If you try to lump Slack into some established product category, you may end up defining it as something like “enterprise messaging,” indicating that it’s a place to talk to your coworkers. You wouldn’t be wrong. But the service’s very tagline—”Where work happens”—spells out its higher ambitions. Slack doesn’t just want to be a place for productive conversation about work. It aspires to help organizations actively get stuff done, including the mundane but unavoidable daily tasks that sometimes threaten to overwhelm those that matter most.
This aspect of Slack’s mission is getting a big boost today in the form of Workflow Builder, a tool that lets users build little bits of custom automated functionality. A workflow could notice that a new employee has joined a channel and point her toward important shared documents, then help her introduce herself to the group. Or it could provide a way for staffers to submit travel requests in a standardized way, get them approved, and then route them to a travel planner. Or handle a theoretically unlimited array of other tasks that involve routing information around an organization.
Now, Slack-related automation is hardly a new idea. Serious techies already use IFTTT and Zapier to make the service do their bidding and even hook it up with other workplace tools. But Workflow Builder doesn’t cater to automation nerds. Instead, Slack tried to create something that almost any user might embrace to streamline repetitive tasks. Unbridled power mattered less than ensuring that the experience was inviting to as many people as possible.
“Like everything else with Slack, it’s about making people’s working lives simpler, more pleasant, and more productive and making that approachable for all types of users and all kinds of companies,” says Brian Elliott, the company’s general manager of platform.
Even though the initial version of Workflow Builder errs on the side of simplicity, it could lead to Slack embedding itself even more deeply into everyday workplace productivity. That would benefit both users and the company’s own competitive position. (Slack recently disclosed that it has 12 million daily average users, in a blog post that emphasized the level of engagement over raw head count—an apparent unspoken shot at archrival Microsoft Teams, which claims 13 million daily average users.)
Beyond the bot
The story of Workflow Builder begins not at Slack HQ in San Francisco but at the Denver office of a digital consultancy called Robots & Pencils. Back in 2016, conversational bots were the next big thing—or so people such as Mark Zuckerberg and Satya Nadella told us. A group led by Robots & Pencils CTO Mike Brevoort developed a system for creating such bots, which eventually reached the market as a Slack-specific service called Beep Boop.
The industry’s exuberance over bots turned out to be premature, but Brevoort and his colleagues were still excited over the potential to make Slack more useful through automation. He explains that they concluded that the big opportunity “wasn’t so much bots as much as it was being able to use these messaging layers as a way to do work and automate tasks and just solve simple problems.”
That realization turned into a new automation add-in for Slack called Missions, which Brevoort says was designed to “build on the promise of Slack being more than a messaging tool, but also a collaboration hub that can add a layer of structure to the way your team works.” That vision may sound ambitious for a small third-party group to tackle on its own. Or at least Slack thought so: The company was so impressed with Missions that in July 2018, it acquired it from Robots & Pencils. The four people who’d been working on the add-in became the first employees of a new Slack office in Denver that now includes engineers, salespeople, and others involved in a wide variety of projects.
As for Brevoort and his former Missions coworkers, they’ve been busy ever since creating Workflow Builder. That wasn’t as straightforward as merely bolting Missions permanently onto Slack. “It would’ve been a lot easier to take what we have and just roll it out, but we wanted to make it as a really core part of the platform,” he says. Just as important, they could contribute to Slack’s long-term plans in a way that would have been impossible on the outside: “We’ve been able to influence a lot of the future roadmap.”
To create Workflow Builder, Slack had to consider the types of tasks that typical users were likely to want to automate, and then develop tools that would let them “translate all the steps that you might go through in order to do that thing into software,” says director of product Ellie Powers. The company collected data on such tasks through focus groups, beta tests with outside organizations, and internal use of Workflow Builder while it was still a work in progress. (The people at Slack are serious about using Slack, but the company is growing so rapidly that a sizable chunk of its workforce is more representative of the overall user base than you might guess, says Brevoort.)
As Brevoort and team tried to make Workflow Builder palatable to non-technical types, they realized that terminology that made sense to software engineers can be intimidating to the uninitiated. Words such as “instance” and “trigger,” he says, “are just part of our vernacular of how we describe things. But to an average business user, some of those words don’t necessarily make sense.”
Judging from the demo I got, the end product has Slack’s characteristic polish, stepping you through the process of creating a workflow and avoiding buzzwords along the way. You can attach a workflow to Slack’s Actions menu for a particular channel, so users can run it whenever they want. Or you can set it to run when a new member joins a channel, or when somebody uses a specific emoji reaction. (Using an emoji such as a check mark, Slack has found, is already a widespread ad hoc mechanism for approving requests.)
Once you specify what causes a workflow to run, you construct its functionality. This can include multiple steps involving forms that prompt a user for information, customizable messages that get sent to users you specify, and buttons that appear as someone steps through the workflow.
Like everything in Slack, workflows are inherently collaborative, which raises a question: Is there any chance that an organization could end up being smothered in more workflows than it can reasonably manage? To help avoid such cognitive overload, each workflow is tied to a specific channel; one associated with HR processes, for instance, won’t get in your face if you’re in a channel devoted to engineering projects. Slack also gives companies the option of restricting workflow creation to administrators: “The more that we’re used by teams that have literally hundreds of thousands of daily active users inside of Slack, the more that we want to make sure we’re giving those people the controls they’re looking for,” explains Elliott.
Mostly, though, the company is hoping that Workflow Builder goes viral among the laypeople it was designed to entice. “People discover new capabilities by seeing how their peers use Slack,” says Powers. “If you go into the travel channel and there’s a travel action there, you might go, ‘Oh, how did they build that?'”
Room for expansion
In its initial form, it’s as easy to talk about what Workflow Builder doesn’t do as what it does. For one thing, it offers no way to connect Slack to other popular workplace tools, from Airtable to Zendesk. That means it isn’t yet direct competition for IFTTT and Zapier, whose forte is shuffling information in and out of multiple services. “That’s something we’re really excited to think about,” says Powers.
Aside from a few templates that Slack will offer on its site (example: “Collect incident reports in real time”), Workflow Builder will also launch without any existing workflows that businesses can just grab and use, or customize for their needs. A centralized, app store-like mechanism for sharing workflows would make it a whole lot easier to get started, and Slack says that this idea too is one it’s actively considering.
Such additions will only take off if Slack gets them right, which is an argument for approaching them carefully rather than rushing them out. And if Workflow Builder speaks to the kind of people who never would have touched an automation tool in the past, they may not obsess over its current limitations—at least until they spend enough time exploring its current possibilities that they become power users themselves. That lesson came as a surprise even to Workflow Builder’s creators.
“When we started our pilot, it had less functionality than it has today,” says Powers. “And most of the feedback was, ‘Oh, it already does so much. I can already think of a number of different annoying things that I have to do 50 times a week that I can get started automating.’ And then eventually they would say, ‘Oh, could you also add . . . ?’ We kind of expected it to go the other way.”