Early in the pandemic, Slack, like many other companies, went from having a few distributed employees to everyone working remotely overnight. And, like everyone else, we thought it would be temporary.
By the summer of 2020, when it was clear those assumptions wouldn’t hold, Slack executives stepped back to evaluate our transition. They looked at data from before the move to remote work and after, and proposed experiments to make a fully remote working environment as supportive, productive and engaging as possible. Leading that effort was Ali Rayl, our VP of Customer Experience.
We caught up with her to talk about her experience—what she learned, what worked and what could be improved going forward.
Pre-pandemic, our workforce was less than 5% remote. Now that we’ve been at 100% for the past year, what are some of the most surprising things we’ve learned?
Ali Rayl: At the beginning of April 2020 we realized that this was going to be way longer than just a month, so we started asking ourselves, “What did work look like when we were back in the office?”
We pulled all of our previous employee badge data. Folks were already using their badge to access each office, so an obvious question was, “How many people come in?” And it turned out that regardless of job function, level, location, everything, only about 50% to 60% of our employees came into the office every day. That was a moment of revelation. We’ve been a distributed workforce this entire time, we just didn’t acknowledge it.
In our main San Francisco office, we also did a months-long survey of how everyone used our workspace in pre-pandemic times. Individual desks were occupied only 17% of the time. We had been kidding ourselves about how we were using our old office.
That was a real moment of awareness for us—the realization that we’ve been doing this and simply haven’t acknowledged it or designed for it. We’ve been building this distributed work culture for years, and a lot of this is already embedded in our day-to-day and how we interact.
We hear again and again that managers are taking the brunt of the stress from the shift to remote work. What are some challenges that came up for Slack and how do managers mitigate it?
AR: As managers, it’s very easy to see somebody sitting at their desk in the office with a plausible-looking [browser] window open and think, “They’re doing work. They’re at their desk, and the office is where we do the work, and they’re on their computer, which is their work tool.” We fill in missing pieces of the story to make the whole narrative, and the narrative that we as managers all build is like, “My team is doing all their work. I look around me and I see work being done.”
Instead, we have to shift to a results-based model. And the interesting part is, measuring results has always been hard. And as you look at developing different metrics to judge employee behavior, you have to be careful because those become incentives and you can incentivize really bad behavior.
Another thing that we’ve seen—and this isn’t unique to just managers, but it’s a responsibility that managers feel—is [difficulty dealing with] the health and well-being of their teams. We’re not trained therapists. We are actually as ill-equipped to help our team members with depression as we would be to help them with say, diabetes. So our managers were taking on more than they were capable of based on their knowledge, training and skills. They were shouldering emotional lows that they’re just not really equipped to handle.
We’re managing differently now. We’re figuring out how to help folks, and where the line is between where you can help your team and where your team needs different help than you can provide.
We’ve run a lot of employee surveys throughout the past year to take stock of how things are going for everyone. What were some of the big takeaways?
AR: In one of our first big surveys, folks who are not in San Francisco—and this isn’t just previously remote folks, but also people from our Vancouver, Toronto, New York and other offices—said, “I now feel more included than ever.”
What did it was getting everybody out of the physical room. It’s not that we didn’t care about everyone in Vancouver. It’s not that we thought that their ideas were lesser, or that we didn’t need their input. It was the structure of the conference rooms in San Francisco versus taking part in Zoom that caused them to feel excluded or lessened. As soon as we got rid of this physical structure, suddenly all of this belonging rushed in. They were like, “I suddenly feel like I’m an equal size and I have an equal voice. I finally feel like I’m part of the team.”
What has been your biggest “aha!” moment when analyzing how we’re working in this new way?
AR: People taking control over their own time. Some of that is by necessity. We have parents who have to get up at 5 a.m. and work until 7:30 a.m. And then again, do the night shift. But we have others whose creativity period is from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., or their peak tactical period is from 2 to 4 p.m. Folks are starting to find their own personal working rhythms. And we couldn’t do that when we had a chunk of time in the office bounded by two commutes, unless that chunk of time just magically fell in between those two commutes.
As we stare into an uncertain future, what is Slack thinking in terms of long-term change?
AR: If we were all just working remotely—no pandemic—we’d be in a much different situation, like, “Let’s try some bold changes!” But no, we’re living through a global catastrophic event in slow motion. It’s a lot; it’s heavy.
We got lucky in having this accidental distributed workforce for as long as we did. Enough of this was built-in that we didn’t have to be like, “All right everybody, we’ll be enforcing new habits starting Monday.” Of course, we’ll continue to iterate and improve. But in the meantime, it’s our responsibility to use that good fortune, and what we’ve learned, to help our customers and partners adapt.