Slack for Enterprise

How a simple but delightful communication tool is changing the way companies do business

If you don’t yet know what Slack is, you must have been living under a rock for the past year. Not only is the product taking the world by storm, they’re doing pretty well as a business too. The introduction to this October 2014 article in The Verge should pique your interest:

Slack has become a big enough deal that it almost makes you care about enterprise software. The company, which integrates a kind of sophisticated group chat with dozens of other software services that your company may already use, has spread like wildfire in the corporate world. Before February, no one had ever heard of Slack; seemingly overnight, it was being used in every business in tech.

If you need any more convincing that this new tool is worth a look, the introduction to BetterWorks’ integration announcement should help:

A few months ago, I was home visiting my family for a long weekend. We sat down at our usual dinner table spots and started eating. A couple bites in, my mom asks me,
“Alex, what’s Slack?”
So it was decided. We were going to build a Slack integration.

If someone’s mum is asking what Slack is, we can be pretty sure it’s making some waves.

A few of the companies that rely on Slack

And it’s not just the mothers of tech employees that have noticed Slack either: investors are throwing money at it.

In April 2014 — only 8 months after launch — they raised $43 million, plus a further $120 million in October. Add that to the $160m raised after their whopping $2.8bn valuation in April ’15 and it’s clear they have a lot of cash to play with. Enough, according to their founder, to last them 60 years. More recently, Microsoft has supposedly considered an $8 billion acquisition offer, and Bloomberg reckons they’re looking at a $3.5–4bn valuation in the near future.

I can see why investors are backing it too…

As of June 2015 they had over a million active daily users and more than 200,000 paid subscribers.

Startups, technology departments and engineering teams are switching from tools like Campfire, HipCat and email en masse; but it’s not just tech firms leading the adoption. Marketing teams are using it, design firms are engaging clients and user testing with it, a high school robotics team is using it and scientists at a medical research lab are changing the way they share information. Alongside Trello and Google Docs, this school uses it to communicate with students. Some people even use Slack to manage their family life, while Irish filmmaker Graham Linehan uses it to manage his TV and film projects. Interestingly, the US Department of State has adopted it.

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What exactly is Slack, then?

At a basic level, slack is just a chat tool. Like HipChat, Skype for Business and all the others, it allows employees to chat with each other via instant message. Here’s a video explaining the basics…

When you peek below there surface, Slack is far more than just an IM system. It’s a central hub for your teams. The water cooler of the digital world, except it does much more than dispense water.

Slack has two big advantages over traditional enterprise communications tools:

  1. It’s integrated with everything else.
  2. It makes business communication so much fun that employees want to use it.

Integrate all the things!

Aside from all the standard integrations, Slack allows developers to roll their own. In December 2015, they launched a platform and associated App Store. There’s a good chance that many of the apps you already use for business can be integrated at the click of a button.

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Much like the iPhone, Slack’s power lies in this rich ecosystem of apps — which is growing at an alarming rate. Indeed, it seems like another interesting app or integration is released almost every day. This ecosystem and the ability for our developers to build custom apps, allows us to automate business tasks that were previously human-driven. Here are a few examples of things we might want to do via Slack:

All of this is made possible by the open nature of Slack’s API, and the ease with which developers can build integrations — now called Slack Apps. Here’s a god article on building a Slack App, and if you find your new bot is a bit boring, you can try injecting some fake personality.

Make work communication fun again 🎈😃

Leaving aside the obvious benefits of improved efficiency, transparency and knowledge-sharing, there’s one other advantage that a tool like slack can bring to your company. It can make work communication more fun.

Like many employees, I’ve regularly found myself drowning in a sea of emails and calendar notifications, and the formality of office email communication is quite often at odds with the culture in a physical office. Slack can help address that. The liberal use of emojis and animated gifs can help align business communication with the way many of us communicate outside of work — particularly if your company employs a lot of millennials.

Needless to say, those working remotely or across multiple business locations will benefit hugely as well, since they’ll feel more integrated and closer to their coworkers.

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Why do employees love Slack?

