Slack’s CEO Stewart Butterfield: These questions could save teams billions of hours each year

Stewart Butterfield CEO & Co-founder

Stewart Butterfield CEO & Co-founder Image: Slack

Linda Lacina
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Meet The Leader is the podcast from the World Economic Forum that features the world’s top changemakers, showcasing the habits and traits effective leaders can’t work without.
  • Slack's Stewart Butterfield shares how leaders can navigate uncertainty to make their teams more effective.
  • Many teams still meet like it's 2019, said Slack's Stewart Butterfield. Asking yourself key questions can help you reboot your practices and better tap your team's capabilities.

A global recession could be around the corner - unwelcome news after years of disruption from everything from a pandemic to war.

But with markets in flux, leaders might have a unique opportunity to think beyond the next quarter to fix the way their teams solve big problems and help their staff navigate change.

On the latest Meet The Leader, Slack CEO and co-founder Stewart Butterfield discussed how leaders could approach this next upheaval - and to consider what they’d change for their workers if they could change anything - making their teams more efficient and effective.

Here are some of the questions leaders can consider:

  • 1. Am I working like it’s 2019? Most meetings today are run like they were pre-pandemic - workers, regardless of timezone - gather at a pre-appointed time and stop their work for a topic they may or may not be best positioned to contribute to. Many innovators have developed solutions for asynchronous meetings, tools where meetings are held as a sort of advanced recordings that can be paused or sped up with skimmable transcripts for some to scan for the insights most critical to their work. “If you could get rid of a third of meetings, collectively, you're talking about billions of hours of people's time per year.”
  • 2. Is my focus in the wrong place? While digital infrastructure has become more critical to productivity in recent years, physical infrastructure continues to steal a disproportionate share of attention. Even at Slack, Butterfield said that he has spent far too much time in last decade on real estate leases, office buildouts and seating charts, when that time could have been invested in honing how teams get work done - helping workers become even more effective communicators and helping them run even more efficient meetings. “The ratio is totally wrong,” he said. “It's 10 to 1 and should be 1 to 10.”

    He suggests leaders consider how workaday processes like meetings could improve and develop guidelines, training and work these measures into onboarding to ensure they’re baked into company processes. “You don't want to get too bureaucratic about it, but actually setting some guidelines and some policies because there usually aren't at most organizations.”
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  • 3. Can I repeat that? Repeating key messages - while it seems elementary - is critical to alignment. It’s something Butterfield says he’s always working on, knowing that the real coordination comes when you’re sick of hearing yourself say the same things. Such work will never end for leaders and can’t be ignored, regardless of the person, project or phase.

    “Humans are really hard to to organize and coordinate and align,” said Butterfield. “But you can get so much more accomplished than when people are pointing in different directions."

Butterfield shared all this in a conversation recorded at the Annual Meeting in Davos this past May. Learn more about Butterfield’s approach to how leaders can make their teams stronger and more effective during a period of uncertainty — and the Slack tips he can’t work without — on the latest Meet The Leader.

TRANSCRIPT: Slack's CEO Stewart Butterfield on how leaders can navigate uncertainty to make their teams more effective

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: We can start with crises. There's a lot of disruption happening right now. What is your take on it and how should leaders be approaching this very sort of strange and uncertain moment?

Stewart Butterfield: I think it's an enormous opportunity to make changes that might, in the course of normal business, be too difficult or too painful to make. And when I say crisis, in this context, I mean definitely the pandemic, which kind of wraps everything but war, inflation, the market's tanking, all of those things, all of which — upsetting is probably the wrong word — but, you know, a lot of business leaders here have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of employees who really feel on edge. And I think that also means that they're more open to fundamental changes.

I work at Slack, obviously, so I have a slightly more narrow focus, but I use this analogy, let's see if it works with you. So, I'm not a really big sports fan. However, if you imagine we're watching the World Cup, they may have a big screen in here and I press pause and then start stepping through it frame by frame. Every player on both teams is constantly readjusting their position, their momentum, they’re signaling to one another. They're taking in the situation where the ball is, how fast people are moving, where their opponents are. And if you think about the resources that are available to those players to complete their objectives, like their physical bodies, the short twitch muscle fibers, the glucose of their blood stream, all of their talent and experience, almost all of it is effectively utilized in the accomplishment of their objectives. And the objective is just put the ball in the net more than the other team does to you. When I look around most companies — and this is not a criticism, I think this is really the standard — what percentage of the intelligence, creativity, talent and experience of all the employees is actually being effectively applied towards the accomplishment of goals? And it's 10%. You know, it's very, very low because it's very, very difficult to coordinate people. And it's not truly a fair comparison because the football players play the same game every single time. There's only 11 of them. There's not thousands. Their objectives are very, very clear and obvious, whereas most large companies take three months to even come up with the objectives for next year, three months of debate. So, I don’t want to suggest that we should be at 90, 95%. But I do think that 15 or 20% is possible for a lot of organizations. And the magnitude of that impact would be really amazing.

