The ongoing debate about the future of work in the Vaccine Economy is one that continues to dominate and divide the CEO agenda - and it’s been no different at this week’s Dreamforce where Slack has been pitched as an enabler for a more flexible new world.
According to Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor:
I talk to a lot of CEOs. I actually talked to over a hundred this past quarter, just to give you a sense of how much time I spend with the customers. What they want to talk about is flexible work…When you think about flexible work, which is the world that we're living in, some CEOs are happy about it, some aren't. It doesn't matter. It's where we are.
Noting that office occupancy rates around the world remain under 50% in most cities, Taylor argues that organizations need to think in a different way when it comes to work and the relationship with their employees:
In 2020, attrition rates for employees went way down because people didn't want to leave their jobs in the midst of a global pandemic. We were all scared. It was just a really scary time.
In 2021, globally there was the Great Resignation. I think a lot of people were re-assessing the purpose of work. I joke that the world went through a midlife crisis at the same time. Everyone was evaluating why we do what we do. I also think there was a lot of people who didn't change jobs in 2020 and it was almost compensating for the lack of movement that happened the previous year.
What’s developing now is what Taylor calls “meaningful tension between management and employees”:
You see a lot of CEOs come out and say, ‘Everyone's going to return to the office!’ and there's civil disobedience. People are like, ‘I'm not going to come. What are you going to do about it?’. There's still historically low unemployment in most of the world and there's still a shortage of talent in most of the world. So now we're in this world where people have experienced the freedom of flexible work, spent more time with their families, reduced their commutes. We've all learned that we can communicate digitally and that's very powerful.
That’s all true, but it begs the question of what the cultural implications are for organizations. Technology like Slack is a powerful enabler, but it’s not the end of the story. Taylor argues:
I don't think it's going to be everything's over Zoom and Slack or everything's in the office. I think we're defining a new era of work, a new day of work. I don't think Slack is the answer. The answer is cultural, but Slack, I think, is going to be the platform that a lot of companies can use to build their cultures.
We don't have the arrogance to say we have the solution to everyone's cultural problems. We don't. For us, we're figuring it out too. But I do think if you look at Slack, which we call everyone's digital headquarters, I think it'll be a really key building block for companies that are defining their culture on the other side of this.
What Slack won’t do is replace in-person work, he adds, arguing that a digital headquarters should complement a physical headquarters. He cites an analogy coined by Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield:
Imagine in March of 2020, instead of everyone having to not go back to their physical headquarters, we lost all the software that we use. So you could go into the office, but you couldn't use WhatsApp, you couldn't use Slack, you couldn't use Zoom. The business world would have collapsed. All of a sudden you're doing phone calls and sending written letters to each other. The digital infrastructure for all of our organizations is actually more important than the physical infrastructure. That doesn't mean that they're at odds with one another.
But CEOs need to adjust their thinking to be less focused on desks and chairs in the office:
In some ways that's really silly because think of how much of the work happens there versus in these digital tools. The digital tools are actually the centrepiece. So I think what's happened in the pandemic is the digital headquarters has become the main place that work gets done and the physical headquarters serves a different purpose.
There are seats and desks everywhere and we don’t need an office for that. You do need it for apprenticeship. You do need it for connection. You do need it so that people aren’t mercenaries, but actually colleagues. The way we are reframing it is saying, what is the purpose of your office and what is the purpose of your digital headquarters? That has been re-imagined in real time as we navigate this new world.
Technology plays a big part in it, but this is about changing cultures in our companies to embrace these tools, not being at odds with them. The idea that everything is digital or everything’s in the office, I don’t think that’s the right argument.
For its part, Salesforce has an awful lot of very tall real estate around the world. This raises the question, as diginomica noted last year, of what businesses are going to do with all those skyscrapers they’ve spent an awful lot of cash on over the years? Do they try to force employees back into the office in order to get their money’s worth? Taylor says of his firm:
We have not mandated people come back. In fact, when we talk to our teams, we say we're not going to mandate days of the week. It's silly. Why Tuesday? What do you do on Tuesday that it's so special that you should come in the office? We say, what are the reasons you've come to the office? We've been thinking more about reasons you come to the office, rather than days of the week.
Valid reasons might include engineering teams planning a release or a sales team closing the quarter and feeding off one another’s energy. Then there’s the case of interns who can benefit from being in an office and learning from more experienced colleagues. But it’s basically down to a matter of choice:
My personal opinion is that it's the right approach, because what you're saying is why you should come into the office. There's so much more substance to say, here are things that are better in the office than they are distributed, than saying ‘Tuesday through Thursday,’ which for a lot of people feels arbitrary.
The discussion around work was never going to come to a head at Dreamforce, but Taylor makes a number of very valid points. Technology like Slack is going to be crucial in enabling flexibility of approach, but ultimately this is a cultural debate.