Slack and Microsoft Teams are often cast as arch rivals, but in many organizations the two messaging platforms are used side-by-side. One company that's made this a formal IT policy is Auto Trader, the UK's leading automotive marketplace, which launched 44 years ago as a magazine and went wholly online in 2013. I recently spoke to Russell Warman, Head of Infrastructure and Operations, about its use of these digital teamwork tools and also how it's preparing for hybrid working now that its offices are reopening.
Auto Trader rolled out Slack company-wide as it went into lockdown at the start of the pandemic last year, accelerating a plan that had already been in place. It's the right platform for in-the-moment messaging, believes Warman, while Teams comes into its own for more structured, document-centric collaboration. He explains:
For me, they both solve different problems ... Slack is very much about the ad-hoc conversation that's happening in real time. Whereas Teams is very much used for meetings and replicating that collaboration around a document.
This means that if people get on a call in Slack it's usually on the spur of the moment as part of a response to an incident or to hold an impromptu meeting or short stand-up. When setting up a Teams meeting, an Outlook calendar invite goes out to participants in advance, with a link to an Office365 document or folder containing points for discussion. If the team is an ongoing group such as a working party, there will typically be a Slack channel too for more informal interactions. It's useful that the Slack channel keeps a historic record of each team's message stream, says Warman. Slack is also preferred for cross-team and external collaboration.
How Slack came to Auto Trader
The history of how Slack became established at Auto Trader is instructive. Auto Trader had originally been using Microsoft's Skype for Business as its preferred platform both for instant messaging and conference calls. But the messaging experience on Mac was "terrible," says Warman, which made it difficult for developers to use. He recounts:
Over the years, it just got worse, progressively worse, and our development team really just struggled to use it. For persistent messaging, channel-based conversation, direct messaging, it just wasn't working for them.
That created an opening for Slack. The development team started using the free version back in 2014, but because of the storage limits on the free version, they were losing historic messages once there were more than 10,000 in the system. Initially, the IT team were reluctant to endorse a second messaging system, given their strategy was to standardize on the Microsoft platform. But Teams was not competitive at the time — "the experience was just woeful," says Warman — and Slack had two extra advantages, which persist today.
The first was the ease of collaborating with third parties, a feature that Auto Trader uses extensively. The second was the consistency of the user experience across both desktop and mobile. IT were eventually persuaded to sign up for a paid license, which they did in 2016. Slack has since become integral to how the engineering team works. Warman explains:
It's got really embedded in the way that they use it for workflow. We use a lot of the integrations with things like Jira. We've created our own custom integrations [and] we run all our technology incidents through the Slack platform.
Auto Trader had already started to look at extending Slack across the rest of the organization as a platform for company-wide announcements and conversations when the pandemic hit. The decision to go ahead more than doubled the number of employees on Slack to around 1,000. With 95% of them actively using the platform, around half a million messages now go through Slack every month.
Adjusting to hybrid working
Auto Trader is now in the throes of adjusting to hybrid working, having recently reopened its Manchester and London locations. Before the pandemic, it had always been an office-first organization, with remote working discouraged except in the case of the outbound sales team. That perspective has shifted following the experience of the past year-and-a-half, but with offices now open again and UK government restrictions set to lift fully later this month, the company is encouraging colleagues to spend more time at the office than they do at home, while at the same time respecting individual choice. Warman says:
We prefer face-to-face collaboration. Certainly when you're doing project kick-offs and initiations, it's easier to do it face-to-face. But we also accept that for some people, they're working from home, that is their choice, so they may choose not to come in. I think in those instances, having good digital tools to help that process is going to be critical.
A measure of how integral in-person collaboration has been to the way Auto Trader works is that all its office walls are writable, to allow for impromptu whiteboarding. Finding a digital alternative to this frequently used resource is a prime example of a gap in the tooling that needed to be filled. Digital whiteboarding platform Miro was added in the middle of last year and around half the total workforce have now adopted it.
Conference rooms at the office have been upgraded to allow for socially distanced teamwork with some participants connecting remotely. Rather than standardizing on a single video meeting platform, the IT team is letting individuals choose what to use, and supports connecting any of them from their laptop into the conference room camera and screen, using the Barco ClickShare app. Warman says:
Over the last year we've used a whole plethora of tools. Whether it be Cisco Webex, Zoom, Slack calling, Teams — some people are still using Skype — trying to be able to provide a technology that caters for all of that is nigh on impossible. What we've said is, we'll put the control back onto the desktop. You choose the client that suits you and the camera will just connect as an extension of your laptop.
Other changes at the office are designed to make it a more soothing environment, with more muted colors, live plants and better natural light. There are also small, one-person 'focus booths' lined with acoustic pads where people can either make video calls or just work quietly without interruption — Warman spoke to me from one of these. For those working from home, there's a 'disrupted working' status they can set in Slack to show they're temporarily unavailable due to a domestic distraction.
Connecting people and processes
One important role that Slack has played during the past year of enforced remote working has been serving as a platform for connecting people. Warman observes:
Slack has definitely given people the ability to feel connected and be part of the community. I think that was one of the areas where we saw great success in the pandemic. We had our announcements channels, we had ask our senior leaders [sessions] that were well attended and [had] lots of interactions. Also some of the social channels like at-pets, at-active. These community groups that got together and carried on the conversation, I think that tried to replicate and replace some of the water cooler moments or the coffee chat moments.
Slack channels at Auto Trader are organized with prefixes to help classify them. The 'at' prefix stands for Auto Trader and is used for company-wide channels. The 'xt' prefix marks external channels that connect with third-party teams at suppliers and elsewhere. A 'wg' prefix denotes working groups that are looking at specific issues. Auto Trader has a number of guilds that bring people together around specific interests, including sustainability, diversity and inclusion, disability and neurodiversity, LGBT+ and Women's Network.
Slack has also become a platform for automating and streamlining certain processes. For example, the finance teams created an ask purchasing channel. Whereas previously this type of function might have been run through an email inbox or simply by walking across the office to ask a question, now there's a Slack channel where people can ask the status of a purchase order and get a response. With a growing number of integrations to a whole range of applications and data sources, the messaging platform is becoming hardwired into the way Auto Trader works.