different in a pre-pandemic world, where he would have struggled “to get home a couple of nights a week” before his son was in bed.

Now that remote work has proven that it’s possible for people to carve out time for such day-to-day moments with their loved ones, he said, “people are unlikely to be able to give that opportunity up.”

Unlikely may be an understatement. Flexible work has gone from perk to expectation among many workers, who would go so far as to put the value of flexibility on par with getting a heftier paycheck or the opportunity to climb the ladder. Most workers will threaten to leave a job if a flexible arrangement isn’t on the table.

There’s no going backward in the remote work war, Butterfield concluded. He hopes bosses can reimagine the actual methods they use in the workplace, from meetings and documentation to tracking and measuring progress against its priorities—all of which Butterfield’s team is constantly monitoring. 

He says that bosses, to their great detriment, are busy trying to implement pre-pandemic ways in the “New World” rather than seeing this newfound flexibility “as an opportunity.”

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.

Read More

Great ResignationCompensationReturn to WorkCareersLaborSuccess Stories