Slack is launching its new Huddles feature today, lightweight audio calls that you and your colleagues can jump in and out of while working. Born out of the pandemic, Slack Huddles are designed to replace those informal conversations you used to have with colleagues across desks. If you’ve ever used Discord, Slack Huddles is very similar, offering the ability to join or leave a persistent call freely at all hours.
Slack is focusing on audio with Huddles rather than video, but there will be a screen-sharing feature to make it easy for teams of people to hold spontaneous meetings that may have happened huddled around a monitor in the pre-pandemic days.
“It allows for two- or three-minute conversations,” explains Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield in an interview with The Verge. “If you have to schedule a call… you talk for the full 30 minutes instead of the two or three minutes you needed right at that moment.”
That time-saving and spontaneity is a key part of Slack Huddles. These audio calls can be created in any channel or DM, including shared communications across companies. The audio experience is designed to mimic people walking by your desk, so there’s no need to send people invites, links, or dial-in numbers — anyone in a channel or a DM group can join freely. Powered by Slack’s partnership with Amazon, Huddles also includes impressively fast and accurate live captioning through AWS — something I was able to test during my conversation with Butterfield.
Slack Huddles is clearly a response to the growing number of video calls that workers are participating in. While Butterfield concedes “we probably will allow video sharing at some point,” the focus of Huddles is to allow people to not have to worry about how they look on a video call, where they’re located, or even what they’re doing during a call. “On an audio call, you can be doing many other things and maintain the illusion that your counterpart is paying complete attention to everything you’re saying,” says Butterfield.
Huddles is also part of a broader effort at Slack to address some of the pain points of collaboration just as people start to filter back to offices, while others continue working from home or some other remote location. The hybrid workplace, as many are calling it.
“We’ve been living in a world where if all you have is a hammer, everything appears as a nail,” says Butterfield. “It doesn’t mean the classic meetings go away, but I think we’ll stop using that hammer on a bunch of things that aren’t really nails.”
Slack is also introducing voice, video, and screen recordings in the coming months. Instead of a morning standup, the idea is that people could record their ideas on their own time and send them in a channel. That could be ideal for large teams that work across multiple time zones or just where a daily meeting really isn’t necessary. These recordings that people share will also include a transcript that is searchable in Slack and tools to speed up or slow down playback.
Alongside an influx of video calls during the pandemic, it’s also been easy to get overwhelmed by the number of notifications and messages you have to respond to. “We need to do a better job at teaching people how to use Slack effectively,” admits Butterfield. “Billions of people know what it’s like to tag people on Facebook… mentioning someone in Slack works in the same way, but it has a much greater importance.”
Butterfield sees Huddles and these new video and screen recordings as alternate modes of communication that could help reduce the anxiety of feeling like you have to instantly respond to a Slack message. It’s not an easy challenge to solve, though, as bringing in new features can also create a whole new set of challenges for attention.
These new features in Slack do hint at where digital tools are heading and a bigger effort to re-create the workplace in an era where many will be working remotely. “What people need in a digital-first world, is something that acts as a virtual HQ and plays the same role for how productivity and collaboration happen just like the building did,” explains Butterfield. “People don’t design their virtual HQ in the same way they do their physical buildings.”
Butterfield thinks that might be about to change, as businesses spend more time prioritizing digital tools as effort is spent finding the perfect office location, interior design, and favorable lease terms. “Nobody would choose to have an office location over having software today,” claims Butterfield. “If you had to choose one or the other, 100 percent of people would choose software.”
And he’s probably right. We’ve certainly long crossed the line where in-person communication is now a supplement to the digital ways we connect every day. Slack’s idea of a virtual HQ sounds a lot like Microsoft’s approach to the future of work.
Microsoft has been trying to build a digital hub where work takes place in its own Slack competitor, Microsoft Teams. Shortly after the pandemic began last year, Slack filed a competition complaint with the EU, arguing that Microsoft is “abusing its market dominance” and has “illegally tied” its Microsoft Teams product to Office and is “force installing it for millions, blocking its removal, and hiding the true cost to enterprise customers.”
Microsoft just announced that Teams will now be bundled into Windows 11, with some tight integration for consumers. Butterfield had only just seen the announcement, so he didn’t have an immediate response. But the company’s communications chief, Jonathan Prince, sent us this statement: “Microsoft announced that it is going to bundle Teams with Windows as well as Office. Our reaction is simple: the choice is better than lock-in, open is better than closed, and fair competition is best of all. Unfortunately, Microsoft has never seen it that way.”
Slack isn’t impressed. But at the same time, Butterfield doesn’t seem to think Teams bundling on Windows will affect Slack too much. I pushed Butterfield on Microsoft chairman and CEO Satya Nadella’s comments that Slack can be first-class on Windows. “Unlike how IE is preinstalled and you have to go download Netscape, using a communications platform is not something each user makes a decision about unilaterally,” says Butterfield.
“There’s no one that would switch off Slack to Teams just because laptops have it preinstalled, or if we went to Dell and said, ‘Hey, we’ll pay you a bunch of money if you put Slack on it and take Teams out.’”
Outside of just Microsoft bundling Teams into Windows, Slack also faces competition from Google integrating Chat, Rooms, and Meet into Gmail to take on Microsoft and Slack. Salesforce announced its acquisition of Slack more than six months ago, but the deal hasn’t closed yet so we don’t know exactly how a combination of Salesforce and Slack will compete against Microsoft, Google, and others.
“I think Salesforce obviously has an enormous number of salespeople, and that will be helpful for the business,” admits Butterfield. “I think the thing that will be more helpful is the depth of integration with Salesforce’s existing suite of products, and the impact that has on mutual customers.”
Slack’s focus has always been about making its product loved by the millions who rely on it daily, rather than Microsoft and Google’s approach to bundling services together. Huddles is a great example of Slack’s approach, but the company will need many more Huddle-like features and some deep integration with Salesforce to fend off Microsoft and Google’s attempts to win the digital workplace.