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Slack adds audio chat and video clips to take the pain out of hybrid working

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright June 30, 2021
Slack rolls out Huddle audio chats and native video, voice and screenshare clips as an antidote to back-to-back video meetings in a hybrid working environment

Slack Huddles screengrab detail
Slack Huddles (Slack)

How do you reproduce the immediacy of everyone working in the same office when we're all working from different locations? It quickly became evident last year that sitting on end-to-end Zoom calls isn't the answer. Today saw messaging platform Slack roll out a couple of alternative solutions that it's been working on since first mooting them as long ago as last October. They bring audio chat and recorded video clips to Slack channels and DMs, aiming to fill out some of the extra capabilities distributed teams will need as the world emerges out of lockdown into the hybrid working patterns of the Vaccine Economy.

  • Slack describes its new Huddles audio chat feature as "a lightweight, audio-first way of communicating in Slack channels or DM threads," calling it "a space to talk through work on the fly." The idea is to replicate the unscheduled, informal discussions that happen all the time in an office environment, from morning greetings to pre-meeting preps and impromptu debriefs. But unlike office conversations, Huddles also have live captioning and archivable transcripts.
  • The second new feature is the ability to easily create and share short video, voice and screen recordings directly in a Slack channel, for others to watch on-demand and respond, on desktop or mobile. Recording a short video or voice message is already commonplace in consumer messaging — Slack is now bringing the same quick convenience to the work environment, with the option of easily adding a screenshare with either voice or video commentary. Viewers can have controls that allow them to speed up or slow down the replay, or they can read the simultaneous transcript, which is also archived and searchable, or use it to jump to specific points.
  • Today also sees the first release of Slack Atlas, an enterprise directory based on Slack's acquisition of Rimeto last year. This is designed to make it easier to connect to colleagues across an organization and understand the skills, interests and roles that each brings to the distributed team.
  • Another feature that's new this month is the ability to schedule messages to send at a time that’s convenient for the recipients, rather than right away — particularly useful when people in a team are working different hours or in different timezones.

Hopping on a huddle

It's all about enabling a digital-first approach to collaboration that supports the new ways people want to work, as Noah Desai Weiss, Slack's VP of Product, explains:

No one wants to go back to the old way of working. This new normal is here to stay ...

But what's missing is a sense of connection and belonging. That is the number one thing that people say has been negatively affected by this remote world.

Desai Weiss describes the use of the new Huddles audio feature in his own team's Slack channel, where people quickly got in the habit of just hopping in the huddle first thing and either just saying 'Hi' or maybe starting to chat either socially or about work projects. He says:

This is a very fluid kind of informal gathering. And I'll tell you Phil, it's that feeling that you get from it — nothing scheduled — from it just being in the background, this ambient, you hear the voice of your teammates when people pop in. It's the closest thing I felt, at least, to that connection and camaraderie you get when everyone shows up to the office in the morning.

But everyone's able to work from literally [anywhere]. I think our team is in four different time zones across three different countries. So that's kind of the magical juxtaposition.

Giving the option of audio has been received by customers as "a breath of fresh air" because it's less draining than going on a video call, he says. In some cases, it's literally an opportunity to get outside, as he explains:

Not only does it reduce the pressure of video, it means that they can take it on the go. They can play with their kids while they're on a huddle, they can easily shift devices so they can go for a walk.

In more pressured contexts, it provides a more efficient way for people to swarm around an issue that needs rapid resolution. The DevOps team at Dell Technologies has had early access to Huddles and is using the voice chat capability to resolve issues faster. Karl Owen, Senior Distinguished Engineer at Dell, describes it as:

An extremely low-friction way to transition from typing to talking and back again, whether you are brainstorming, chasing a bug, or just catching up with colleagues.

Video clips to time-shift content sharing

The ability to record and share short video, voice and screenshares — or any combination of the three — is helping team members 'time-shift' their consumption of content that used to require scheduled meetings. Quoted in a booklet of tips for digital teamwork published today by Slack, Eckart Diepenhorst, Chief People and Communications Officer at mobility-as-a-service provider Free Now, describes the new freedom that comes from sharing content separately from meetings. He explains:

During lockdowns, I spent my afternoons taking care of my kids. In the past, that situation would have removed me from some crucial conversations. Now I’ll log on in the evening, when it’s more convenient, to catch up and move work forward. Does this mean fewer meetings? Yes, and that’s a positive side effect.

We now share project updates and documentation in channels, so everyone can absorb the content when it best suits them. In turn, our 'face-to-face' meetings are shorter and more efficient because they’re focused specifically on answering questions and making key decisions.

Desai Weiss provides an example of using the new video clip capability to gather feedback asynchronously from team members spread across different timezones. He says:

How do we take things that maybe didn't need to be meetings in the first place, and give people new, more expressive tools for being able to communicate asynchronously, without ever having to schedule them in the first place? So if you want to do a design review that starts in London, you get feedback in New York, and at the end of the day, when hopefully people in London are out for dinner, your West Coast team is able to respond.

The new audio and video communications features are built on Amazon Chime technology, building on the partnership with AWS first announced last year (and complemented by the new partnership Slack's prospective parent Salesforce just announced last week). But Slack has also done a lot of its own engineering to embed the technology into the product. Desai Weiss says, "We're rolling a lot ourselves to build these new capabilities." That's included adding noise cancelation and voice quality enhancements to the Huddles audio, along with the ability to seamlessly switch between devices without dropping out. For the asynchronous native video recording, most of the functionality is homegrown, including the capture experience on desktop, playback, transcription and so on. According to Stewart Butterfield, Slack CEO, such capabilities are essential to support the digital-first work patterns that are now emerging. Hybrid working is much more than splitting time between the office and elsewhere, as he explains:

I think the right question, instead of how many days per week are people going to be in the office, is to what degree has the organization put digital tools and technology at the forefront? To what extent has it started thinking about that software, which supports productivity and collaboration, be as important as their physical offices?

My take

Last year, Slack got left behind a little as the world suddenly embraced video as a communications channel. But the company's innate understanding of the new ways of working that the pandemic has ushered in is helping it make a spirited comeback. There's nothing particularly new about what Slack has rolled out today to anyone who's familiar with the likes of Discord or Loom. But Slack has refined them for an enterprise context by engaging with and listening to customers who are embracing the radically different new patterns of work of enabled by digital teamwork. This all bodes well for the outcome when, in the next few weeks, Salesforce is due to complete its much-anticipated acquisition of Slack. We'll see then how well the combined entity measures up to all the complex potential of the hybrid workplace.

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