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Slack’s head of people: Why we’re embracing remote work for the long haul

We won’t open our physical offices until June 2021. This extended period of work-from-home is the perfect opportunity to reimagine our previously office-centric culture.

Slack’s head of people: Why we’re embracing remote work for the long haul
[Source image: Paul Campbell/iStock]

Today, Slack announced that our offices will remain closed until at least June 2021. We’re doing this to give our employees the clarity they need to make long-term plans for themselves and their families. We’re also using this as an opportunity to reimagine how Slack should work in a remote-first world—now and after the pandemic.

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Of course, we’re not just working from home—we’re working through a pandemic. Like all organizations, we’ve been plunged into the world’s biggest uncontrolled experiment. As Slack’s SVP of people, I’ve discovered some things that have worked surprisingly well that we’ll want to hang on to long after the pandemic is over. I’ve also learned things about the way we work that we’ll want to change, whether we’re in the office or not.

At its core, the remote work experiment has forced us to ask whether a digital backbone can replace the physical office as the framework we use to build great companies. A thoughtful answer depends on radically rethinking the tools and technology employees work on, and the culture and norms they work with.

At Slack, we’ve long had an office-centric culture, with a central headquarters home to all of our C-suite executives. Despite building a product that facilitates remote work, we’re the first to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. Instead, we’re embracing the uncertainty. We’re using this moment as an opportunity to try new things and question longheld assumptions about nearly everything.

Our starting point is to embrace remote work to tap into a broader and more representative talent pool. Our hiring policies have changed dramatically and permanently. For example, we’re now opening new roles to remote candidates, and we’re giving most employees the option to work remotely on a permanent basis.

The real work, however, is figuring out how to rebuild our company with a distributed framework. We’ve started by moving to a more asynchronous work cadence, removing the expectation that work happens primarily between 9 and 5, and encouraging employees to work the hours that make sense for them. People working 9-5 in a physical office default to meetings. Not sure about the scope of a project? Unclear who’s working on what? Want to get informal feedback? Just call a meeting.

In an asynchronous world, those same conversations happen primarily through written communication. Our employees have naturally gravitated to our own product to facilitate this—teams are sharing information in channels, flagging follow-up items for others to handle as their schedules permit, and ensuring that our meetings have clear notes that are distributed for everyone to see. However your company chooses to communicate, it’s clear that written communication can take more effort; you have to stop, think, and process before committing your thoughts to writing. But that also has profound advantages: clarity, efficiency, and measured decision-making.

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We’re already seeing some immediate advantages to this approach. Conversations that used to happen in hallways are now happening in Slack channels instead. And, because we’re working asynchronously, many are spending far less time in meetings. They have more time for, well, doing work. In addition, those outside of our San Francisco HQ report feeling that they are now operating on a more equal footing, and employees who are shy in a large meeting are empowered to contribute on their own terms.

We’re focusing on new ways to achieve alignment across the company. Key to this is providing employees with a transparent view into what’s most important, how decisions are made, and the autonomy to fix problems on their own. We now send these explanations to our entire employee base, ensuring the message arrives intact without getting diluted and misinterpreted through layers of management. We want everyone to have the opportunity to understand the big decisions—after all, our employees are living and breathing this experiment every day.

Over the longer term, we’re rethinking what it means to deliver a culture of belonging and inclusion in a remote-first world. How do we onboard and mentor the new employees who join us every week? How do we create the conditions for individuals and teams to trust each other so they can collaborate and innovate at the highest level?

At the outset of the pandemic, most organizations adapted by replicating at home the very same processes employees used in the office. It’s now clear that this is not sustainable. People who could adapt for a few weeks are now feeling the weight of lives upended for months, leading to anxiety, isolation, stress, and burnout. The intangible benefits that come from casual social interaction in the office are sorely missed.

Succeeding in a remote-first world depends on a fundamental reimagining of work and the employee experience. The tools and technology employees work on, and the culture and norms they work with, are going to look different. This is the time to reinvent the way we work, communicate, and collaborate. It’s a moment to shake loose the old expectations of how things should be done, and to develop a new formula for success.


Robby Kwok is SVP of people at Slack.

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