Slack’s Stewart Butterfield on Making Workers More Productive—or Not
Stewart Butterfield, one of the cofounders of Slack, acknowledged at the WIRED25 conference in San Francisco on Friday that it’s difficult to tell whether the company’s workplace-messaging software actually makes companies more productive.
“Economic measures of the impact of productivity in IT investment, for like 35 years or so, have been kind of hard to do,” Butterfield told WIRED editor in chief Nicholas Thompson. He believes the best way to see Slack’s value is to look at specific use cases. For example, Butterfield said, Slack helped CBS publish footage from the 2018 World Cup on social media less than a minute after a goal was scored. “I’m not making an argument that the productivity boost is getting your tweet up faster, but it’s illustrative of the kind of things that these people do.”
Before Slack, Butterfield had little experience building products for businesses. The executive is best known for being one of the cofounders of Flickr, a photo sharing service sold to Yahoo in 2004. Five years later, he was among the creators of Slack, which is now used by employees at thousands of companies—including publications like WIRED. Slack recently went public, in one of the more successful tech IPOs of 2019.
At many organizations, Slack has replaced conversations that may have once happened in person, which Butterfield understands has had positive and negative impacts. On the one hand, introverts have told Slack the software has made them more comfortable communicating with their colleagues and participating in decisionmaking. Sending a Slack message is less pressure than speaking up during a meeting, for example. And workers can also catch up on conversations that take place when they’re out of the office or away from their computers, since the service keeps an archive of what each person says.
“The other side of it: It’s much harder to read people’s tone in text,” added Butterfield. It’s “more liable to misinterpretation.”
Another problem with Slack is that workers sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by the deluge of messages they receive, as well as conversations they need to catch up on. It’s a tricky issue Butterfield acknowledged Slack hasn’t yet solved. “There’s been a bunch of different prototypes,” he said. “The problem there hasn’t been the algorithms we use, or the results of them, but more about the delivery mechanism that actually makes sense to people—that doesn’t make it even more confusing or overwhelming.”