Like Apple, they’ve done a great job of getting people behind their cause. Slack adoption is almost viral. While its pretty common for mobile apps and games to grow virally, I can’t remember the last time the growth of enterprise software was driven by its users rather than management. Anyone who’s tried to introduce new tools into the workplace will know how nightmarish it can be convincing employees to actually use them. There have been no such problems with Slack because users like it. So much so that they become evangelists.

In fact, I know of one company that introduced slack as their official chat tool after finding the majority of their teams had begun using it of their own accord.

There’s even a job board listing only companies that use Slack at work.

Is this really enterprise software?

Slack is used by an impressive array of large businesses, and is clearly making many of them better. They count Spotify, Dow Jones, Airbnb, NASA, EA, LinkedIn, SalesForce, NBC, Samsung and The Times/Sunday Times among their customers. So yes, I’d say it most definitely is enterprise software.

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The arguments against adoption

Despite the benefits I’ve outlined above and the massive multinational companies that have begun to adopt Slack, there is still significant reluctance amongst some business leaders as to its introduction in their organizations. Here are some of the reasons I’ve heard and read:

1. It’s too fun. Work’s not about fun.

The very name, Slack, is at odds with the oft-held notion that “work is for working” and should therefore be devoid of fun. For those who still cling to a rigidly Tayloristic approach to management, it can often seem like an affront to the “business-like nature of business”. Yet the nature of business is changing rapidly, and as Sir Richard Branson said:

To me, business isn’t about wearing suits ... It’s about being true to yourself, your ideas and focusing on the essentials. A business has to be involving — it has to be fun. And, it has to exercise your creative instincts.

With agile practices and management methodologies like Holacracy sweeping across the corporate IT world, long-standing hierarchies of layered management are quickly transforming into self-organizing teams that are empowered to set their own rules. It’s that very empowerment that Slack helps to encourage.

2. It will distract my employees.

Yes — it might well. But here’s the thing: chances are your employees are already distracted. If they’re in an open-plan workspace they’ll undoubtably talk to each other about stuff that’s not work related, and it’s a proven fact that the human mind can’t work consistently at full-pelt for eight hours a day. In 2014, Inc. Magazine listed four causes of wasted time at work:

  1. Google
  2. Social Media
  3. Meetings
  4. Emails

As we’ve seen, Slack can help to massively reduce the last two — so much so that you might end up with no net effect. To address the first two, Inc. recommends this:

Instead of restricting employees’ online activities, employers should focus on personal work outcomes.

I agree entirely. If employee distraction is a problem, it won’t be fixed by imposing rules. Instead, we should try to foster a culture of enthusiasm and motivation (both of which Slack can help with), and measure employees on outcomes.

[Note: You should accept the fact that productivity will inevitably drop the week you introduce Slack, while employees learn how to use it and get their excitement at the /gify integration out of their system.]

3. We don’t need an internal chat tool.

While this might be true of some firms, I’ve yet to find a business with more than a handful of employees that couldn’t benefit from instant messaging. Even if you can’t see an immediate need, you might find that it enables you to change the way you operate. Freedom of movement and remote working become easier to implement, for example. I’ve already covered Slack’s many benefits, so can’t really say much more on the subject.

4. My employees won’t actually use it.

This is usually born from past experience bringing new tools into the workplace. It can often be hard to break old habits, but while the usual rules for introducing new tech still apply (Explain the need and benefits, show them how it’ll make their lives easier, enthuse them, gamify the process, teach features one at a time and have trainers and coaches on-hand to encourage & help), the fact that employees tend to love using Slack will caveat this to some extent. There are countless examples of companies where Slack adoption was driven by the employees, which is a pretty rare thing.

Of course, if you can pre-configure integrations that make certain boring tasks quicker and more fun, you’ll drive adoption that much quicker.

5. I don’t like their Terms of Service.

Slack’s TOS are generally pretty sound, but there’s one clause that might give cause for concern — they mandate arbitration:

We hope we don’t have any arbitration or any lawsuits, ever. However, a Terms of Service is a legal document, and legal documents are written with lawsuits in mind. As we considered this option, it mainly came down to two things: speed and cost. Litigation is costly and time consuming. After examining arbitration as an option, we decided that it offers a better, more cost-effective, and faster means of adjudicating disputes (source).

