Slack’s head of workplace design thinks open floor plans “suuuck”

A conversation with Kristy Tillman, who is all of us.

Slack’s head of workplace design thinks open floor plans “suuuck”
Slack’s New York City offices. [Photo: Slack]

Slack is the ubiquitous digital tool that’s making our workplaces virtual. Thanks to its hyper-efficient chat room software, telecommuting has never been easier. Which is why it may come as a surprise that Slack is paying particular attention to its physical office design, too. Kristy Tillman is Slack’s head of workplace experience design, and she is thinking about how people at Slack work beyond the Slack window itself.


Kristy Tillman [Photo: courtesy Kristy Tillman]
Tillman is also a judge for our 2019 Innovation by Design Awards (get in your entries by May 10!). And so we sat down with her to talk about her career, her role at Slack, and what it’s like to use Slack at Slack.

Fast Company: So you spent some time at Ideo, you build a millennial investment brand with Mass Mutual. Then you wind up at Slack. You started in their communications department, but quickly landed this gig around the workplace. So . . . what do you do? What questions are you asking at Slack?

Kristy Tillman: Right now I think about a couple of things: How do we build standards around buildings and offices? What experiments have we tried in architectural phases to tweak and make offices better for our employees? How do we service our guests and our employees from a design-thinking perspective? That’s been really, very challenging for me.

We have a big workplace vision we’ll be able to start to make and understand how our employees are really using our spaces and operations. One of the big things I’ll do in the next quarter is our first workplace foundational study where we’ll survey the entire global workforce and get a system of analysis . . . what new phases we need to build? What new services we need to offer as we scale?

FC: There’s a certain irony of being at Slack, this digital business company, and focusing on built environments, no?


KT: It would be a lost opportunity if we didn’t–if we said we’d change the way people worked digitally, it would be a lost opportunity to not be interrogating ourselves internally! It’s my opinion, and I think lots of people’s opinion, that one of the best ways to sell Slack will obviously be having an internal culture that is a shining example. And I think that one of our advantages will be we use Slack [as an example], here’s how it affected us, here are the processes we put in place, workflows we have, innovations we use, to make operations more efficient, handle security, or triage medical emergencies. [I want to] be the best example of a culture when people come to visit us.

FC: Is it a tough sell doing this work inside Slack?

KT: Honestly, things that the Workplace team works on have the best ability to leave an indelible mark on Slack. The workplace teams in most companies are not tasked with this type of work. They’re more like facilities, make sure the lights are on, we have lunch. So any way you can contribute to operational efficiency is [hugely important].

Maybe I’m an optimist. I believe there’s not some objective future we’re trying to get to. The future is whatever we make it. So in that sense, there’s not this lofty goal we’re trying to reach. We’re just incrementally trying to make our workplaces better for our people . . . that doesn’t make it more difficult, if anything it makes it more easy.

Slack’s Dublin offices. [Photo: Slack]

FC: How do you stay passionate doing incremental work?


KT: I think about what I laid out to my boss as a workplace vision, it’s easily 10 years worth of work. If you think about how you affect builds and architecture, and understand people, it’s a very slow process in some ways. So for example, if I make a discovery that we should probably have less middle-sized conference rooms and more larger and smaller conference rooms . . . If i want to go back and affect every office, that’s 9-10 global offices that need to go back into construction. It’s a very long lens role that you have to be OK with that.

Melbourne [Photo: Slack]

FC: Here’s a hot topic question here at Co.Design–what are your feelings on open floor plans?

KT: Yeah I have strong opinions! (laughs) My opinion is that they suuuck. I think we all know that now. At Slack we’ve done a lot of different things. We do have open offices—we’re actually making them smaller, the desk per square foot smaller, and swatches of open office much smaller. We also have a variety of privacy phone booth options, small quad and double rooms, and one-person rooms. Some of them are bookable, some are not bookable, so people can really drop in and book them.

We also have the luxury of having a human right now. Her role is space and room planning, so if you need a space you can air a complaint. And we have a human being who has purview into all your rooms and spaces and is able to help you.

FC: What else are you doing that’s exciting to you right now?


KT: Working on building our company art selection. That’s really cool. In our Denver office right now we’re getting ready to open, we’re doing all art from homeless and disabled artists. That has been a joy of mine. Our CEO loves art, so building our corporate art program has been a huge cultural thing that’s been really fun. I’d love to do pride, LGBTQ, Hispanic Heritage Month. We’ll start to do that as well.

San Francisco [Photo: Slack]

FC: So no generic prints of ponds?

KT:  We’re basically not doing that at all. (laughs) We’re building our collection with values in mind. We’ll hopefully start to take submissions soon.

FC: On thing I’ve always been curious about–is using Slack at Slack way different than using it in another business? Like are you super duper hardcore about it at Slack?

KT: I tell new hires, ‘you think you know Slack but you don’t know Slack until you work at Slack.’ It is definitely a different beast. I’m more attuned to it now.


We have a lot of vendors, architectural partners, subcontractors . . . they all use Slack. We’re picking designs while Slacking back and forth. Sometimes with vendors, this is the first way they interface with us . . . I’m like why aren’t these people responding? (Snaps twice). Come on!

I’m working on a project we have a design partner helping us out on. They use Slack as well. They are so blown away by the way we use Slack that I’ve give them a couple of tutorials in our down time. They were like, ‘holy shit how are you doing that?’

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach