“Desk-less” organizations are finding creative ways to adapt Slack for their needs

Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Slack has become so ubiquitous in offices that it’s a verb: Can you Slack me that after our meeting? Are you busy? No, just Slacking. It’s also blurring the line between personal time and work more than ever—at least for traditional office workers.

Slack has already disrupted workplace communication by enabling real-time conversations and de-cluttering email inboxes. Founded in 2009, the San Francisco-based company, which is reportedly valued at around $7 billion and plans on going public sometime this summer, has over 10 million daily active users and over 85,000 paid users–mostly in traditional office environments.

That’s because it was created to facilitate the kinds of tasks and workflows that exist in media and tech, at places like LinkedIn and Condé Nast. But now, the messaging tool can be increasingly found in non-office-based industries like retail, hospitality, and agriculture. And these companies are finding creative ways to use Slack for work, although the company hasn’t yet built functionality designed for them.

Slack did not comment on whether it plans on building new features, but Ellie Powers, director of product and platform, acknowledged to Quartz in an email that the company is aware that many types of organizations are figuring out how to hack Slack: “Businesses from a range of sectors and of many sizes are adopting Slack or tools like it.”

Equalizing the field

Among those users are organizations like Wickstrom Jersey Farms, a fourth-generation, family-owned dairy farm in Hilmar, California, where all 28 employees use Slack. Employees use the messaging collaboration tool to chat, but when it’s most useful, perhaps, is during machinery breakdowns.

When a machine breaks down, which happens frequently, it would send out a text alert to several people—sometimes even in the middle of the night. Before Slack, there was no good way to tell the rest of the team that the issue was being dealt with, so three or four people would go to the dairy at 2 a.m. to fix it.

Now, whoever deals with it first can quickly notify everyone on Slack and upload a photo of the broken equipment to the platform, eliminating several phone calls and showing the maintenance manager what the issue looks like. The feeding team knows why it didn’t get the load of ground corn on time and can do other tasks instead of waiting around. 

Slack has become “the operating system of our business and information flow,” says Aaron Wickstrom, the organization’s managing director.

One of the most interesting insights for Wickstrom was finding that older employees are highly engaged on Slack. Forty to 63-year-olds make up about 30% of the company’s workforce, he notes, and they don’t need a lot of training because the app is similar to Facebook Messenger, which many already use to communicate with their kids and grandkids.

With many workers out in the field, Slack channels give Wickstrom Jersey Farms employees insight into the entire dairy process, from feeding the cows to the cheese-making, as well as gathering and sharing data on things like feeding times, cow vaccinations, and baby calf births. In these ways, Slack helps connect teams that normally wouldn’t interact much. 

The result is a more cohesive, transparent culture: Wickstrom explains that before Slack, some employees felt like some colleagues had it easier than others. “Part of it is human nature, in any business or organization, of thinking my job is the most important part of that business or organization and that everybody else should kind of bow to my needs,” he says. Slack is helping break down those misconceptions.

Understanding on-the-go employees

Safari company Jackson Hole, which operates mostly in northwest Wyoming and Idaho, also uses Slack for greater transparency and accountability. The 25 employees, mostly wildlife biologists, park rangers, teachers, and historians, grab their equipment in the morning and take small groups out to the fields until as late as 9 p.m.

Before Slack, the guides would sometimes feel like their schedule wasn’t fair because they didn’t know others’ work schedules, says Jackson Hole’s owner, Jason Williams. Now all schedules are viewable on Slack.

But insight into employee communication can even go further—Williams also looks at the tone of Slack conversations. If he notices that someone is not responding appropriately or hasn’t really been participating, he says he reaches out directly, sometimes posting a message in the channel viewable to the group to reset the tone.

The company is also using the tool to eliminate physical forms of communication. With animal sightings, Williams says that because radio provides too much noise, employees will now send out animal emojis such as “wolf” or “bear” on Slack to identify the animal and help fellow guides.

Upping real-time service

Meanwhile, SingleThread Farms, a luxury restaurant and inn in Sonoma County, California, has been using Slack since the beginning to transform the dining experience. Owner Kyle Connaughton learned about Slack from friends and tech investors in the Bay Area, giving him the idea to use it to help drive a more seamless restaurant operation, including its farm, located seven miles away from the restaurant, which grows all of its produce. 

“The biggest evolution in tech is that restaurants have websites,” says Connaughton, who for five years ran the research and development lab for a three-Michelin starred restaurant outside of London called The Fat Duck.

Slack’s real-time communication feature enables personalization for diners and helps employees anticipate their needs. Upon guests’ arrival, a staffer inquires whether they have dietary restrictions or are celebrating a special event, then share those details immediately with the rest of the 65-person team via Slack, says Connaughton. The greetings and menus are adjusted accordingly. In turn, the culinary team, while preparing meals in the kitchen, will Slack farmers or foragers in the fields. Connaughton uses cameras to determine when the next course needs to be served, and will Slack that information to the kitchen staff. 

With “desk-less workforce” becoming more prevalent, there’s an opportunity for Slack to grow in this area, says Gartner analyst Mike Gotta, who focuses on collaboration and workplace software. “Right now, the product can be used for frontline workers, but it’s not designed for that constituency, and those workers have work environments and work requirements that are not simply satisfied by products designed for office workers.”

He notes that there’s stiff competition in the $9 billion collaboration tool market: Microsoft Teams is among Slack’s competitors, as is Facebook Workplace, which, Gotta says, is targeting the non-desk workforce market, even as companies are finding creative ways to adapt Slack for their needs.