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Slack CEO On The Company’s Hybrid Work Policy

By Jacob Wolinsky. Originally published at ValueWalk.

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Following is the unofficial transcript of a CNBC interview with Slack CEO & Co-Founder Stewart Butterfield and CNBC’s “TechCheck” Co-Anchor Deirdre Bosa live during “CNBC Work Livestream: Empowering the Hybrid Workforce” today, Wednesday, April 27th.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield On The Company’s Hybrid Policy

DEIRDRE BOSA: Hi everyone, welcome to “CNBC Work: Empowering the Hybrid Workforce.” I’m Deirdre Bosa. Today, we are looking at hybrid work as many companies they’re beginning to implement hybrid work strategies for their employees. It’s really important for us to look at what the data tells us about how, when, where people are their most productive. In today’s program, we will talk with top business executives about what their research is telling them, what their policies are, their advice for business leaders implementing their own hybrid strategies. Later this hour, we will be joined by Kiersten Robinson, Chief People and Employee Experiences Officer for Ford Motor Company also Anne Raimondi, Chief Operating Officer and Head of Business for Asana. Now to submit questions for any of our speakers today, please scan this QR code on your screen or you can go to slido.com, enter the code CNBCWORK when prompted. I have that open up on my screens so I will see your questions, please questions, comments, keep them rolling in. We love to see it. We’re going to kick things off with someone who knows quite a bit about how and when we are working. Stewart Butterfield is Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Slack. This month, Slack released its latest pulse report entitled “Inflexible return to office policies are hammering employee experience scores.” Here’s a direct quote from this report, “New data shows work related stress and anxiety is skyrocketing among full time office workers and those without schedule flexibility.” Stewart, welcome back.


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STEWART BUTTERFIELD: Hey, nice to see you.

BOSA: I know we even at the beginning of the pandemic, we were figuring out the work from home thing and we were doing interviews on TV from attics, from cabins. So here we are two years later, what now is Slack’s hybrid policy. How is that working out? What kind of feedback are you hearing in these still early stages I suppose?

BUTTERFIELD: Well, we haven’t made any requests or demands that people return to the office. So we’re kind of in the same position. Maybe not that we were since the last time I spoke to you because last time I spoke to you I think we were planning to return to work in September 2020.

BOSA: And that’s kind of changed multiple times.

BUTTERFIELD: It did although I think we probably realized maybe six months or so in that no matter what, we weren’t going to go back to the same situation. And at this point it seems a little strange to be honest. You know, we’re like two plus years in and there definitely feels like there’s people who think like “we’re going to go back any day now.” Like there’s some moment that’s coming when we will shift backwards. I just can’t see that ever occurring. First of all, we’ve hired thousands of people who are in locations where we don’t have an office at all so for them it’s just not possible. But I think for most people the idea of like a Monday to Friday, nine to five is the thing that they want least.

BOSA: Now, Stewart, I know that you’re in New York at the moment, but you’re usually based in San Francisco and I was recently in New York and I really did feel this difference between the two cities. In San Francisco it’s easier for tech companies to tell employees that they can work from home or have a remote or hybrid workforce. On Wall Street, though it is a little bit different. And you hear about the banks in particular wanting their employees back in the office and to the point that we started on, it’s kind of causing anxiety, right? How do you figure out the right way to do this?

BUTTERFIELD: Well you know, we look at what people say that they want and what they say they want is a little under 80% want flexibility in location. A little bit more than 90% want flexibility in time. And I think that’s really the biggest issue. Most people don’t like commutes. You know, you do hear about some people who appreciate the time to read a book on the train or to kind of check out from regular life while driving. I don’t think it’s so much the commute though. It’s the nine to five. It’s the not able to spend time with your kids when you want to or get exercise. If they’re kind of person who likes to wake up really early or stay up really late or needs to get you know have a nap or something like that. Now that you’re used to that ability, it’s very difficult to take it away. And you know, I think the behaviors that we care about are often binary. Like the employee stays or they go, but the inputs are continuous. So that old expression about the straw that breaks the camel’s back is really true. The great resignation is a thing, people are turned over, a lot of people have found that they change jobs and they’re not actually happier. But that churn is really real. And so I think given the competition for talent and the kind of the crises of attrition that most companies are already facing, it’d be really foolish to put one more straw on that camel’s back.

BOSA: That’s a great point. We’ve seen the talent war change so much over the last few years. Something I think is interesting is this difference between a hybrid work strategy or a remote first or remote only. And some people say that actually a hybrid can put you at a disadvantage because there’s some people who are coming in and some people who choose not to whereas if you have a remote first or remote only strategy, that’s sort of more fair, more level.

