One of the big pieces of news in the tech industry this week was yesterday’s initial stock offering by Slack, whose team collaboration software has spread virally through enterprises since its release in 2013. Slack’s Wall Street debut was a success, with the stock price rising almost 50% in its first day and the company soaring to a market capitalization of almost $20 billion. Slack is the quintessential “future of work” software, a point the company drove home with its choice of stock-ticker symbol: “WORK.”
A couple of years back, Slack produced an ad for its product that it rolled out on YouTube and eventually aired on network television. I went back and watched it and, given how Slack represents so many of the values and sensibilities of the next-gen work mentality, was struck by how much this one-minute spot had to say about the issues that WorkSpace Connect addresses.
The ad is called “Animals,” and the conceit is that this typical office is a menagerie of personality types and individual styles and skill sets. A lion, crawfish, owl, rabbit, and beaver are among the adorably depicted anthropomorphic knowledge workers inhabiting this office. The ad depicts the team typing into Slack as they coordinate a project on the fly; the only spoken words come in voice-over at the end: “All kinds of people, on all kinds of teams, use Slack to do amazing things.”
The thing that struck me the most about this ad is that these incredibly creative, collaborative beasts work in the worst parody of an open-plan office you can imagine: Crammed tight into one big room, everyone working heads-down at their computers. In the ad, they don’t talk to each other, but send Slack messages even to their colleague animals sitting at the next desk over. In fact, the brilliant idea they all work on—flying umbrellas--is born out of a lion’s annoyance with his crawfish colleague, who comes in out of the rain and distracts the lion by fumbling with his legacy umbrella.
The message seemed to be that Slack’s software is so good it can even make a cramped, drab-looking office productive. It’s an advertisement, so you can forgive the hyperbole.
Since that ad was released in late 2015, the Slack approach to collaborative software has been copied by the big competitors in its market—most notably Cisco and Microsoft. Clearly they, at least, think Slack was onto something.
However, I think it’s safe to say that few people believe today, if they ever did, that if you just get the software—or any of the other work processes—right, that people can thrive in a big open space, just keeping their heads down and living in the virtual space inside their heads and their computers. If those creatures in that ad really were animals, half of them would be trying to devour the other half.
What Slack did understand is that people want to be themselves while they’re working. When the application first broke out and started to spread, people consistently said that their favorite feature about it was that it had emojis. At the time I thought that was crazy—emojis? That’s what you want in a team collaboration application? Of course, it’s not just emojis--the application is highly intuitive to learn and use, and it can integrate with lots of other business applications, letting users create a home for their projects that they can share with anyone who needs to be involved. But emojis was kind of a metaphor for an approach to work that was whimsical and individualistic. That’s a value we see in so many of the office-design ideas that are being implemented these days.
The bottom line, to me, is that the technology our teams use is just as important as the spaces in which they use it—and that these two elements are tightly linked.
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