Slack embraces email to bridge chat app gap

At this week's Frontiers event, Slack rolled out plans for several tweaks to its popular collaboration platform to help users get their jobs done easier.

Slack logo/wordmark [2019]

SAN FRANCISCO – Slack users will soon be able to communicate with colleagues that use only email with the launch of a new “email bridge” feature for the company’s popular collaboration software. 

That email bridge is one of a range of updates unveiled Wednesday at the Slack Frontiers user conference here; other announcements include a simple workflow automation tool and the extension of the Shared Channels beta preview to customers of its Enterprise Grid product. 

The bridge is aimed at workers who are unwilling to make the switch from email to Slack when co-workers have moved to the app. 

These team members will receive an email notification when they’re mentioned by their username in channels or are sent a direct message. They will not be able to see messages from other users in a channel however; for that they would need to login to Slack. Of course, to use the function, the email user would already have to be at least signed up to Slack.

“The email bridge will let companies migrate - or not migrate - at their own pace, but it will also enable the Slack users to still remain productive because they are using Slack and leveraging other integrations that help them do work,” said Wayne Kurtzman, a research director at IDC. “So in many ways it is a win-win for everyone.”

Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight, said that while Slack has had success in gaining traction within organizations on a team-by-team basis, there will inevitably be some employees resistant to change. 

“You are always going to have people who push back, so the more you can reduce the friction of the pushback, the better,” she said. 

Slack email bridge Slack

Slack is connecting email and its own collaboration app in a bid to ease cross-app communications.

The email bridge follows a recent announcement about the ability to share emails from Google’s Gmail and Microsoft Outlook directly into Slack; it follows the company’s acquisition of email management app Astro last year.

"It responds to feedback we have had, particularly our large customers who have said: 'We have a lot of people in Slack, a bunch or all of them work in Slack, but they are now separated from some who are still just in email and there is this gap between us - help us bridge that gap,’” said Andy Pflaum, director of product at Slack.

There are number of times where a colleague may have been invited into Slack but decided not to join a channel or conversation, said Pflaum. “They haven't gotten around to it, or they just want to stay in email. And that is okay for now. But we want to make it so that those people can be connected to the conversations that are moving forward in Slack.”

Of course, Slack’s ultimate aim is to encourage users to move to its platform over time. “What is interesting is that they are positioning it as a pre-onboarding enablement, so it is more about getting people into Slack, it is not about allowing people to communicate long term,” said Ashenden. 

Outlook and Gmail will both be supported, with the feature becoming available to all users in the next few months.”

Slack also demoed the ability to let users respond to messages directly from their email inbox, with a response posted into Slack. No launch date for that feature, however, was given at Frontiers.

A Workflow Builder tool for the masses

Slack is also looking to make it a lot easier for all types of users to build their own simple workflow apps inside its platform using a “no-code” approach. 

Slack customers have already built hundreds of thousands of custom apps internally. But these generally require some level of technical know-how and are typically created by developers and IT staff. 

With the Workflow Builder tool, this process is streamlined, said Pflaum, saving employees time and reducing the demand on developer resources.

standalone workflow overview2x Slack

With Workflow Builder, Slack users will have access to a tool that lets them build their own simple workflow apps.

For instance, a simple on-boarding workflow could be set up so that new employees receive a welcome message and links to relevant corporate information when they are added to Slack. Another example would be the automation of a self-service form for any benefit requests from HR. The workflows can be created via an intuitive interface that lets users set triggers and actions similar to an If This Then That-style interface.

The feature follows Slack’s acquisition of Missions in 2018. “This is the emergence of their work to start to bring no-code and low-code tools to our users,” said Pflaum.

The Workflow Builder tool will be rolled out later this year, Slack said. Those interested in previewing the tool can sign up here.

“The ability to reduce friction and repetitive tasks now gets a bit easier,” said Kurtzman. “For those that are used to an ‘If This Then That’ scenario, they will able to walk in to this and see the potential uses in their work day. And because it is consumer-level simple in a business environment it means that it is not difficult to program, it is not difficult to change, it is not difficult to use, and yet it can save you a number of steps on any given project. 

“That is effective, that is something that people can see the value of, and that is why over time it will be adopted,” he said.

Angela Ashenden, principal analyst at CCS Insight, noted that Slack has been successful at encouraging developers to create apps, and Workflow Builder is part of its effort to appeal to a wider audience of professionals, whether in sales, marketing, HR or other areas of an organization. 

“Increasingly what Slack wants to do is to spread the application much more widely across organizations,” she said. “[Workflow Builder] allows individuals – it doesn't matter who they are –  to be able to create their own personal workflows or teams workflows. It has opened up a whole new wave of potential for the platform.”

It is “not just about collaborating, but getting work done and coordinating work and processes,” she said. “So I think it is much more interesting as Slack tries to spread into the organization as a whole and getting out of this pocket of IT that it has made its name from.”

Enterprise Grid gets Shared Channels beta

Slack also announced that of its Shared Channels feature will be available to more customers, with Enterprise Grid users able to apply for access to the beta product. 

Shared Channels was announced at Frontiers in 2017, enabling interactions with external users, such as service providers or clients, without the need for guest access. 

The beta has proved popular: 13,000 of Slack’s paid customers have already signed up to test the service.

However, it has taken longer to arrive for large customers using Enterprise Grid due to the greater complexity, said Slack.

“There is a certain complexity when there are many workspaces for administering and determining how you manage those shared channels,” said Pflaum. “The largest customers are the ones who could potentially have their shared channels fan out to the largest number of end points and we wanted to be careful and deliberate in the way we did that [to make sure it is a] well-tested experience for them.”

Kurtzman agreed that bringing Shared Channels to Enterprise Grid is a bigger challenge given the size of deployments and requirements around compliance. “They only get one chance to roll this out at the Enterprise Grid level, and no doubt … they wanted to do it so that it maintains or improves security, and the way they are rolling it out makes perfect sense.” 

Enterprise Grid users will be able to sign up to the beta this summer. Slack did not say when general availability would roll out.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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