BUTTERFIELD: Yeah, and I think ultimately they are going to be or at least, we intend to be remote first. Not remote only because I think there is real value for people getting together in person, you know, establishing relationships, building trust, and all that. But thinking of the physical space that the company has, the office, as like a resource that teams and employees can use to kind of advance their work as opposed to a place that they have to be because you know, by square footage, the office was mostly devoted to just kind of desking for people to sit and use their laptops by themselves and not talk to anyone. That part they can do from anywhere.

BOSA: Yeah, I want to get to some of these questions. There’s a really good one. It was anonymous, but I know that you guys have done at Slack a number of studies, looked at the data behind this new way of working. So there’s a question. Is there any data to show what kind of characteristics that CEOs have – the ones that want workers to be in the office versus the CEOs that are embracing flexibility?

BUTTERFIELD: You know, I don’t have data on that. I mean, obviously, my subjective impression is that one axis is age. So the older CEOs, definitely, I think, they more decades of experience and habit that are built up around office culture, and so they have a stronger preference. The other one, I think, is like kind of progressiveness of the industry. And I don’t mean that on a liberal conservative spectrum, but more how dynamic the overall space is and technology compared to finance, much less regulated much newer. And so you see a little bit more tolerance for newer policies there. Yeah, I’ll leave it there.

BOSA: So then are there degrees of, you know, what kind of industry, what kind of company a hybrid work strategy works for? Would you say that banks risk losing talent to tech companies? Or do you think that this is the right strategy for them? It could be to have workers back in the office five days a week.

BUTTERFIELD: It could be, you know, like, the nice thing about the really quiet days of the pandemic is you’re able to reach out to people much easier. And I actually ended up having breakfast with David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs – this is probably a year ago – and he actually made a pretty compelling case for wanting in person. That they have 5000 interns to start every summer. Part of the experience of that is getting to meet with the older partners and to spend time and kind of get aculturated. They also hire an enormous incoming class of which they expect most people to leave and that’s kind of part of their strategy. Those employees go to other consulting firms, other banks, and that’s kind of a network of relationships that they can rely on. And that too kind of is much better in person. However, they do compete for software developers. Every industry, every company is becoming more and more dependent on software. And there’s just an enormous advantage when you can say to someone, “the work you’re doing is about equally interesting, the pay is about equally attractive. In one position, you don’t have the flexibility. You have to come into the office every day. And the other one, you have the flexibility. You can come as much as you want.” I mean, no one is going to choose the first one.

BOSA: So you said that David Solomon the CEO of Goldman Sachs, made a pretty compelling argument. Did he managed to convince you? I don’t know – you were kind of getting at that, but it doesn’t sound like it.

BUTTERFIELD: Yeah, I think there’s probably other ways to achieve the same thing. And then it’s more like a periodic cadence of getting together. You know, I’m having my executive team offsite here in New York  next week, I think. And it has been incredibly valuable to get back together in person. I don’t feel like it’s necessary to get back every single day because you can kind of use those opportunities again, you know, deepen the relationships, establish more trust, but also make a bunch of decisions that are easier in a kind of real time environment. But most day to day work doesn’t require that and the ability for people to be more comfortable while they’re coming in and executing against those decisions is just such a huge advantage. There’s no way we would give it up.

BOSA: Yeah, you mentioned that your conversation also talked about the huge amount of interns that are coming into the banking space that typically do benefit from that facetime, and that relates to another question that we’re getting. And that is are remote hybrid workers a greater risk for career development and advancement compared to those who are or choose to be in the office? And then there’s kind of a nuance there as well between what I asked you earlier hybrid and remote first. Do some people – are some people at an advantage versus others?

BUTTERFIELD: Yeah, I don’t – so in practice, I haven’t seen many companies be hybrid in the sense that most people talked about. You know, I think it’s there’s an extrapolation from the previous experience into the future but so far that hasn’t really materialized. There are people who do come into the office. So in New York, I think there’s more employees even in the tech industry where they don’t have to, but they’re coming into the office because their apartment is small, or because there’s not enough room in their house for both their spouse and them to do video calls at the same time. So that’s really a question of space. They’re not coming in in order to collaborate. I think the question is really good, though, is it going to diminish opportunities if people stay at home? So far, it hasn’t right? Because we now we’re, you know, two plus years into this and people have been promoted, people have been hired people have, you know, companies have done reorgs and all that and it hasn’t really made a difference. I think it’ll be difficult for an employer to kind of make that a requirement for career advancement, because it’s just the same thing as demanding people come in nine to five Monday to Friday. If there’s an option, they’ll take the other option.

