Slack Frontiers: Reassessing collaboration in a virtual world

Communication has long been an area of focus, but for many companies during the pandemic, it has been a game changer, panelists say.

video conference

IMAGE: iStock/fizkes

Adapt and adopt are two of the business mantras the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought. The “unexpected good news” when the pandemic began was that so-called slingshot workers who wouldn’t adapt to new collaboration technologies did, according to Wayne Kurtzman, research director, social and collaboration, at IDC.

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Kurtzman was one of the panelists speaking Wednesday at the Slack Frontiers conference session, “Human, inclusive, flexible: Insights on remote collaboration,” where the discussion was framed around reassessing how colleagues collaborate.

“You had connected workers and those who weren’t going to adopt who are now willing to learn, and there are people willing to mentor them so businesses can and have changed fast,” Kurtzman said. That group has “helped power the market by adopting collaboration technologies,” which he said has been “accelerated by five years in the past six months alone thanks to learners and the mentors.”

This happened through security, governance, and compliance, he said. Conferencing became more important than ever so workers could feel connected to one other once remote work began.

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But workers have to feel they are in a trusted and safe inclusive place, he added, and businesses have had to build a collaborative tech stack to develop a collaborative culture.

Some 65% of all collaboration apps inside an organization started as unauthorized tools from people who “figured out this will help us work better, faster, cheaper,” he said.  

Now, over 90% of enterprises will be adding team collaborative management, security, video, and traditional productivity suites, Kurztman said, citing a recent IDC study. “The way we’re working is changing and we’re not going back.”

Changing mindsets

The challenge Pan-American Life Insurance Group faced when the pandemic hit was moving a traditional culture with “legacy constructs” to a remote model, said panelist Miguel Edwards, senior vice president and CIO.

Pan-American operates in 21 countries and its VPN, which was normally by about 400 employees, suddenly had to be stretched so 2,200 employees could use it, he said.

“We were a workforce that wore a suit and tie every day,” Edwards said. “The entire shift to remote work was not just a technical challenge but cultural. We had to get comfortable not being in the same room to collaborate.”

IT had to rethink how it provisions technology to the workforce, which was used to coming into an office and working on a desktop and using a lot of paper, he said.

“The most important thing through all of this was communication,” he said. We [were] using every channel we could think of. We didn’t want to leave any information in a vacuum.”

Reducing friction

Slack’s journey through the pandemic “caught most people off guard,” recalled panelist Stephen Franchetti, CIO and vice president of business technology. The company closed 18 offices in 10 countries and quickly pivoted to support people remotely, he said.

There were three key areas Slack focused on: How to transition as quickly and securely as possible; how to replace that sense of connection employees have in an office; and how to “innovate and take the best of working remotely and put ourselves in a position to emerge better,” Franchetti said.

In terms of transitioning to a remote work environment, the first consideration was how to reduce friction for employees and make the experience consistent regardless of where they are, he said.

“Our philosophy focused on having a trust model to get to the corporate network. We are seeing a real move away from traditional firewalls, which create friction,” he said. Of course, IT has used Slack “as our key system of engagement to simplify the experience and leverage our investment made in software.”

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Overall, Slack engagement is up around 20%, said Franchetti. Now the company is in a phase of innovation, and the central component is enhancing its Slack on Slack program, building more intelligent bots, he said.

“My personal favorite is ‘Ruth Bader Ginsbot,’ which helps us with legal processes,” he said.

IDC has created an enterprise recovery model for businesses to know “where you are and where you should be putting your energies,” said Kurtzman. “Hyper volatility is the new normal and is probably going to lead into things that are a lot more dynamic.”

The economic slowdown means businesses must focus on cost optimization to be more effective at getting through this crisis, and currently, 31% of respondents to the IDC survey said they’re in this phase, he said.

Those in the business resiliency stage are focused on the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and the realization that they need technology to digitally transform, Kurtzman said. Nine percent of North American enterprise respondents said they are in this stage, while 18% identified as being in the targeted investment stage for transformations, he said.

Work/life balance

Not only was remote work important, but through virtual collaboration, Pan-American officials quickly learned they needed to consider what employees were going through personally, Edwards said.

He recalled getting a Slack message from someone who wrote, “This is not work from home but live at work.” Edwards said that sounded like a cry for change and “we had to more than talk about it and put things in place. I’m not suggesting we solved it—we still have people working flat out,” but it prompted change.

The company began doing “no meetings Wednesdays” on the last Wednesday of every month so people could use that time to catch up on other work. The company also no longer holds meetings after 5 pm to be cognizant of time zones, he said.

“Being aware of work/life balance and our willingness to be flexible brought a lot of comfort,” Edwards said.

“Collaboration is a game changer,” said Kurtzman. “It means … information in more places faster and quicker. Collaboration is not just technical but cultural; it’s a willingness to share.”

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