"What percentage of the intelligence, creativity, talent and experience of all the employees is actually being effectively applied towards the accomplishment of goals?"

Stewart Butterfield, CEO and founder, Slack

So, in the context of Slack, we think about communication and automation and integration of different software services. But just to kind of frame it, if you look back over the last 60ish years, we've slowly advanced the frontier of what computers can do for people. And first it was things that computers are way better than people. So doing arithmetic really fast without making any mistakes and remembering things forever. And as we progressed that frontier of whatever is automatable advances with us.

But there's still a huge amount of mindless, repetitive work that knowledge workers have to do over the course of the day. And you can recognize it when you see one window open on a computer and with a bunch of information and another window open on the other side of the computer where someone's typing out basically the same information to another window. It's a huge amount of people's time, and so those opportunities to automate are really significant.

Wrapping it all up, it's difficult to imagine better alternatives. It's difficult to get people to change, I mean there's a whole discipline of change management inside of large organizations. But if we were ever going to take the opportunity, now that we've had the years of people working from home remotely, now that we've established that that's possible. When things you thought were impossible turned out to be possible, you have to ask yourself: What else? What other assumptions do I have that that aren't necessarily true?

"Now that we've had the years of people working from home remotely, You have to ask yourself: What other assumptions do I have that that aren't necessarily true?"

Stewart Butterfield, CEO and founder, Slack

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Leaders are just as burnt out as their staff, so if they were looking to try tap into the creativity of their team or make their team, you know, ten, 15 more percent effective, efficient, where should they be looking? What would be the before and after in their teams that would make a big change?

Stewart Butterfield: It's a great question because that's obviously the challenge, because if it was easy or free, then everyone would have already made those changes. Part of it is the incentives that we have as human beings just by virtue of our psychology, and some of them are business-specific sociological incentives that get created.

Just as an example - everyone wants more people to report to them, no matter what their job is, because there's just an obvious correlation that is demonstrated to people all the time: there's more power, there's more prestige, there's more money to be made if you have more people. And as an organization, you probably want the opposite. You want to say like, let's hire as a last resort only when objectives are as clear as they could be and everyone understands their role and the processes are streamlined and the team is functioning at a very high level and there's a lot of trust. Only then do you add people, because if you add people first then all those things become much harder to make improvements or to solve for.

So, part of it is that. Part of it is everyone complains about meetings where there's someone presenting at you and just reading the slides as they appear on the screen because everyone can read faster than the other person can talk. And yet it happens. And it's, you know, tens of millions of people's experience every single day. You start to think about hundreds of millions of hours over the course of a couple months, billions of hours over the course of a year. These tend to be well-compensated people. The percentage of GDP that's impacted — it could be like several whole digit percentages, you're like in the trillions of dollars. And we need to find ways to counteract that.

I'll give you maybe something a little bit more concrete. Which meetings could be replaced with asynchronous work? So, rather than everyone stops what they're doing at 10:29 a.m. so that we can join the 10:30 call. And most of the people or let's be fair, some of the people at least don't have any interest in this topic, don't have anything to contribute. They're just there because it sat in their calendar. They hadn't given a forethought. And so they're not really in a position to contribute. Some of those, I think, are important, though. Some live discussions are really important, but some of them would be much better if people put some effort into a written form or even recording a video.

I definitely do not want to be promotional about Slack, but one feature that we recently added is called Clips, and so it's a video people upload. The advantage of the recording of video and sending it to you versus you and I getting on a video call at the same time is that we can do it at different times. I can be a night owl and you can be someone who gets up really early. You can have childcare responsibilities or you know, whatever it is. You can pause it and go to the bathroom in the middle, you can speed it up to 1.5X. If someone talks really slow, we can generate a transcript of everything that was said and people can skim the transcript, find a part that's interesting then click on that and jump to that point in the video.

