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Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Email has a bad reputation. To Front, it’s the future of collaboration.

Protocol Enterprise

Welcome to Protocol | Enterprise, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about cloud and enterprise software. This Monday: Email makes a comeback, more SaaS earnings, and executive overhauls at Microsoft and Google Cloud.

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The Big Story

Blast from the past

Over the last year, businesses around the world basically bought any tool that would link together a workforce that went virtual nearly overnight. The push led to dramatic increases in sales at enterprise-collaboration vendors like Atlassian and sent valuations skyrocketing for up-and-comers like Figma.

But now there's a new challenge: Companies must figure out how to mix and match those tools to allow employees to work together across disparate locations.

  • Last year's rush created a hodge-podge of new applications within enterprises that further complicated an already complex IT stack.
  • Many companies, for example, still use both Slack and Microsoft Teams, according to software vendors and corporate CIOs. That's basically the exact opposite scenario that either provider would prefer, and complicates internal ambitions to use one of the systems as the central collaboration platform.
  • But now, as an all-virtual workplace evolves into a hybrid work model, corporations are beginning to think more critically about their collaboration software.
  • And that means deciding which "platform" will ultimately serve as the main hub for teamwork.

While Microsoft and Salesforce-owned Slack think instant messaging is becoming that collaboration zone, Front is banking on a more ubiquitous and traditional application to serve as the core foundation: email.

  • "It's probably one of the only common denominators in a company, meaning everyone is already on it," CEO and co-founder Mathilde Collin told Protocol.
  • "Instead of asking your team to adopt yet another tool, which will make information siloed and collaboration actually harder, you take something that people already use and you change it so that it's actually made for easy collaboration," she added.

Collin's argument is pretty simple: Slack and Teams work great internally, but fail miserably when someone has to communicate and work with someone outside the organization.

  • Front lets users simultaneously work on one email. For example, if one of a company's biggest customers emails to complain about a service, the team responsible for responding could have side discussions on how to reply within the application, while also looping in the tech team that might be tasked with fixing the problem.
  • Alongside the emails itself, the application can also link to other systems, like a Salesforce CRM platform or Asana.
  • All that activity will then occur in the inbox, preventing the dreaded "application switch" that requires the pain-staking effort of scrolling over and clicking a new tab.
  • "You'd rather consolidate something for collaboration than split your collaboration between different tools," she said.
  • It's a convenient viewpoint, given email allows both synchronous and asynchronous communication.

Slack has tried to address this challenge with some success. In March, the company rolled out Connect, an opt-in service that enables organizations to chat with each other on the platform.

Microsoft, however, would seem much better suited to tackle the problem. The company already rolled out a competitor to Slack Connect inside Teams. And it'd probably be tough, though not impossible, to find an employee who hasn't used Outlook.

  • But connecting the two is much harder than it seems — at least, according to Collin.
  • "The way Outlook has been built and the way Teams has been built is so drastically different," she said. "There is absolutely no communication between Outlook and Teams [and] there is no effort right now at a company level to make them work better together."

Outlook and Teams, of course, aren't the only collaboration tools used within an organization. With the number of vendors marketing collaboration as a key product feature, it's almost hard to find software that doesn't fall within that category.

  • And that's creating concerns about a disjointed IT stack, where data is stuck inside individual applications instead of flowing freely across the company like the mighty Mississippi.
  • It's a key challenge that Front, as well as Microsoft, is trying to solve through partner integrations.
  • "The goal is not to minimize the number of tools that they're using," said Collin. "The goal is to make sure that they optimize for great integrations between whatever hub and the other tools that they're using."

Ultimately, Front's mission is to give employees greater control over their email inbox and, by proxy, revitalize a system that's been around for about as long as the internet itself.

  • For example, instead of dropping everything to respond to a Slack message like some workers may feel pressured to do, they can add it to Front and respond later as an email.
  • That, of course, eliminates the quick collaboration that can happen on platforms like Teams or Slack. But Collin argued that's a small portion of the overall communication that happens in a company.
  • "Is it going to be 100%? No, there will always be an emergency where you need someone to see a message right away," she said. But "asynchronous communication is the vast, vast majority of how your communication should happen."
  • In fact, research has shown that, during the initial months of the COVID-19 outbreak, "there was a decrease in synchronous communication and an increase in asynchronous communication."

It is still very early days in the grand experiment that is the new hybrid world of work. And companies are going to be experimenting a lot with different systems to figure out what works best.

  • But Front has the advantage of relying on a system that is, effectively, baked into how organizations operate.
  • Despite Slack's mission to kill email, it's going to remain in use for a long time. Microsoft alone has some 400 million Outlook users.
  • And that's good news for Front. Rehabilitating the image of the email inbox as a primary collaboration system instead of soul-draining busywork, however, will be a challenge.

— Joe Williams


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