Slack is upgrading its Huddles feature with video chat, multi-user screen sharing, and one chat thread per huddle. The company announced the updates at its Frontiers conference, which is an opportunity for Slack to both unveil new products and share its 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’ve worked for Slack precisely because they do not feel like meetings. The company always envisioned the feature, which you can use to make a quick audio call within Slack, as more people walking to someone’s desk instead of sending them a calendar invite. They were for audio only; you couldn’t plan for it; you could start one in any channel or direct message. It borrowed a lot from Discord’s audio chat features and worked really well.
“The great thing about Huddles is that it’s not intrusive,” says Tamar Yehoshua, lead product at Slack. “It’s not like your phone is ringing and you have to pick it up. I can hang out in the huddle, listen to the nice background jazz music and wait for you to be free.” Huddles are often used as co-working tools, Yehoshua says, so teams can get something done quickly without the mental overhead of turning on cameras and having an official meeting. The company prides itself on the average huddle that lasts just 10 minutes, a nice break from a steady drumbeat from 30 minutes of Zoom meetings.
Now, however, huddles can be much more than that. Each huddle still starts out as an audio chat — “our goal was to reduce social pressure to turn on your video,” Yehoshua says — but you can click a button and enable a little video chat in the sidebar of your Slack app. . Press another button and the huddle will have its own window, after which it will look very much like a Zoom meeting. That’s what some people want! Slack has always tried not to be prescriptive about how people use the app, and Yehoshua says many users didn’t use huddles because they wanted video. “There are plenty of other tools that are video-first,” she says, “so why this in Slack? It’s because you’re already working there.”
It sounds like a bit of an aberration, adding more complexity and fidelity to something that was deliberately low-stress. But video would always be part of Huddles. “We’ll probably allow video sharing at some point,” Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield told me The edge when Huddles first launched, though he acknowledged it would be a pain to bring in video without people worrying about how they look or forcing them to stare at their computers for hours on end. “During an audio call, you can do a lot of other things and maintain the illusion that your conversation partner is paying full attention to everything you’re saying,” Butterfield said at the time. Now, Slack seems to think it can make video a tool that can be used when needed, not the default state for any quick chat.
When you’re in a video huddle, multiple people can share their screen at the same time, which is handy that most chat apps don’t offer. And each huddle also gets a special chat thread, which is then saved in Slack after the huddle ends. Huddles themselves aren’t recorded, though: “If you think of them as conversations in the hallway, and I want to talk to you for five minutes, it would be a little weird if all that was searchable,” Yehoshua says. She thinks of threads like the whiteboards you could draw on during meetings, an artifact of the chat that you may want to keep even if the chat itself doesn’t have to be.
Huddles is a smart feature for Slack to keep going because while it can’t compete with Zoom and Meet, can In 2022, start finding other ways for people to communicate that aren’t so much like business meetings. If Slack really wants to be a ‘virtual headquarters’, it will also have to think about how to replace the rest of office life. Huddles is a good start.