And that's something that Slack’s doing, but there's, I guess, hundreds of companies that are starting to really deliver some innovative features and we have to train people to use this. We have to tell them to use it, because otherwise you do get stuck in the same habits. That stuff might not sound impactful, but if you could get rid of a third of meetings, again, collectively, you're talking about billions of hours of people's time per year.

"If you could get rid of a third of meetings, collectively you're talking about billions of hours of people's time per year."

Stewart Butterfield, CEO and founder, Slack

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: You mentioned questioning assumptions. Is there an assumption that you've questioned recently that's led to a change in how you lead at Slack or how you think about things at Slack?

Stewart Butterfield: You know, one recurrent conversation that I had, actually on my walk over to the studio, I just had an hour-long conversation with someone about employee activism.

I think most people would probably if they don't describe themselves as a 'stakeholder capitalist', they're least sympathetic to that idea. And most people want to be good people, but there's a very strange kind of phenomenon where we are — when I say we, I’m talking more about the U.S., I think the same thing is true to a certain extent in Europe, maybe less so in Japan, less so in China — but we're often divorced from our roots. Very few people live in the same town that they grew up in, and very few people live close to their family. Very few people have strong religious traditions. So, all of the things that would have anchored us, you know, five or ten generations ago, aren't there. People look elsewhere for leadership and for their identity. And we spend an enormous amount of time at work. So, work becomes one of those places. And there's now an expectation of leaders that there's more or less an immediate response to whatever happened today.

Last night there was a really terrible school shooting in the U.S., and a lot of people are parents. A lot of people, it's like their worst nightmare. And it's really difficult to imagine that stuff. And people end up very upset and distracted. And there is an expectation. People look to their employer not necessarily for guidance, but for kind of confirmation that their values align with the employee. Any organization of any size has employees who have conflicting values. It becomes more and more challenging and a bigger and bigger preoccupation. So, I'm not sure if that's something that I've changed my mind on, but it's something that there's kind of a continual struggle with how best to support people and manage the business and find the right balance between being a human and being someone who is responsible for the company.

"Two things that I think have served me well are really deep thinking about what is going on in the mind of the other person and what kind of incentives have been created and what kind of behaviors are being rewarded."

Stewart Butterfield, CEO and founder, Slack

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: You have a degree in philosophy. Does that help you as a tool to navigate some of this uncertainty or some of these things where you're maybe there's no clear answer on? You know, how should you think about people's identification with work, or how people are depending more on their workplace for different things? How does that background help you as a tool to navigate this?

Stewart Butterfield: Philosophy is a little bit of this, but it's also just a bunch of adjacent areas of inquiry, sociology and psychology, also economics. Two things that I think have served me well are really deep thinking about what is going on in the mind of the other person and what kind of incentives have been created and what kind of behaviors are being rewarded. Because sometimes you can get frustrated with people and everyone gets frustrated with others in their lives. It's usually because you can't think of a motivation that isn't something negative or destructive. There's that old saying, you shouldn't ascribe to malice that which can be ascribed to ignorance. Ignorance doesn't sound that great either, but really trying to understand what is motivating people I think is very important.

And the other one, this is a more recent realization, I draw these graphs all the time for people in the product team, and this is a podcast so it's weird for me to describe a graph, but it's actually pretty simple. The x axis, the horizontal, is the quality of something, and the y axis is the amount of value that someone gets from it. And so, you imagine draw a line that's very shallow and very flat and then suddenly gets very steep and then flattens out. A simple example: if you have a hammer the handle is so weak that it breaks, but every time you use the hammer it's just junk and you could improve the handle, like make it a little bit stronger, but if it's still too weak to withstand the actual use, that's still kind of useless. So you look at that graph and it goes: useless, useless, useless, kind of okay, suddenly fine, great, and then after that it doesn't really matter — you can make an invincible hammer that could never be broken by anyone.

To me, almost everything in life has this nonlinear relationship, because the behaviours that you care about — does the employee stay, does the customer buy, does the candidate accept your offer — all those things are binary outcomes, but the inputs are all continuous. And so people talk about the straw that broke the camel's back. You never know when something's at the 49% level and it only needs to get to 51, or whether you're down to 20. So, starting to think about the cumulative impact of a really full spectrum or holistic view of what's influencing the decision making, especially when we're struggling collectively with attrition, with people reimagining what they want to do with their lives, what their purpose is, where they want to work. I think you need to take into account the incredible variety of factors that influence those kind of decisions.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: At Slack you guys have probably a very unique perspective on using digital platforms and hybrid work. Is there something that you think people are overlooking, that's a way that they can maximize it, or even a best practice that's worked for Slack?