This essentially prevents users bringing class action lawsuits against them, and instead insists that any disputes are heard under the JAMS Rules. Section 10 of their TOS provides some more details. Although individual Team Members can opt-out, Admin Members (and therefore companies) cannot.

This type of mandatory arbitration is pretty common, and unless you’ve specifically opted out, there’s a fair chance you’re already using software and services that include it in their terms.

Slack’s CEO, Steward Butterfield, explained his motivation on Twitter:

I fought pretty hard against this at first, but in the end I was brought around by two things: (1) No one could come up with a scenario where it made a significant difference for a product offered to businesses (vs consumers) & (2) having a lot of cash in the bank is like having a giant target on your back for scammy class action specialist firms. Those cases ≠ cheap.
(Note that many of the companies that are using Slack are orders of magnitude larger than us)

He’s certainly right on that last point. Salesforce is valued at $44 billion and eBay at $69 billion.

6. It’s too expensive.

This is probably the most persuasive argument I’ve heard. If you’re a startup with 20 employees, Slack isn’t too expensive — you might even be able to get away with the free plan. But if you’re a large company, it can get very expensive very quickly.

For Slack itself, the pricing model is genius. The free plan is fully functional, except for the 10,000 message limit. For a small team of 10 people, this limit isn’t a problem — averaged out each person will see the last 1,000 messages.

But for a team of 1,000 Slack’s benefit is hugely curtailed — channels will loose their history too quickly to be of any use:

The more your people use the tool, the sooner you run into this problem — that’s Slack’s genius. Chances are that by the time it’s an issue, your employees are reliant on the tool for their daily business and clamouring to have the limit lifted. Time to fork out $150,000 a year, assuming 1,000 users on the Plus plan.

That said, for a company of 100 employees on the standard plan, $8,000 pa (about £5,500 as of Mar ’16) really isn’t too much to spend if it has a positive impact.

Slack at Sparta Global

I first signed up for Slack on 11 February 2014 to use on a side project with some other designers. I thought it was pretty cool. Based on that experience, we set up a Sparta team in March 2014, just before they raised their first $43m.

It’s replaced emails to the point where I’m frustrated if I get an email from someone in the company that’s shorter than a few paragraphs.

When we first looked at using slack, a few of the Agile guys felt it might lead to less F2F communication, but I tell you what: when working remotely, using slack is a lot closer to the way we communicate in person than the phone. And when co-located, slack messages slot into verbal communication easily.

Danny (via Slack): “Here’s that link I mentioned in the stand-up”
Ben (speaking): “Thanks mate. How did you see that fitting in with the module’s architecture”
Danny (speaking): “It should sit under the auth module and have its methods aliased. We need to update the tests though.”
Ben (via Slack): /giphy thumbs up
GitHub (via Slack): Ben created branch integrate-auth-module.
JIRA (via Slack): Ben created task TPC-774 “Integrate Auth Module”
Danny (via Slack): Cool 👍
Danny (speaking): Shout me if you want to pair on that.

We use a few fairly standard integrations, including GitHub, Codeship, BugBot, GoToMeeting, JIRA, SlackLine and WorkFlow, among others. We’ve also built our own slash command so our trainers can display a student’s details quickly…

Our custom /slash command

To sum up…

Slack has the potential not only to improve the efficiency your employees, but also to encourage a more transparent and innovative corporate culture. Combined with the right business processes and other cloud-based tools, it might also help you embrace flexible and remote working, helping your business scale beyond the space constraints imposed by your physical offices.

While it’s not going to be appropriate to every kind of business, there’s a fair chance it will be to yours — so if you haven’t already, you should take a look at it!

If you enjoyed this article, please take the time to recommend it on medium, and let us know on twitter (@spartaglobal and @dannysmith).

A Postscript

for typography geeks

I can’t possibly pen an article about Slack without mentioning something that never fails to delight me. Being a bit of a typography geek, I can’t help but love the fi and fl ligatures in Lato, Slack’s typeface. They look particularly good on iOS, where we’re generally used to seeing more unrefined fonts.

‘fi’ and ‘fl’ ligatures in Lato, Slack’s typeface