Even when presented virtually, the annual set-piece customer conference is a vendor's key moment to evangelize its view of the world. Slack Frontiers, which opens today, majors on three important themes for the digital teamwork vendor. Building on June's launch of Slack Connect, there's new functionality to make it easier to connect people from other trusted organizations into shared channels. New integration capabilities aim to position Slack as a platform for connecting workflows and actions across enterprise applications. Finally, Slack is expanding on its vision of the digital workplace, reinforced by new research that shows how well many office workers have adapted to distributed working in the wake of the pandemic.
The most significant of today's Slack product announcements is the extension of Slack's low-code workflow builder to include the ability to connect into third-party applications, including on-premise apps installed behind an enterprise firewall. In addition, admins will be able to switch on organization-wide deployments of third-party app integrations into Slack, and there's a new program to certify ecosystem apps as enterprise-ready. Slack will also be highlighting DocuSign's recent announcement of an integration that embeds its e-signature app directly in Slack channels. A few days ago, I spoke to Steve Wood, VP of Product, Developer Platform at Slack, about the workflow announcements — more on that below.
The new features for Slack Connect were already previewed earlier this year, but are now formally launched and are set for release early next year. Slack is heavily promoting Slack Connect DMs, which give individual users the ability to start directly messaging with external collaborators from trusted organizations. The delivery of this much-requested feature provides an invaluable shortcut in the early stages of external collaboration, when previously it was necessary to wait for administrators to set up a shared channel first. It will be made available at the same time as related functionality including a checkmark to distinguish organizations whose identity has been verified by Slack, and a facility called managed connections, which allows administrators to automate the approval of new channel requests with trusted organizations.
Post-office future of work
Slack's overarching vision for the future of work provides a philosophical context for all of the product announcements. The vendor believes that the fundamental nature of work is changing as people switch to digitally connected ways of working — what customer Tibco has called a "post-office" world. Today sees the release of new research that appears to back up its view that people won't be going back to office-based work routines once the current pandemic-inspired lockdown ends. The Remote Employee Experience Index will track the evolution of distributed teamwork from quarter to quarter and according to its first survey:
Most knowledge workers are happier working remotely than they were in the office. They don’t want to go back to the old way of working. Only 11.6% say they want to return to full-time office work, while 72.2% want a hybrid remote-office model.
But Slack realizes that, while many may be happier out of the office, distributed working isn't yet as good as it could be. In today's keynote, it is showing some of the ways it thinks it might be further improved in the future. While not currently in the company's product roadmap, it has been prototyping the use of recorded video clips to share team updates without having to gather everyone on a synchronous video conference. Another way to avoid video conference fatigue it's been considering is the use of audio-only calls to share quick updates in real time in a channel.
As Wood told me in our pre-briefing call, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield is a big proponent of "creative destruction ... Stop the assumptions. Let's just go right back. Let's challenge everything." In that spirit, Wood argues that Slack's approach to workflow and integration is about responding to events and enabling rapid action, whereas other vendors focus on a more traditional data-centric approach:
[They're saying,] When you have a conversation, it's useful to have a repository to put stuff like files and those kind of things. Whereas we're leaning into the event world of saying, 'Hey, we don't want to be this data repository, we want to be this engagement layer for events that need human attention.'
I've not heard any other vendors talk about event-driven enterprise, and the real-time business and how we all need to work ... We're in the real-time, event-centric world, not in the passive data entry world.
Slack's integrations are designed to help people respond rapidly to incoming events, he explains.
They can have those critical conversations, drive those critical workflows, all within Slack and interact with those applications as needed to resolve the issue, or to close the deal, or to onboard the employee or whatever it might be ...
You need to bring your events into Slack, because those events are usually hyper-valuable. They're usually the things that drive the critical business processes, they usually have a lot of urgency around them.
Connecting systems and humans
There are two integration capabilities being announced. Available now, a "steps from apps" extension to Workflow Builder lets users build event-based triggers into their workflow to call or respond to external apps. For example, adding a specific emoji to an inbound ticket in Slack could trigger a workflow that automatically creates a new incident in PagerDuty. Wood explains:
It's just leaning into this event-driven approach. An event occurs, you often want to spawn a lightweight workflow that can drive users to an outcome. It's particularly powerful when you can connect to systems. And so steps from apps can both pull and push data, but can also wait and listen for events to occur, and then continue on certain criteria.
Coming later this year, there will be a new capability to receive events and interactions from behind an organization’s firewall through a WebSockets connection. This means that enterprise developers can access Slack functionality via its APIs without the security risk of exposing public HTTP endpoints.
For Wood — who has spent most of his career in workflow and middleware, most recently at Dell Boomi and previously at Salesforce, before joining Slack earlier this year — connecting enterprise systems into Slack brings systems and people together more closely than was previously possible:
If we can leverage the world of system events and the world of human events and bring those two worlds together, you can build some really impressive applications that drive those critical business processes. That for me is the exciting thing. And I think with Slack Connect, the opportunities are immense.
So we're going to really lean into that. You're going to hear more and more from us about driving the event-driven, real-time enterprise and how Slack is that engagement layer that brings the humans into the mix.
Slack needs to evangelize because a lot of people don't yet understand what it's trying to convey about the way work has to change. Integrated workflow is one of the most important foundations of making digital teamwork fully connected and productive, so today's announcements are particularly significant. This is the kind of functionality that will start to move enterprises up through the maturity model of digital teamwork. It's not the full picture, but Slack deserves credit for trying to open people's minds to what the future of work should look like in digitally enabled, post-office world.