Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor on digital agility and work in the Vaccine Economy

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright March 30, 2022
Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor shares insights into how Salesforce has adapted to more flexible patterns of work with Slack and how customers are embracing digital agility.

Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor screengrab from Zoom call
Bret Taylor, Salesforce (screengrab from Zoom call)

What drives Salesforce strategy in the post-pandemic Vaccine Economy? It's the need to support customers as they adapt to the pace and complexity of today's world, according to Bret Taylor, Vice Chair and co-CEO of Salesforce, who answered questions on a Zoom call with international media yesterday. In this new world, organizations need to build a digital infrastructure that can act as a platform for constant evolution, rather than the long-term, one-off IT projects of the past. He explained:

In a time where, over the past two-and-a-half years, we've had a global pandemic, a supply chain crisis, inflation, a labour crisis and the Great Resignation — a digitization of the economy that accelerated, by most accounts, by over a decade — what I hear from CIOs now is not about projects, but about platforms.

How can CIOs set up the platforms that they need, to set themselves up for the next unforeseen event? And I think it's a really mature way of looking at technology. And I really think that the companies that embrace this will be able to be much more agile in the face of economic changes, in the face of new customer demands, and new employee demands ...

CIOs now, I think, have a much more important seat at the table of executive teams and boards, as digital technology defines all of our businesses. But with that power comes great responsibility, to make the right long-term decisions.

The central role that digital infrastructure plays in enabling this new agility was brought home during the pandemic, as organizations suddenly had to carry on working without access to their offices. Taylor cited a striking insight from Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Salesforce subsidiary Slack:

Most sectors were able to endure because of the existence of digital technologies. If the alternative had happened — if we'd lost all of our digital tools, but our offices remained — the economy would have collapsed. And it really shows that these digital technologies are actually foundational to the way they work.

Adapting to digital patterns of work

The future of work was a common talking point throughout the session, and therefore the role of Slack within Salesforce's offering was a big focus in many of his answers. Taylor argued that supporting new digitally connected patterns of work is closely linked to the digital connections enterprises must forge with their customers. He said:

I think often CIOs and technologists have thought about their digital employee experience and their digital customer experience as separate technology investments. I think in the future of work, they're much more integrated. And in part that's motivated our strategy around Slack. It really demands a new approach from CIOs and CTOs to really say, how do we connect the engagement with our employees with the engagements of our customers to make them successful?

Much of the discussion centered on how enterprise leaders are figuring out how to adapt to these new, digitally connected patterns of work. Taylor said:

I had over 100 customer conversations over the past quarter, and I saw every single idea in the spectrum of, 'We're going back to the office' to 'We're never having offices again', in that conversation. I think it really illustrates that, once these crises subside and the way we work is a choice from our employers and employees, I think you're going to see a lot of innovation in the way companies approach work.

The combination of Salesforce and Slack offers a 'digital HQ' for a company's operations, but that's not intended to be in competition with the physical office spaces, he argued. In Salesforce's own case, over 30,000 of its 75,000-strong workforce joined since the pandemic started, which means that many had not met their managers or even stepped into a Salesforce office until recently. The issue is finding a new balance between digital and physical spaces, as he explained:

We think about going to this world of flexible work, which is the word we're using, rather than hybrid, because I think it really captures the value that our employees see in it. It's really about saying, what was better about the way we were working digitally? And what was better about the way we worked in offices? And how can we build a culture that captures the best of both worlds?

How Salesforce is adapting

At Salesforce, teams are working out the patterns that work best for them, agreeing which days work best for them all to be in the office, and which days will be meetings-free and they'll only connect asynchronously. Taylor said:

The policy we've taken is really recognizing that flexible work is more of a team decision than an individual decision ... It really requires a proactive conversation as a management team all the way down the chain of the company.

I think that when I talk to the executive teams that are thriving right now, it's really they're having this conversation proactively. They're not passive about their approach to flexible work, and they're approaching it creatively.

Salesforce has also been able to change how it approaches recruitment, with job postings now stating the timezone where a job is located rather than the city. Over the next decade, the company will look for the best talent wherever it happens to be, he said, rather than only looking where it already has a physical presence. He added:

One of the big changes in this pandemic is Silicon Valley is no longer a place. Silicon Valley is in the cloud. Technology companies are being built everywhere around the globe, and talent is everywhere around the globe.

I think that's going to be a positive change for technology companies, because it was always silly [that] you had to fly out to Palo Alto and San Francisco to start a company. When these digital technologies exist in the cloud, why can't companies exist everywhere around the globe? I think this pandemic accelerated that trend, and I think it will be a positive trend for global entrepreneurship.

Enterprises need to get in front of these trends if they're going to succeed in this new world. He elaborated:

Leadership teams are going to start with their digital employee experience before they think about their physical employee experience, because it's actually the one thing that exists continuously in your relationship with that company.

I think it's going to lead to an increased investment in technology, increased focus on technology, and actually, I think, give some advantages to leadership teams and boards that are digitally native, that really can speak and understand these digital technologies that are such an important part of the way we live and the way they work.

Forward into the Vaccine Economy

Meanwhile, the continuing importance of physical connection will be enabled by the emerging infrastructure of the post-pandemic Vaccine Economy. He explained:

I'm excited that after such a long time, science and testing have given us the opportunity to reconnect in person, because I think like all of you, I'm craving it. I don't go to work just to do work, I go to work for the relationships I build. It's why we've invested in technologies like Safety Cloud, which enable companies to scale testing. It's another great example of how we can leverage the power of science, but also the power of software, to help us actually achieve the future of work that we want to achieve.

So I'm optimistic. You know, honestly, prior to the pandemic, I think we had seen 50 years of people working the same way because that's the way it was always done. I think for the next decade, we're going to see a lot more innovation in the way we work. As someone who's an entrepreneur in my heart, it's something that's exciting to me, just because I think we'll end up with, hopefully, a work-life balance that's more productive and more fulfilling. But it's hard for me to predict.

One thing that he is confident about however is Salesforce's growth prospects, despite the current turbulence in the global economy. Last year, the company set a target of reaching $50 billion in revenue in its 2026 fiscal year, and its most recent results saw revenues for fiscal 2022 in excess of $26 billion, up 25% on the previous year. Taylor pointed out that Salesforce, now in its 24th year, has already gone through several economic disruptions without losing momentum. He concluded:

Over those past 23 years, the one thing that has endured is this investment in digital technology and growing digital businesses. And really, that's the business that we're in. So we feel confident in our long term financial targets and our growth targets because we feel confident in the secular trend of companies building digital employee experiences, and digital customer experiences ...

The reason why we were able to grow 25% year-over-year this past year is because we helped our customers succeed in this pandemic, and we have a vision to help them succeed in this post-pandemic world.

My take

Some interesting insights there into how Salesforce is adapting to new patterns of digitally connected work, particularly how it has adapted its recruitment and is encouraging teams to take ownership of the balance between in-person, digitally connected and asynchronous work. A good illustration of how digital teamwork is at the center of the journey to Frictionless Enterprise

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