How Slack created a people-first organization

Slack started to improve how people talk to each other. However, building an “email-killer” app isn’t what turned this tech company into a huge success. Slack understood the power of having more human and candid conversations at work. 

“It’s very difficult to design something for someone if you have no empathy.”

 —Stewart Butterfield

Empathy has been at the core of the organization since Slack began. The app emerged accidentally, as an internal chat system for Butterfield and his colleagues while developing a video game platform. 

However, Slack’s founder soon realized that today’s workplace is not just about where people work; it’s about how they work. The company focused on helping build better organizations and teams, rather than just productivity.

Slack isn’t a typical software product company; its workplace culture is about creating empathy. That’s the key to helping teams work better. 

Becoming a people-first organization is the reason why Slack achieved astonishing success. 

Over 12 million people log on to Slack every day – up approximately 37% year over year. The company reported $401 million in revenue in 2019.

Stewart Butterfield was born in a little town in British Columbia. Living in a hippie household and then becoming a philosophy student played a key role in how he designed a people-first culture at Slack. 

“Studying philosophy taught me two things,” Butterfield told Forbes. “I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings.”

This post describes the key elements of Slack’s workplace culture using the Culture Design Canvas framework.

Note: The sources are listed at the end of the article.

Slack’s Culture Design Canvas: The Core

“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that there has got to be a reason for what you’re doing. You actually have to care about what you’re doing. The business has to be about something.”

– Stewart Butterfield

Slack’s Company Purpose

“Making work-life simpler, more pleasant, and more productive – for everyone.”

Slack is more than a productivity app; the company wants to create an impact that goes well beyond enhanced collaboration. Being productive is not enough; Slack intends to create more pleasant workplace environments.

Slack’s company purpose is about removing unnecessary work struggles and helping people be productive, too.

This human, empathetic approach is expressed across the company’s core values, priorities, and rewarded behaviors.

Slack’s Core Values

“The element of teamwork is perhaps underappreciated.”

 — Stewart Butterfield

Slack has six 6 core company values –listed with emojis:

  • ❤ Empathy
  • 💁 Courtesy
  • 🌻 Thriving
  • 🔨 Craftsmanship
  • 🙆 Playfulness
  • 🙌 Solidarity

Having studied hundreds of company cultures, I’ve never seen “empathy” listed as a core value before. Slack acknowledges that the creation of a product for the benefit of others is an act of empathy.

“The voice of the company sounds like us. And so it should—we’re talking, human to human. Because, after all, the company turned inward creates a culture that makes the product.” 

– Anna Pickard, Brand Communication @Slack

People who succeed at Slack bring a lot of humanity to their jobs, according to Butterfield. They have a desire “to intuit what users are trying to say.” 

Solidarity and Thriving bring to life Slack’s purpose of wanting people to work well together, not just to be more productive. 

Slack’s Top Priorities

#1. Life balance even over hard work

“Those moments of play that we do get in meta-life, like playing music, or golf, or word-play, or flirting – those are some of the best parts about being alive.”

— Stewart Butterfield

#2. Selling organizational transformation even over selling a product

Slack doesn’t sell a software product, but specific results to help teams work better. 

As Butterfield wrote on We Don’t Sell Saddles Here, “That’s why what we’re selling is organizational transformation. The software just happens to be the part we’re able to build & ship (and the means for us to get our cut).”

“We’re selling a reduction in information overload, relief from stress, and a new ability to extract the enormous value of hitherto useless corporate archives. We’re selling better organizations, better teams.”

#3. Doing a better job at understanding what people want even over product-market fit.

Behaviors Slack rewards and punishes

Slack rewards:

Humanity & fun: Communicating with courtesy, clarity, and in a more human way makes work life more enjoyable. From its earliest days, Slack founders have sought to ensure that, besides usefulness, both the company and its product are fun, thoughtful, humane, and whimsical.

When you log in to Slack, the app greets you with messages like “What cannot be accomplished on such a splendid day?” or “You look really nice today.”

Balancing quick wins with high-impact projects: When it comes to prioritization, it can be tempting to only focus on long-term impact initiatives. However, these projects are usually invisible to frontline employees. That’s why Slack supports smaller efforts, too.

The company has a #slack-on-slack channel that encourages people to share simple solutions to make a real difference in employees’ daily lives. 

Empathy, Curiosity, & Diligence: These are the three characteristics Butterfield demands that each potential hire has at Slack, regardless of job function. 

Success at Slack is less about lightning strikes and more more about “grinding hard rocks.” Every day, the company ventures into unknown territory, which requires asking the right questions to the right people. Empathy is crucial for seeing the world through the user’s eyes. 

Diversity: Slack is genuinely committed to building a diverse culture. Since the company shared its first diversity report, though it outpaced most tech companies, Slack recognized that it could do much better. 

“If you’re not hiring from some groups of the population, then you’re obviously missing out.”

– Stewart Butterfield

The absence of a single diversity leader represents Butterfield’s expectation that everyone is engaged in making Slack a diverse culture. 

Research shows that involving employees in diversity policies and practices leads to better results. The language Slack uses in their job descriptions, terms like “lasting relationships” and “care deeply,” result in a higher percentage of female applicants. 

Since its creation, Slack has explored non-traditional programmer pipelines, recruiting candidates from places like Hackbright, an all-women’s coding camp. 

Slack helps fund the Early Career Accelerator Program at Code2040 and has created Next Chapter, an internship program to help formerly incarcerated individuals build a career in the technology sector.

Giving back to the community: Slack has pledged, just like Atlassian does, to give one percent of company equity, time, and product to the community through the Pledge 1% program.

Slack punishes:

Small Disturbances: Slack’s CEO is known for not tolerating small disturbances such as squeaky chairs. “What else are you letting slide?”–Butterfield asked about how, not taking care of minor details, can lower an organization’s bar.

All the bathrooms in Slack’s offices play French radio because Butterfield believes no-one should have to hear their colleagues’ bathroom noises. 

Using Slack after work hours: You would expect Slack employees to log back in when they get home, right? That’s not how things work at Slack, though. It’s not polite to send direct messages after hours or during weekends to your Slack colleagues.

Jerks: You can’t be empathetic, solidary, and courteous, and still be a moron. There’s no room for jerks at Slack, according to employees.

Slack’s Workplace Emotional Culture

Slack’s Rituals

Interesting hiring questions: To understand people’s interest in the world, Butterfield used to ask candidates these three questions

1. What’s 3 times 17? 

2. Name three countries in Africa.

3. In which century was the French Revolution? 

The goal is not to test people’s knowledge but to spark interesting conversations. Butterfield wants to understand the candidate as a person. 

Onboard by reading the feed: Slack encourages new hires to read the past two weeks of the company messages as part of its onboarding process. By reviewing the feed, new team members can quickly understand the background, and how decisions are made at Slack.

Courteous communication with teammates: Inside Slack, employees use emojis only as frosting, never as cake. That means emoji don’t replace words but are used at the end, or in addition to their messages. 

Custom status messages: Employees are encouraged to alert coworkers when they’re out of the office, on extended leave, or sick for the day. The ritual encourages everyone to create a custom status when they’re away from their desk.

Slack Gong afternoon coffee: Every afternoon at 3:00, a five-foot gong sounds in Slack’s San Francisco office. “It’s very Zen,” April Underwood, Slack’s Head of Platform told Time. “It’s 3:00 now. It’s time for your afternoon coffee.”

Feedback Practices at Slack

“Your vulnerabilities are opportunities for your team to learn.”

– Larkin Ryder

Leaders should invite feedback. As Ryder wrote in Slack’s blog, “Ask for it, accept it gratefully, and offer feedback about yourself.” The interim chief security officer at Slack shares how she recently admitted to her team how she let strategic thinking lapse by focusing too much on operational issues. 

Being vulnerable invites everyone to chime in, creating more productive conversations. 

Make feedback a habit: Encourage people to provide feedback regularly –both individual and collective. At Slack, teams practice project retros to see what worked, what didn’t, and what can be improved next time. 

Dedicated Announcement Channels: Keeping employees informed requires a regular cadence of announcements across a variety of channels. At Slack, there’s a companywide #announcement-global channel, as well as local or team-based ones. 

Ask An Executive anything: The #exec-ama channel is always on; people can ask any questions to the Slack’s leadership team. This channel allows people who otherwise might be too shy to ask questions, or to ask questions ahead of the all-hands meeting.

