Inside the surprising Workplace by Facebook - what I learned from Workplace product leaders

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 7, 2018
Workplace by Facebook has added complications to my already complicated relationship with Facebook. But Facebook's Simon Cross believes that Workplace can make a difference, by fueling the culture that good teams emerge from.

Facebook's Simon Cross at Flow 2018

Readers who track my Facebook angst in Hits and Misses are surely surprised to learn that I was present at Flow, the first Workplace by Facebook leadership event.

We've already disclosed that diginomica is, unlikely as it might seem, a Workplace by Facebook customer.

I was initially skeptical of how Facebook could possibly win enterprise accounts, given that "let's give workers more time on Facebook" is not what you'd call a productivity rallying cry.

However, after seeing our core team adopt Workplace, this after rejecting numerous other collaboration tools, including Slack, and: seeing my email inbox nightmares lessen in a matter of days as a result - I've seen enough of Workplace to want to see more.

Airing Workplace by Facebook questions

One of my biggest goals attending Flow: learn how Workplace scales with bigger customers. I got some answers in my United Way use case, How United Way Worldwide took collaboration viral with Workplace by Facebook.

But I had other nagging questions - and no one better to answer them than Simon Cross, Manager, Product Management at Facebook. I asked Cross about an impressive live Workplace demo which featured an on-the-fly video connection to a remote team. The remote product team waved right back at us, then went back to work.

Perhaps it was rehearsed once or twice, I don't know - but it's extremely rare to see a live video stream of a working group quickly thrown on screen, via a phone no less, at an event. But that's a big part of Workplace by Facebook's advantage - they pulled from Facebook's mobile app experience to nail mobile ease of use. As Cross said to me:

People do get nervous about live demos. If I can't pull up my product and at work and it doesn't work, then we don't have a product, right?

I gave Cross my own product feedback, mostly enthusiastic with some grouchy touches. I wasn't the only one:

Some of the feedback that's hardest to hear is the areas where our best, most engaged customers want us to improve. But that is the best feedback. It's not feedback because they don't care. It's feedback because they care, and they can see how much more there is to do, and how much better this can be even than it is today.

One of the areas Workplace is determined to improve? Ease of third party integration. Other Workplace customers told me this was high on their wish list also. Example: Google Docs integration has not been intuitive for us. Cross:

We've got our whole team on it. I think the integrations that we have with certain file and document sharing services are powerful. They are useful, but they can do more. We've got nothing to announce at this time, but I can tell you that it's an area that we'll never stop improving on.

When the Slack - Atlassian news broke last July, I was surprised by how few tech writers bothered to mention Workplace by Facebook. "Slack against Microsoft Teams heats up" was how many framed it. But I couldn't get Cross to bite on vendor wars commentary.

How do we see the whole space? That's a great question. First of all, we don't worry if we're not part of the coverage. We just focus on our customers.

And how is that going?

We're not having any difficulty finding customers. A bunch of the folks here today are here because they've heard something about Workplace, and they want to know more. And over lunch, they're chatting to Dan from Walmart, and whoever else our customers are, they're telling each other about this product, and what's humbling for us is that they're doing our work for us. We don't have to be in every sales conversation. Workplace gets adopted and loved in so many organizations that they end up becoming our advocates.

For a product two years out of the gate, being able to name drop Walmart is no small thing. And that's hardly the only big name from the 30,000+ customers on board. But there's plenty of work to do:

Our focus is just taking the customers that have an interest in us, helping them understand what the product is, how it can be used, how to roll it out effectively, and then listening to their feedback and building new features to satisfy it, which is what you saw today with multi-company chat and mark-as-important. Those are two features our customers have been crying out for literally two years, and so it's exciting to bring them to market.

Those features probably don't sound like much if you're on the outside, but multi-company chat matters for organizations like the United Way, as they look at how they can involve external stakeholders in their team convos.

How Workplace functions inside Facebook

I don't ordinarily devote editorial time to how a company is using its own product. However, in the case of Facebook, how they are using Workplace internally warrants mention. Cross:

At Facebook, it is our primary and universal communication tool for everything we do. We use it, well, Mark [Zuckerberg] uses it to communicate company strategy, as does Sheryl.

Workplace is ingrained in the launch of new products:

At Facebook, every time you start a project, the very first thing you do is create a Workplace group and add the people. Literally, there's a race, and somebody creates the group.

There are no exceptions:

Every single project starts with a group. Every team has a group. Every product has a group. Typically, we have a closed group for the team that runs the product - and an open group for feedback and cross-functional collaboration.

Workplace is also used for affinity groups. Facebook has a "Dogs at Facebook," group and a "Runners at Facebook" group. They also have a "Musicians at Facebook" group. That points to the impact of collaboration on recruitment and retention.

Having a place where you can go to find other people with similar interests inside your organization is a dramatically useful thing for employee satisfaction and employee retention. I think that's sometimes overlooked.

Cross did address the competition in this regard: he believes Workplace can do things other tools can't.

You look at other products that other companies offer, and if you want to use video, you've got to switch to a different tool. If I want to work with my team, I have to use a different tool. If I want to communicate with people outside my team, I have to use a different tool. That is not a view we share. We see a vision where a single tool, Workplace - including Workplace Chat - is a single platform that powers three types of activity.

Which are?

Company-wide communications, teams and projects, and building community... There's other products that do one or two of those three things. There's very few other products on the market that do all three.

In other words, don't call Workplace by Facebook a social network:

It's not a social platform. It's not a top-down communications platform. It's not a teamwork product on its own. It is all of those three. At the top of my feed is a post from Mark. And below that is somebody inviting me to a run in Regents Park that afternoon. And that mix gives me a very powerful feeling of belonging and connection to my company.

My take

My concerns about Facebook don't go away because of the positive impact Workplace has had on my worklife. I don't stop worrying about Amazon's crushing dominance even though I'm an Amazon Prime member. I question many things about Google even though we are also a Google customer, and the contradictions go on. I've come to believe we have to criticize that which we participate in, even if that gets complicated. The real failure is withholding the contradictions.

Culture can be a powerful differentiator - and, done right, software can help spark that. I think of the United Way interview; they haven't had to spend a half hour on Workplace by Facebook training. Think that helps adoption?

During a customer panel at Flow that hit on workplace culture, the panelists argued that employee morale is not a feel-good, fuzzy intangible. It can be measured. You can do year-over-year surveys and start to prove it out.

I believe Workplace can amplify diverse voices in organizations, but that can also pose a disruptive element companies should consider. I view that as subversive, in a good way. Cross views it a bit differently. I'll get into that in a future post.

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