Slack is updating its Chats feature with video chat, multi-user screen sharing, and a chat thread for chat. The company announced the updates at the Frontiers conference, which is both an opportunity for Slack to showcase new products and share his thoughts on the future of work. With Huddles, Slack’s vision is simple: people need more, richer ways to chat, but they don’t need more meetings.
Huddles originally launched a year ago, and they were working for Slack precisely because no want to meet. The company always envisioned a feature that could be used to conduct a quick audio call in Slack as being more akin to walking up to someone’s desk than sending a calendar invitation. There was only audio; you couldn’t plan one; you can start one on any channel or direct message. It borrowed a lot of Discord’s audio chat features, and it worked really well.
“What’s nice about Huddles is that it’s not intrusive,” says Tamar Yehoshua, Slack’s product manager. “It’s not like your phone is ringing and you have to pick it up. I can sit back and listen to some cool jazz music in the background and wait for you to be free. Chats are often used as collaboration tools, says Yehoshua, so teams can get things done quickly without the mental overhead of turning on cameras and having a formal meeting. The company is proud that the average meeting lasts only 10 minutes, which is a nice respite from the constant beating on the drums of 30-minute Zoom meetings.
Now, however, deliberation can mean much more. Every chat still starts with audio chat – “our goal was to reduce the social pressure to turn on video,” says Yehoshua – but you can click a button and enable a small video chat in the Slack sidebar. Press another button and the chat will get its own window, at which point it is like a Zoom meeting. This is what some people want! Slack has always tried to avoid prescriptions about how people use the app, and Yehoshua says many users didn’t use chats because they wanted video. “There are many other tools that are primarily video,” he says, “so why is this in Slack? This is because you are already working there. “
It sounds like a bit of a departure, adding more complexity and fidelity to something that was intentionally stress-free. But the video was always meant to be part of the Huddles. “We will likely authorize video sharing at some point,” said Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield Borderland when Huddles first took off, though he admitted that it would be difficult to enter videos without worrying about what they look like or forcing them to stare at the computer for hours. “During a voice call, you can do many other things and maintain the illusion that your partner is paying full attention to everything you say,” Butterfield had said at the time. Now, it seems Slack thinks it can make video a tool to use when needed, rather than the default state for any quick chat.
When you’re in a video chat, multiple people can share their screen simultaneously, which is a handy thing most chat apps don’t offer. Each chat also receives a dedicated chat thread, which is saved in Slack after the chat ends. The councils themselves aren’t taped, however: “If you think of them as hallway conversations and I want to catch you for five minutes, it would be a bit weird if everything could be searched,” says Yehoshua. Thoughts about threads like boards you can draw on during meetings, chat artifacts you might want to keep, even though the chat itself doesn’t have to be.
Huddles is a smart feature that allows Slack to keep running, because while it can’t compete with Zoom and Meet, it Power start looking for other ways for people to communicate in 2022 that aren’t like business meetings. If Slack really wants to be a “virtual headquarters”, it will have to figure out how to replace the rest of the office life. Meetings are a good start.