AMA stands for “ask me anything,” and many companies have adopted their own. It breaks down the organizational hierarchy that might prevent quiet people or junior employees from asking good questions or sharing their ideas.

Psychological Safety at Slack

“I tend to be a lot more honest and transparent with employees than most bosses are. But I’ve had people tell me – even those who love working with me – that I’m terrifying, which is hard for me to imagine.” 

— Stewart Butterfield

Default to open: Slack’s workplace culture is default to open; people are encouraged to discuss their concerns or share their ideas. By making it safe to participate and speak up, Slack fosters a psychologically safe culture

Here are some of the key ways Slack builds Psychological Safety:

Communicate in the open: Stewart Butterfield avoids DMing team members. He encourages conversations in open channels to increase visibility into decisions, offering employees the opportunity to provide input. 

Highly-customizable transparency: At Slack, people practice what they preach. By leveraging the power of its highly customizable platform, everyone is kept in the loop.

It’s safe to unplug: At Slack, it’s okay to be offline. People are encouraged not only to log off after work hours but also to mute any internal channel they feel isn’t so important to them. 

Slack managers make no judgments when someone leaves a channel—they always assume the best for how people manage their time.

Beef-Tweets: The #beef-tweets dedicated channel allows employees to air their “beefs” with the company’s own product, called #beef-tweets. Regardless of comments getting too edgy sometimes, Slack values that issues are aired and heard.

Emoji come to the rescue for managers to show that they’ve read the feedback. Once issues are resolved, someone responds with a checkmark.

All ideas receive equal consideration: Employees appreciate that everyone’s thoughts are considered equally. People feel recognized for their contributions and everyone works together to build better products and solutions. 

Slack’s Culture Design Canvas: The Rational Side

Decision-Making at Slack

Hiring-decisions: After evaluating the best people that they’ve worked with, Slack managers identified the following key attributes: smart, humble, hardworking, and collaborative. Now they use those to screen candidates.

New initiatives criteria: The #slack-on-slack channel is where employees can submit their ideas, creating a two-way conversation. Slack established criteria to select which initiatives will be considered. Specifically, they look for new projects that: 

  • Impact a large internal audience
  • Streamline workflows, e.g. makes approvals easier
  • Can bring to life how to create a simpler, more pleasant and productive Slack experience

Meetings at Slack

Daily Status Meetings are done via Slack: For example, Slack’s editorial team sends a message to the group asking, “What’s on today?” 

This sends a push notification, and every member responds within a few minutes saying what they’re doing from wherever they are – then everyone goes back to work.

Short-Slack Brainstorming meetings: Slack teams schedule 30-minute brainstorming sessions in which a facilitator gives the prompt, and everyone lets their ideas fly. 

This brainstorming practice is similar to a silent brainstorming, making it safer for quiet people to participate. Also, when the meeting is over, everyone gets a written record of the session to be reviewed and shared by others, too. 

Monthly All-Employee Meeting: An all-hands meeting that focuses on addressing people’s questions. Before the meeting, the company uses the #exec-ama channel to encourage people to submit theirs; the leadership team then addresses the most upvoted issues during the live all-employees meeting.

Encourage in-person interactions: Note the irony here. The CEO, whose company allows teams to work remotely, believes the best work happens when people get together in a room, have lunch together, and go home on time.

Slack’s Key Norms & Rules

1% increments: Slack management believes that getting 1% better at something every day leads to compounding returns over time. Actually, the company has a 1% emoji that employees use to react when someone makes a small improvement. 

The 1% emoji is a way to acknowledge individual efforts and remind everyone of the power of building compounding habits. 

Work hard and go home: Stewart Butterfield supports the idea that working hard doesn’t – and shouldn’t – mean working 24/7. Slack headquarters are pretty empty by 6:30 pm, and that’s how the CEO wants it. 

“Work hard and go home” is an essential part of working at Slack. The culture encourages everyone to work hard, then go home, play soccer, read books, or hang out with their family. Slack believes that is crucial that everyone recharges and reenergizes every day. 

 Reimagine the 9 to 5: The ideal workday is changing. Setting boundaries helps prevent burnout, but people also need to be flexible and adapt to others’ schedules. Remote team members work in different time zones, so employees are encouraged to rotate meeting times every now and then. 

Annual allowance for prof development: Slack employees receive a yearly stipend for professional development that they can use as they wish.

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