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Slack CEO: The office is not ‘going back to the way that it was’

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Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield joins Yahoo Finance Live's Brian Sozzi from the 2022 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss how COVID-19 has impacted office trends, recession risks, the Salesforce integration, tech innovation, and the outlook for growth.

Video Transcript

JULIE HYMAN: Return to work was a topic of conversation at Davos, as you might imagine. From Yahoo Finance's Brian Sozzi spoke to Slack's CEO and co-founder Stewart Butterfield, who said the office will never be the same.

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: What we'd love to see is kind of a different use for that square footage and really a purpose for people coming into the office. Rather than it's Tuesday at 8:00 AM, so I guess I'm going to head to the office and then kind of mindlessly sleepwalk through my day, and I don't know exactly what that looks like, but we're taking a couple of floors in our San Francisco headquarters and trying one configuration that's, like, larger spaces for, like, 30 to 60 people, one that's more like five to eight.

And this will sound bizarre maybe, but I was in Javits Center in January. And I was walking through it, and I was like, we need this. Now, not necessarily the same style as Javits, but the kind of, like-- you know those sliding doors they have at hotels?

BRIAN SOZZI: Anything you can do to help the layout of the Javits, please, all for it. Just, please, help it.

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: Well, that flexibility in layout, the kind of catering services, the ability to kind of, like, accommodate different groups, different sizes, because that's-- it's still a fantastic way to build relationships, you know, establish trust. And all that stuff is really important, but it's not as important as we used to think to have, like, 1,000 desks where people are sitting by themselves, using their laptop, not talking to anyone.

BRIAN SOZZI: So there really is no one box that's going to emerge. You know, we hear Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, the office is over. Others are saying a hybrid model. But you really don't see it that way.

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: No, and what's funny is-- and this is very anecdotal, so this is not hard data. But in talking to customers where they've made a pretty hard line and said everyone has to come back now, they're getting about 40% people in. And the people who say do whatever you want were getting 10%. And if you're kind of closer to the middle but lean one way or the other, you get about 20%. So it doesn't really make that much of a difference, and obviously, a difference by age group and market and all kinds of stuff like that. But yeah, definitely, I don't think we're ever going back to the way that it was. That's for sure.

BRIAN SOZZI: This pains me to even bring this up, but I had a family member mentioned to me, they were getting rid of Slack. They recently told me that.

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: What?

BRIAN SOZZI: They said they're now back in the office 100%. I know. It's hard for me to even mention that, believe me. But is that what's happening? Are you seeing-- what's retention look like on the platform, as--

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: Oh, it's--

BRIAN SOZZI: --this movement of people go back?

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: It's actually, if anything, improved over the last couple of years. I mean, I'm looking backwards. But I don't see that just because one of the interesting things to think about is, like, here's a thought experiment. It's March 2020, and for some reason, we're in a parallel universe. And you can still travel for work. You can use the conference room. You can have business dinners. You can go to the office. But you can't use any software. So, like, every company just disintegrates, like, ceases to exist in 24 hours.

So, obviously, at some point in the last couple of decades, we actually switched from a world where the digital infrastructure that supports productivity collaboration is actually more important than the physical because you just, you can't swap them. So we'll see how long that lasts for that family member.

BRIAN SOZZI: Yes, I'll tell you who it is outside of this interview. But I'm sure you're talking to a lot of customers. You have a lot of things going on here at the World Economic Forum. What is your sense of where their businesses are? I know you're not an economist. I'm not one either. But are we near a recession, close to one? What are you seeing?

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: I don't know if I have anything insightful to add on the recession point, but a reason for optimism, I think, is that people-- executives are taking more seriously the opportunity we have, whereas I feel like from, let's say, the summer of 2020, there was this rolling 90-day window where people were like, well, OK, we'll just do whatever we're doing now. And then 90 days from now, it'll end. But now that we've done that for two years, there's a realization that we're not.

And with that comes opportunities to kind of reimagine how we work. And, you know, that intentionality about going to the office is one thing. But you know and people in the audience know there are hundreds of thousands, millions of people, maybe even tens of millions of people around the world, whose job is something like get some data, put it into Excel, make a graph, take a screenshot, paste it into PowerPoint, and email the PowerPoint to people.

BRIAN SOZZI: I know those people.