Stewart Butterfield: Yeah, I got two things. So, one, just the thought experiment. If you go back to March of 2020 and in this other parallel universe, you could go to the office, you could commute, you could use conference rooms, business travel is fine, like all of those things could still happen. But your software was taken away. Then, more or less every company would've just disintegrated, like they couldn't even last 24 hours. We were able to kind of keep going and there was a lot of stuff going on in people's lives, like the actual impact of the pandemic and being locked up and all this political upheaval and stuff like that. But most organizations, unless they were directly impacted, like, you know, hotel business or something like that, they did fine.

"At some point in the last several decades, the digital HQ - the digital infrastructure that supports productivity and collaboration - actually became more important than the physical HQ."

Stewart Butterfield, CEO and founder, Slack

So at some point in the last several decades, there is an inversion that happened where the digital HQ, and I know that sounds like a marketing term, but I just mean the digital infrastructure that supports productivity and collaboration, te digital HQ actually became more important than the physical HQ.

If I look back over the last decade for me and I add up all the time I spent on real estate leases and office buildout and conference room design and seating charts, and like all of that stuff, compared to how much thought I put into how to help people become more effective communicators, how to help people run more efficient meetings, how to instill in them a good set of guidelines for how to use communication tools and all of that, the ratio is totally wrong. It's inverted, you know, it's 10 to 1 and should be one 1 to 10.


The second thing, a little rhetorical trick, is you know, the Amazon six-page memo format? They put it in writing and then everyone reads, starts the meeting, which the reason you say yes and every single person I ask says yes, is because there's so few examples of people even trying to improve how we're spending those billions of hours a year.

The examples of where people do try something really, really stand out. You put those two together. And the opportunity that I think people have is to just invest more. And even it's in employee onboarding process, training courses, there could be certifications, you don't want to get too bureaucratic about it, but actually setting some guidelines and some policies because there usually aren't at most organizations. There's maybe a sign up on the TV in the conference room that kind of the default screen. It says, please enter meetings on time and be courteous to the next person by cleaning up your trash, but nothing about like 'don't have 25 people in the meeting if you only need 15'.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Is there a favourite Slack feature that you have that people overlook or they don't know about?

Stewart Butterfield: There's so many little things. And, you know, you watch someone who's very inexperienced with the computers and they're editing a text document and they slowly move the mouse up at the top and they click on edit, and then they slowly move the cursor over the menu items and they choose copy and then they move it. So the equivalent of that in Slack is there's a shortcut called Command K — Windows Control K — and it just lets you switch between the channels and direct message conversations and everything you could be looking at in Slack. And it's so painful to go manually find the channel in the long list, it's overwhelming if you don't do that.

There's a pair: that command K, and then hiding channels that don't have any unread activity. If there's nothing new, just hide it from me and I don’t see it. That changes people's experience of Slack, where I get to decide whether this is important to me or not.

And most of the time I go to a channel when I have a question or someone mentions me. I don't need to look at it otherwise. I could go on literally for hours about this.

But so, one other very, very basic thing is most people are familiar from Facebook and Instagram of if you mention someone's name they'll get a notification and the culture or etiquette that you build up around mentioning people's names is really important, because if I trust that any time something requires my attention, someone will mention me, when I come back from vacation and there's 200 channels that are unread, if there's no mentions I don't have to look at any of them, you know, because no one pointed it out.

Or if you don't have that culture, if you don't have the expectation that people will mention you if something requires your attention, suddenly you have to look through all 200 of these channels to see if there's anything that's relevant to you, and that really shifts your experience. But we are working on lots of — you know, I'm talking about like 2015 stuff — we're working on a lot of great stuff today and I'm actually pretty optimistic about the industry and the group of software companies that are working on collaboration because I just think we learned so much in the last two years that it takes a while for that to filter into the products. But I think we're going to have a pretty exciting roadmap and are going to have the opportunity to make bigger improvements over the next couple of years.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: If leaders could do one concrete thing so that they are prepared to help their teams for the future of work, what should they be doing?

Stewart Butterfield: If there's one thing that certainly I continually need to work on as a leader, and it kind of never ends, is the amount of repetition of the message that is necessary to kind of create alignment across the organization. It's always when you're absolutely sick of hearing yourself say the same thing, that it really begins to sink in. Because humans are really hard to organize and coordinate and align, but when they are, you can get so much more accomplished than when people are kind of pointing in different directions and pushing it in different directions.


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