Slack is upgrading its Huddles feature with video chat, multi-user screen sharing, and a per-huddle chat thread. The company announced the updates at its Frontiers conference, which for Slack is both a chance to unveil new products and to share its thoughts about 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 don’t feel like meetings. The company always imagined the feature, which you can use to have a quick audio call inside Slack, as more akin to walking over to someone’s desk rather than sending them a calendar invite. They were audio-only; you couldn’t schedule one; you could start one in any channel or direct message. It borrowed a lot from Discord’s audio chat features and has worked really well.
“What’s nice about Huddles is it’s not intrusive,” says Tamar Yehoshua, Slack’s head of product. “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 until you’re free.” Huddles are often used as co-working tools, Yehoshua says, so teams can quickly get something done without the mental overhead of turning on cameras and having an official meeting. The company is proud that the average huddle is only 10 minutes long, a nice respite from a constant drumbeat of 30-minute Zoom meetings.
Now, though, huddles can be much more than that. Every huddle still starts 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 turn on a tiny video chat in the sidebar of your Slack app. Hit another button, and the huddle gets its own window, at which point it feels an awful lot like a Zoom meeting. Which is what some people want! Slack has always tried to avoid being prescriptive about how people use the app, and Yehoshua says lots of users weren’t using 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 it’s where you are already working.”
It sounds like a bit of a departure, adding more complexity and fidelity to a thing that was deliberately low-stress. But video was always going to be part of Huddles. “We probably will allow video sharing at some point,” Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield told The Verge when Huddles first launched, though he acknowledged that it would be tricky to bring in video without making people worry about how they look or forcing them to stare at their computer for hours on end. “On an audio call, you can be doing many other things and maintain the illusion that your counterpart is paying complete attention to everything you’re saying,” Butterfield said then. Now, Slack seems to think that it can make video a tool to be used when necessary, not the default status for every quick chat.
When you’re in a video huddle, multiple people can share their screen simultaneously, which is a handy thing most chat apps don’t offer. And each huddle also gets a dedicated chat thread, which is then preserved in Slack after the huddle ends. Huddles themselves aren’t recorded, though: “If you think of them as hallway conversations, and I want to catch you for five minutes, it’d be kind of weird if all that is searchable,” Yehoshua says. She thinks of threads like the whiteboards you might draw on in meetings, an artifact of the chat that you might want preserved even if the chat itself doesn’t need to be.
Huddles is a smart feature for Slack to continue to push on because while it can’t compete with Zoom and Meet, it can start to find other ways for people to communicate in 2022 that don’t feel so much like business meetings. If Slack really wants to be a “virtual headquarters,” it’s going to have to figure out how to replace the rest of office life, too. Huddles is a good start.