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: Yeah, and there's a lot of that kind of manual work. And it's very-- you can't go around questioning things all the time. But this is a real opportunity to question the way that we work and see if we can make some fundamental improvements. And whether we go into recession or not, I think we come out of this whole thing stronger.

BRIAN SOZZI: I remember talking to you-- it may have been a year and a half ago or two years. And you outlined a couple of features that we might see on work from home platforms. And all of them happened six months later. So hat tip to you. What's the next big feature on some of these platforms like yours?

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: Well, I'll tell you, one that's out now and one that I'm excited about. So one, we were mentioning this with the producer and the team here before, but you upload a video clip in a Slack because sometimes it's easier to have that full spectrum body language, inflection, the voice, to be able to share your screen and narrate over it.

But on the receiving end, it can also be a lot better because you can have the transcript. You can scan through, go to a particular line, and click on that-- those words, and jump to that point in the video. You can speed people up. You can pause for a minute. And that's very different than a video call. So it'll take some discipline and some change in how people work, but it is ultimately much more effective.

The other one is, I think we're getting a little bit better at this now, but there was a long time where we have this hammer of 30-minute Zoom calls. And so, all business problems look like 30-minute Zoom nails. And you have, like, let's say, six, seven, eight hours a day of, like, half hour blocks of these calls, and there's no artifact left behind. I was in a meeting-- this was maybe three weeks ago or so. A couple of days later, I wanted to see the Figma file that one of the people had shared. And I blew, like, half an hour trying to find it.

And if we had a way to capture what went on in the meetings, you know, just kind of, like, a little bit of a receipt, the files that were shared, the chat that went back and forth, if there are people taking meeting notes and have the meeting notes show up there. But even just Brian joined at this time, Stewart joined at this time, the meeting lasted this long, would be a huge step forward. And I think we're working on a lot of ways to try to have some lasting value created out of those meetings and make it much, much easier for people to do that.

BRIAN SOZZI: Lastly, you're a serial entrepreneur. You've created really awesome businesses. What's next for you? And I know you're inside of Salesforce. How is integration going? Are you liking what you're doing? What are you doing?

STEWART BUTTERFIELD: I am still using Slack. And I actually just-- I just recorded a video for the team back home because I'm not going to be able to join this town hall. And at one of the first dinners I got to when I arrived at Davos, someone asked, what's your reasons for optimism? Because, obviously, there's a lot of tough things going on in the world. And this is a narrow view. I'm, as a human, optimistic for many more things.

But at Slack, I'm optimistic about the amount of technological infrastructure we've laid over the course of many years, the features. We have over 200,000 customers. I don't think we've nailed it yet. We've got better at the pitch and trying to help new customers get on board. And all of that feels like it's a moment, like, of culmination, where the next round of innovations are going to have a lot more impact and reach a lot more people more quickly. So that's what's next for me.

JULIE HYMAN: So ending on an optimistic note there, Slack co-founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield, inside of Salesforce now, but talking about the innovations of the company and also talking about return to office there.

JARED BLIKRE: Right.

JULIE HYMAN: I mean--

JARED BLIKRE: We know what that's like.

JULIE HYMAN: --it's sort of a cliche at this point, return-- our office is never going to be the same.

JARED BLIKRE: Well, my big-- I know, and I could talk about the 90-day rolling window for a while. But that's probably my favorite interview that I've seen so far from Davos. Big Stewart Butterfield fan here because I love Slack. And he's trying to make tools that eliminate all those extra steps that we just tend to make. And I think Slack is an incredible tool. I wish I had some one-on-one time with him, so I could make some feature improvements.

JULIE HYMAN: Oh, yeah? What would you do?

JARED BLIKRE: First of all, search is not very good.

JULIE HYMAN: No.

JARED BLIKRE: And then there's too many differences between mobile and desktop because I have huge numbers of people that I communicate with every day, huge numbers of channels, and they're organized completely differently. So it's very difficult to use, especially if I'm real-time at the Stock Exchange, trying to communicate with Val, who-- our producer, who is the biggest power user of Slack all time. I think she sends, what, 12,500 messages per day?

JULIE HYMAN: I don't know how many it is.

JARED BLIKRE: [INAUDIBLE]

JULIE HYMAN: But hopefully, hopefully, hopefully, Mr. Sozzi told Stewart about Val, and he'll give her some kind of Slack Award. I don't know.