Covid-19 changed the way we work. Before the pandemic, most companies were built around a physical space. Today, organizations have embraced remote and hybrid work, where a physical space is optional, not required.
This shift has led to the rise of the “Digital HQ”. Slack has embraced this concept and framing, especially after being purchased by Salesforce for over $27 billion. As someone who has worked remotely for almost a decade and has used Slack for many years (I'm a current, paid customer), I’m excited to see this shift. I’m also excited to see software companies like Slack lean into this new way of working.
With that being said, Slack (or Microsoft Teams) should not be your Digital HQ. In fact, if your internet headquarters is a workplace chat tool, you are going to struggle to adapt to this new way of working. In the rest of this post, I’m going to outline why.
To be clear, I am an advocate of workplace chat tools (especially Slack), but we do not believe they are a suitable replacement for the outcomes that the physical office used to provide. There’s something missing.
First, I’d like to outline a bit of how technological shifts take place to lay a foundation for discussion.
In the early days of a shift (especially online), people tend to replicate a physical object or a real-world activity online. For example, when the iPhone launched, the apps resembled physical objects (also known as skeuomorphic design). The first TV shows were cameras pointed at radio shows.
This was a clever strategy in the early days, as it can be easier to understand and adopt technology when it's modeled after things people are already familiar with. This is important because the biggest roadblock tends to be apathy, or non-usage.
Over time, as people get used to technology and how it works, they start leaning into the superpowers that this new tool provides. Put simply, they double-down on the benefits and assume that people will continue to learn along the way.
For example, Apple started with physical objects (see below), but continued to go “digital-first” as people got used to the iPhone.
I shared the history of technological shifts because this is precisely what’s happening with the company headquarters. Whether your organization is hybrid or fully remote, we can’t rely on a physical space to glue the organization together.
In other words, the physical office is moving to the cloud.
This is where the Digital HQ comes in and why companies like Slack have adopted this framing as a marketing strategy. Companies are struggling to figure out how to work-from-anywhere, and digital tools play an important role in helping us all adapt to this new way of working.
If you look at the history of technological shifts, and consider the tools and processes everyone is using to work from anywhere, you may conclude the following:
This is completely expected. After all, this is how technological shifts happen! We replicate the physical world online in the early days.
But is this ideal for the long-term?
At Friday, we believe that as more organizations become accustomed to remote/hybrid work, the more they will innovate and go “digital-first”. Our workday activities won’t be a clone of the physical office, but instead, will consist of new behaviors, tools, and norms to get work done and stay connected as a team.
This brings me to my next point….
If you were to replicate the open-office floor plan in a digital first way, what would it look like? It might look like a virtual office, or it might look like how people use Slack or Microsoft Teams.
The reality is that workplace chat tools are purpose built for quick, back-and-forth discussion and collaboration. They are really good at it.
If I send you a direct message in work chat, it’s the digital equivalent to me coming up to you at your desk and tapping you on the shoulder with a question or comment.
If I see a team channel in work chat, it’s the digital equivalent of walking around the office and taking everything in. This stream of conversational data gives me insight and awareness into what’s going on.
The benefit of these tools is also their downfall if overused. People regularly complain about work chat being:
The list goes on and on. What you may notice is that these criticisms are almost identical to what people say about the open-office floor plan! I’d argue that this is because workplace chat is the digital version of the open-office floor plan.
Do we need the digital open-office for remote work?
What if our reliance on workplace chat was a phase on our journey to this new way of working, instead of it being the destination?
Leaders who have been working in a digital-first way talk about a transition or evolution that happens over time. We start off replicating the office online, but we move towards a digital-first way of work.
You can read more about this transition in the following pieces:
In this next section, I’m going to outline why workplace chat tools like Slack and Teams cannot be the home for your company. To be clear, we aren’t saying you should ditch these tools. Instead, you need to tame them and be more purposeful when you use them.
The most important takeaway of why people like working from anywhere is that it provides freedom and flexibility. I can work where I want, and ideally when I am most productive. The employee benefits because they can better integrate work and life, and the business wins because they can unlock new levels of productivity!
Workplace chat tools can be used asynchronously, but it's purpose-built for quick-fire back and forth conversations in real-time. Real-time, synchronous conversations require constant presence by both parties, which is at odds with why people like working from anywhere! It’s like running into a brick wall on your transition to a remote-first way of working.
Let’s face it. If you are working remotely but need to be glued to your screen all day (through a stated company policy or implied), you have made work worse, not better. You may as well go back to the office.
Workplace chat tools can be addicting, like social media. They demand more of our time and attention. Outside of work, you can spend your time as you see fit. At work, we think you should try to get work done. Distractions are the enemy.
Work tools that are built around capturing more of our attention runs contrary to how meaningful work actually happens. We know that deep work needs to be prioritized, but recreating the open-office floor plan prevents us from doing this type of work.
A counterpoint may be that Slack and workplace chat tools offer the ability to mute notifications. They may say, “it’s your fault, not the tool’s fault.” I respectfully disagree.
