Slack, Zoom CEOs Discuss Move to Remote Work

By Dave Zielinski June 23, 2020
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​The confluence of the COVID-19 outbreak and worldwide protests about racial injustice have changed the way technology executives think about the future of their work.

Eric Yuan, CEO of videoconferencing company Zoom, and Stewart Butterfield, CEO of collaboration platform provider Slack, told the virtual audience of the EmTech Next Conference how they've dealt with growth and data security challenges during the pandemic, how insights gained during COVID-19 may spur technology innovations, and how the move to remote work may permanently change talent strategies.

The conference was co-hosted virtually by MIT Technology Review and the Harvard Business Review in early June.

Seeing New Possibilities

Slack experienced high demand during the pandemic and responded by remodeling its platform with a more intuitive, organized user interface and offering the paid version of its app for free to anyone working on COVID-19 research or mitigation.

Butterfield told the audience that rapid changes the companies were forced to make to adapt to COVID-19 bode well for future innovation and growth. "If you asked any CEO with more than 100 employees before COVID-19 whether they could get their whole organization working remotely inside of a week, the answer would have been no," he said. "Yet most did it. When you're forced to do something that seemed impossible and then accomplish it, you begin to think about what else is possible for your organization."

Butterfield said he witnessed "a big step forward" during the pandemic for many organizations that previously were resistant to or unsure about digital transformation and remote working options. "We have seen a lot more willingness to experiment," he said.

Butterfield said offering work-from-home options will become even more of a competitive distinguisher as companies look for ways to recruit and retain top talent. "Let's say as a hypothetical [situation] you're a CEO who decides everyone should eventually go back to the office like we did before," he said. "But say none of your competitors for talent make that decision. Those competitors offer more flexibility, enable employees to work from home a few days a week or to work remotely from a completely different city. They will immediately have access to a much wider pool of talent."

Butterfield also believes companies have reaped unexpected benefits from reduced business travel during the COVID-19 crisis. "Perhaps cultural expectations had developed where customers always expected salespeople to travel to them to discuss plans, for example," he said. "The need not to have to travel as much changes many things, including the number of productive meetings you can have in a day."

Building a Resilient Work Culture

Zoom also experienced explosive growth during the pandemic as new users adopted the platform for things like online learning, family gatherings, happy hours and even for taking wedding vows. Yuan said the company not only faced the largely welcome challenge of having to scale to accommodate a burgeoning user base but also encountered problems with platform security.

"Zoom bombing," where unwanted participants join video calls, became a widespread problem with the software. Yuan said the issue developed in part due to the rapid growth in first-time users, many of whom hadn't fully activated the platform's security features. Zoom implemented security upgrades, most recently announcing an end-to-end encryption option for free and paid users.

"With enterprise customers, we typically work with a chief information officer in system set up, but with consumer users, many weren't fully aware of the system's security and privacy features," Yuan said. "We could have done a better job of helping those first-time users be aware of and learn how to use those features."

Yuan said Zoom's longtime focus on hiring employees who are a good culture fit paid off during the company's growth spree and when the security controversy hit.

"We focus on hiring people who are self-motivated, invested in self-learning and committed to our vision," Yuan said. "When you're trying to scale your business the way we had to and you don't have a lot of self-motivated employees, it can be a challenge. We also believed we had a social responsibility during the COVID-19 crisis to help the world communicate. Sharing that vision helped our team during this period."

Future Technology Innovations

Both Butterfield and Yuan expect new technology innovations to emerge as a result of organizations' increased exposure to remote work platforms during COVID-19. One area where Butterfield anticipates potential new features is in providing more options to synchronous or real-time communication.

"There are many use cases where having a team videoconference or jumping on a phone call in real time will remain the best option and produce the best results," Butterfield said. "But I think there remain a large number of daily stand-up meetings or update type of scenarios that don't need to be synchronous."

He cited as examples the "stories" feature on Instagram and similar tools that enable easy recording of video for later on-demand viewing. "There is a lot of ease in the creation and consumption of media today," Butterfield said.

Yuan envisions innovations along the lines of artificial intelligence that can conduct better and faster real-time language translation for those around the world who speak different languages as well as features that mimic in-person meeting environments.

"It might be technology that creates a realistic virtual handshake or allows you to smell the coffee a colleague is drinking in their office on the other side of the globe," he said.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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