Slack today said it will extend the huddle audio chat feature it first introduced a year ago, adding the option of video chat, screen sharing and posting emoji reactions and stickers ('reacji'). A new coworking space for each huddle organizes any related content and messages, and is automatically saved as a message thread in the channel or DM where the huddle was launched. Slack also announced the July launch of GovSlack, a FedRAMP compatible edition of Slack, tuned to the needs of government agencies in the US and those who work with them. The announcements are timed to coincide with the annual Slack Frontiers conference, taking place today in New York and online.
Huddles quickly became Slack's fastest growing new feature following its launch last year and almost half of all paying customers now use huddles, with users spending a combined 243 million minutes per week in them and awarding the feature a 95% customer satisfaction rating. It's hardly surprising that Slack is now seeking to build on that huge uptake with a richer feature set. But with the addition of video and screen sharing, along with more formal recording features, isn't it becoming just another alternative to web meetings hosted on platforms like Zoom or Teams? I put that question to Brad Mattick, SVP of Product Marketing at Slack. He says the intention is to retain the feel of impromptu conversations that in the past you would have spontaneously struck up with a colleague at the next desk or around a water cooler. He explains:
Our intent is definitely ad hoc, on the fly, 'I need to have a conversation with this person right now'. What we see that's very different with traditional web conferencing, video conferencing, is those are scheduled. If you look at your calendar, there's a link to a meeting and that's planned in advance and you're blocking your time out, assuming people are there during that time ...
We're trying not to fill people's calendars with the assumption of synchronous back-to-back video meetings, but customers are interested in being able to share their screens simultaneously, to add some of the human reactions that we have in Slack today in written form, and also to have the transcript of everything that happens in the meeting be searchable, and recorded as well.
Slack describes the video capability as 'lightweight', with the number of participants limited to 12 on-screen at a time. The default remains video-off, so users have to deliberately turn video on if they want to be seen, with an option to blur the background if desired. Screen sharing on the other hand goes further than most web meeting platforms, with the abilty to share two screens at once, so that participants can work on more than one document at a time, or compare two different versions. Anyone can draw or use a live cursor on their teammates’ shared screens to highlight specific points.
Automatically saving the huddle and any documents and messages from the conversation allows other team members who couldn't take part to catch up later and add their own comments. The huddles enhancements are in beta with selected customers now and will be generally available in the Fall, including for those on free plans.
GovSlack, which runs in AWS GovCloud data centers, will be made available from next month to any government agency team, and to other teams that need to meet certain requirements to collaborate with a government agency team — such as at pilot user Lockheed Martin. It's currently going through the process to secure FedRAMP High and Department of Defense SRG IL4 compliance certifications, and already complies with ITAR. It's seen as a natural companion to other government approved tools such as Salesforce’s Government Cloud Plus. A dedicated GovSlack app directory, categorized by certification level, will provide easy access to compatible third-party services such as Okta and Box.
One of the intriguing trends to watch in the digital teamwork space at the moment is the extension of individual platforms into new areas of functionality that overlap with what other providers already offer. Today, Slack adds video chat into its platform, while video meetings platform Zoom this week launched an SDK to help third-party apps — presumably including Slack and Salesforce — embed themselves into Zoom. In April, when Box launched its own digital whiteboard tool, I wondered whether that would be followed later on by integration of video meetings. There's a bigger point here, as I noted at the time:
[W]hich elements of the collaborative canvas of digital teamwork work best as part of a single platform, and which work best as standalone components? The larger the organization, the more often the answer is, 'It depends.' The collaborative canvas consists of four different teamwork patterns — messaging, content, application-centric and workflow — and which of those matters most to an individual worker or team often varies according to the type of work they do. Therefore, it's inevitable that a large organization will have several different teamwork platforms to serve these different forms of work, and must pay attention to how they're integrated to streamline communication and workflow.
At the same time, everyone is still working out what distributed teamwork patterns work best in our digitally connected new world. Even when companies bring their workers back into the office, they spend inordinate amounts of time on web conference calls with other workers. As Mattick told me:
What we've seen during the last two years is that the physical HQ for many organizations became optional. Whereas the digital tools that we use to work in, you can't work without them.
The current state of play is that we're all still feeling our way towards the best patterns of work for these new ways of working, and therefore everyone is still experimenting with different combinations of tools and functionality to achieve the best results. It's a journey that's not over yet and each step of the way opens up new questions about what happens next.