BOSA: Stewart, do you think that the skill set that employers are looking for from their workers is changing – for example, in a remote work strategy or hybrid – the importance of writing maybe rises to the top, right? Because you’re communicating much more on Slack, on email. What’s your advice for some of those people that are getting into the workforce right now? Or employers even — what should they be looking for?

BUTTERFIELD: Yeah, I think it’s a really interesting question and the heart of it certainly from our perspective at Slack is drawing a bigger distinction than we used to between synchronous work so like having a meeting or a phone call discussion, and asynchronous. We’re both collaborating on this document, but I’m doing it over the course of many hours in the afternoon and you’re looking at it tomorrow morning. That is a really important distinction and asynchronous work I think does rely more on written communication. But you know, Slack and many other companies have been kind of diving in there with features that support the kind of asynchronous work, but with the richness and kind of full emotional texture of video, so we have a feature called clips and people do that to rather than have the daily standup meeting at 9am, everyone has to be there 9:00 to 9:15, it’s like I record mine at 8:50 and I watch yours at 10:17 and it’s a lot more convenient. You still get the video. On the other hand, trying to replace the kind of spontaneity and serendipity of in office communication, we launched this feature called huddles which is a lot like a phone call that’s it’s it’s audio only, but it doesn’t necessarily start or stop and people can drop in and leave and that’s been the fastest adopted feature in the history of Slack. It’s been a huge success. There’s millions of people using that every week. So I think there’s a big opportunity for us but also for many other players in the tech space that kind of fill the toolset with a richer set that are more appropriate for the way people are working today.

BOSA: That’s so interesting. Huddle sounds kind of like an enterprise clubhouse of sorts. What have you learned from huddle and are people actually using it? Is that really replicating that spontaneous interaction that you get in person?

BUTTERFIELD: I think it is up to, typically on smaller teams if you’re if you’re working with like a group of five or eight people let’s say you do online ad buying for your ecommerce company or something like that than you’re just kind of in constant communication all day, people will leave it open. The other use case is because it feels a little bit less heavy than a call, people are more, maybe it’s the name huddle, people are more willing to step into it. And that makes a real difference because if all you have is this hammer of 30-minute Zoom calls, then everything looks like a nail and if you and I need to have a conversation it’s like okay, well next time we can do it is Tuesday at 11:30 and if you schedule a 30-minute meeting, people are gonna use 30 minutes. Sometimes it’s a 90-second conversation that you want to have now and the difference is really dramatic in how fast that like increases the pace of work.

BOSA: Right. I really love this question that we’re getting from another anonymous audience member. To your point, you can have these sort of quick conversations, but when you’re on a Zoom meeting, this person asks, “Can we agree that you should have to turn on your camera if you’re on Zoom?” Do you need to feel that pressure Stewart to turn it on if everyone else has their camera on?

BUTTERFIELD: The sociology of this is really fascinating because it’s definitely like there’s a lot of tolerance for people turning the camera off mid-meeting, you know, for just a moment maybe their kid came into the room or something or they’re eating and they don’t want to watch you chew. We actually kind of this wasn’t a policy or decision we kind of stumbled into this practice which I think is really interesting and valuable where if there’s a document or a presentation or something like that to read, everyone turns their camera off, reads it and then when they’re finished they turn their camera on. So you can just glance at the screen at any point to see how many people are done and that’s so much more effective than the 15 minutes of the top of the meeting where someone’s reading the slides. I mean that at a personal level, I just can’t stand it. But but their use of camera off and on can like signal more than just like are we gonna do this call while looking at each other’s faces.

BOSA: Yeah, it’s kind of, it’s kind of a delicate, delicate thing in the hybrid work environment. I do want to talk about this data that you guys have been collecting for some time. I’ve talked to your Chief People Officer in the past as well who’s done a lot of great work here. So the latest Slack Future Forum, the latest pulse survey, what were some of the key findings there?

BUTTERFIELD: Well, I mentioned them up at the top. It’s really the desire for flexibility. There’s also an interesting point about the kind of job satisfaction of people who are in positions where they are required to go back to the office for for office workers and the levels of dissatisfaction are nearly twice as high in that case. But I think the biggest one is the 90 plus percent of people who who want flexibility in time, and that’s it’s so valuable. You know, for me personally, we have a 11-month-old so it’s kind of like half-ish of the of the pandemic we’ve had this baby. And there was no like, I gotta get the six eight train to get home by seven before the kid goes to sleep and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

BOSA: I’m with you. I also I have a seven-month-old so had the baby at the end of the pandemic and sort of it is a game changer right especially for parents. And you guys have done a lot of good work as well at getting more diversity, more representation in the hybrid work model. How do you do that? Give us sort of some concrete examples.