The tools we use shape our behavior.
Workplace chat tools could change the default notification settings anytime they want! But they won’t do this, because the constant pings drive usage, which drives revenue. It’s baked into the business model.
Have you ever visited an office that was a mess? Perhaps the kitchen fridge was filled with decomposing food, or the tables had trash on them.
People like order and structure. Prioritization is nice too. This rarely happens in work chat. These tools get overwhelming quickly, making it very difficult to separate the signal from the noise (or the never-ending treadmill of content).
For example, think about the #general channel in Slack. It’s a place where you can post literally anything. I’ve seen important announcements from the CEO posted right before low-quality messages asking if people wanted to go grab lunch.
This lack of structure makes it difficult to parse the high-quality messages (like announcements) from ephemeral messages that will be useless tomorrow.
Another quick example. Imagine if you went on vacation for a week and completely disconnected from work chat. When you get back to work, how much junk would you need to sort through to understand what is going on? It’s like email on steroids, especially considering you have messages coming from people AND apps/bots.
The Digital HQ needs to be the opposite. It needs to be neat and clean. It needs structure. It needs organization!
My goal is not to disparage workplace chat tools. I’m simply pointing out that they need to be tamed. Otherwise chaos ensues.
If we want a future-proof Digital HQ that helps accelerate the transition to a new way of working, we need to recognize that work chat has a role to play, but it is one of many tools in your toolbox. It’s not the only tool in your toolbox!
What you may not realize is that the Digital HQ has been hiding out in the open for years. To illustrate this point, let’s see what the best companies are doing...
Almost a decade ago, the early movers in remote work ran into the same problem that so many of you face right now. They were using Slack, project management tools, and video conferencing apps, but it wasn’t enough.
They understood something was missing.
Instead of doing more with workplace chat, they decided to create their own company home that complemented the existing tools in the stack. Instead of leaning into workplace chat, they leaned away from it.
Want examples? Here you go!
Stripe created Home. It’s like an intranet of sorts. Here’s how they describe it:
"Home is the source of truth for who we are, what we’re doing, and why—and a platform for enabling individuals and helping them get to know one another."
Does this look and sound like a Digital HQ to you?
Zapier created async, which they describe in the following way:
“Async is an internal tool we built. It's sort of like a blog meets reddit. This is the place where we surface important conversations that might get lost in the fast-paced Slack. It replaces internal email and acts as a great archive for anyone on the team to reference old discussions and keep up with company updates. Slack is where we talk about work, while Async is where we share work with the rest of the team.”
Another early leader in remote working created their own internal tool as well, called P2. Here’s how one employee describes it:
“I work at Automattic, and p2 is (in my mind) the thing that makes our remote-only culture work. When synchronous chat (like Slack) gets too in-depth, our motto is "p2 or it didn't happen…."
p2 is viewed as the source of truth for many conversations (including meeting notes and summaries of slack conversations), which is part of how it works. Additionally, anyone across the company is empowered to post on any p2 to start conversations, ask questions, or kickstart lengthy, technical discussions.”
Gitlab created their digital HQ as a 2000-page handbook. This all-encompassing portal acts as the central nervous system for the company.
It’s also publicly visible to the world. You can see it here.
While Shopify was not fully remote from day 1, they did invest in building out their own company headquarters, which helped them ease the transition to a remote-first way of work. You can learn more about it in the video that the CTO put together below:
At this point, I hope I’ve convinced you that there’s a missing Digital HQ for remote work, and that it shouldn’t be workplace chat. But what does your Digital HQ need to have?
What is the overlap between the tools listed above? What similarities exist? Let’s chat about the necessary components you will need to create or adopt a Digital HQ.
1. Asynchronous by default
The digital HQ should not require constant presence, or be designed around the need to be constantly present as a default. Instead, it should encourage flexibility, so people are able to work where and when they want.
2. Separate the signal from the noise
Your internet headquarters should surface the most important information and communication, with minimal noise. It needs to be a home for the most important stuff at work.
Information needs to be structured in thoughtful ways. Communication and announcements from leadership deserves its own place. It shouldn’t be mixed in with discussion about what someone is going to have for lunch or photos of your dog. Not all communication should be treated the same way.
Your Digital HQ needs to be integrated with existing tools you already use. It should glue the most important work together from your project management tool, wiki, workplace chat, and employee directory. The Digital HQ needs to be a coordination layer and interface with the modern tools your organization is already using.
5. Complementary to workplace chat
If there’s any lesson from the home-grown tools listed in the previous section, it’s that organizations are NOT looking for a replacement to Slack or Teams. Instead, they are looking to reduce their dependency and to “tame” the chaos and chatter.
In conclusion, the Cloud HQ for work needs to look and feel like a library, not the digital version of the open-office floor plan.
If you’re looking for a remote-first company headquarters that complements and integrates with workplace chat tools like Slack, feel free to drop us a note. We’d be happy to give you a tour of Friday.