Slack, One Year Later:

The Biggest Take-Aways from a Popular Enterprise App

If you make or use workplace collaboration software, chances are you’ve heard of Slack, the workplace communication tool that’s received tons of buzz for its recent success. Just last week, the company announced that it’s currently valued at 2.8 billion dollars — making it one of the fastest-growing business applications of all time.

Where the initial question for Slack may have been “How is this useful?,” we’ve now reached the point where it’s more constructive to interpret its wider implications. There’s no doubting Slack’s success, but now, a year after its launch, what are we supposed make of this thing? Here are a few insights — good and bad — that enterprise software should take from Slack’s meteoric rise.

The Tightrope of Consumerization

With its recent focus on clean design and user-friendliness, enterprise software has learned a lot from consumer software. But is there a line at which a product looks too consumerized? This is the new question Slack faces as big companies get more used to working with the platform, only to find that in many cases, it might actually get employees off-track. As John Herman points out over at The Awl, Slack is facilitating an unexpected brand of “work-like non-work” where employees feign productivity through constant communication. While the office might have “Several people typing” in Slack at a given time, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being more productive.

Slack’s consumer-friendliness has also caused a crisis of audience identity. Although the app was originally intended for business use, Slack is seeing huge adoption from consumers who use the app to chat with friends. The site, for instance, provides a discoverability tool which allows people to join Slack chats about the subjects that interest them. There are Slacks for educators, SEO veterans, HR professionals, and even woodworkers.

As of now, Slack has yet to do anything about these small jerry-rigged communities that make use of their app in new and creative ways. And while the company always has room to grow and offer new consumer versions of their product, these more casual Slacks do seem to undermine Slack’s enterprise-oriented angle, with paid enterprise subscriptions being a primary driver of revenue.

A New Kind of Gamification

This is somewhat of a lesser-known fact, but Slack actually started out as the internal messaging tool for a mobile game called Glitch. In refining and repurposing the tool as Slack, CEO Stewart Butterfield and his team took their knowledge of games and applied it in ways that would help grab the user’s attention as quickly as possible.

With colorful motifs, a step-by-step tutorial system, and the implementation of hashtags, @ mentions and emojis, Slack is very clearly influenced by games and the tech-driven culture surrounding them. This is a totally different vision of gamification; instead of implementing simple Skinner boxes in software design, Slack pulls in multiple ideas from the game creation process.

Work/Life Blurring

One of the first times I heard about Slack outside of a press-specific situation was on Twitter — someone had posted a screenshot of a funny Slack conversation from the dev team. This stood out to me, as I rarely see people share content from work collaboration platforms. To see them do so in such a funny way was nearly unprecedented. This is one of Slack’s big successes — it can make work feel so organic and conversational, that it can actually be showcased on a platform like Twitter.

But this is a double-edged sword. While Slack is fantastic at sparking candid group discussions within teams, it also acts as an unintended work magnet. With its notification-sending mobile app and friendly, conversational feel, Slack can actually make it more likely for teams to keep working around the clock. Checking a Slack notification at 11 PM may not feel as stressful as checking email, but is that extra accessibility a blessing or a curse?

As Jen Luckwaldt says over at Payscale, Slack “moves the water cooler into the conference room and locks the door.” I’m a big proponent of emphasizing company culture, but we should be careful not to jettison work/life balance in an attempt to facilitate open conversation. Luckily, the two aren’t mutually exclusive; the trick is to find the balance that works best for your company.

In the year since its big launch, Slack has already built a reputation for its impact on corporate culture. With influences ranging from social networks, to messenger apps and even video games, Stewart Butterfield and Co. have built a compelling way to jump the age gap that’s begun to split the workplace. And while Slack might be feeling the recoil of its initial success, it’s the roadblocks that have the most to teach us — not just about new software, but about the issues we’ll all have to confront as this technology becomes mainstream.

Icreon Tech is a technology-focused digital strategy firm that helps businesses, non-profits and entrepreneurs build tomorrow’s customer journeys.