BUTTERFIELD: Well, I mean, I guess there’s two. One is you can hire anywhere and there’s lots of before we had I think 15 offices in nine or 10 countries. We still have several of those offices, but we’re no longer constrained to hiring in those geographic regions. So in the US, it was San Francisco and New York and there were a couple people in Boston we had just opened a very small Chicago office, but now we’re hiring all over the place, in Atlanta, in St. Louis, throughout like the Great Lakes states, throughout the Southwest and Phoenix and in Texas and that just opens you up to a much more diverse workforce broadly. The other one is people are kind of on a slightly more even footing and there’s there’s some mixed feedback from people who are in groups that are traditionally underrepresented in tech. But I think net it’s a big advantage to not have to come into the office, to not have to kind of get the microaggressions and the parts of the culture that don’t really work for people when they’re physically in the office. So, it is like a little bit of a cognitive load that comes off and people end up happier with their jobs.

BOSA: Yeah. Stewart so I know that your company in particular, others like Dropbox I can think of, have really made this, had thought it out and created this strategy. But I have become a little bit more skeptical that of companies that say they want to do remote work or hybrid workforce, and don’t really have that strategy laid out and this hits on another question that we got in from a viewer and he or she asks, “Are we defining remote and hybrid work the same, are companies working remotely until they can return to the office?” So is it a good talking point for now? Are they sort of saying they’re embracing especially when we talk about things like the talent war, just to kind of go back on it when it is more acceptable to go to the office?

BUTTERFIELD: Yeah, I think there’s definitely some wishful thinking in the sense that like, we’re just not going to think about this and assume that everything’s going to go back to the way it was. At this point, it’s clear that it’s not happening. If this was like a one-week event in March of 2020, then obviously people wouldn’t have broken any of their habits. If it’s six months, you know, maybe that starts to change. If it’s a year, two years, certainly everyone would agree if this goes on for 20 years, we’re not just going to go back to the way things are. So I think the disagreement is like where is that threshold where like the habits are now deeply ingrained. I think we’re well past that. So anyone who’s kind of putting off decision making at this point years into the pandemic for how we’re going to work is going to suffer as a result and it’s not just the strategy. It’s like the investment that you make in training people and how to become more effective communicators. It is kind of mind boggling to me how little we invest, and I would include us in that in the category. We do more and more and more but how little people invest in training people to be more effective communicators, to have more effective meetings, to make better use of these tools when that’s what people are doing all day.

BOSA: Okay, I like this idea of training and we’ve talked a lot on the employee side of this. But here’s another great question. She asks, “What are the skills that managers need to effectively manage a remote slash hybrid workforce?”

BUTTERFIELD: That’s a great question and I think that a lot of managers’ job satisfaction has plummeted over this period. They’re in a much more difficult position kind of, you know, stuck especially people in middle management. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. I just mean like, you know, frontline managers and directors who are responsible for these groups, they have all these new challenges that didn’t exist before and the fact that people are working from home means that there’s a little bit more of a blend of work and life. There’s obviously a lot of stress. There was a lot of illness, there was financial consequences. So they’re having to be kind of almost social workers or counselors. The skills I think are really much more on that axis of what we sometimes used to call soft skills, and those become more and more important for for managers. And again, another area where we could truly invest in in training and support and we’ve definitely started to do that. We’ve seen other companies trying to do that, but there’s much more that we could do to better support those managers.

BOSA: It’s a great answer. Stewart as we only have a few minutes left, maybe just a big picture question. Where do you think we are five years from now? How many companies are truly, have true hybrid workforces or are remote first?

BUTTERFIELD: Yeah, I think it’s going to vary not just by company and region, but also kind of by department. As you know, my wife is the CEO of Away, the travel brand. Their product team in contrast to Slack’s product team which is like kind of all digital software making people. If you’re designing luggage, it’s tough to do that without the other people in the room and evaluating the products. You know, you make prototypes. Same thing is true in architecture. Same thing is obviously true in like TV or movie production. So there are groups of people who, in order to do their work, must be together some of the time or most of the time, and I think we will see more not a hybrid in the sense of like strict remote, strict in office, and now we’re going to like 50/50 of them, but more per industry and per function kind of variance in how people work together.

BOSA: Yep, certainly seeing that play out. I know my job keeps me in the studio five days a week, which is a good thing because it’s worth it. Right. I guess it’s making those incentives for the people that need to come in. Stewart, it’s great to talk two years on from when we first talked over Zoom on live TV from our new remote studios or makeshift I should call them remote studios. Thanks so much for joining us.

BUTTERFIELD: Thank you.

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