Workplace

Slack or bust: How workplace tools are becoming job deal-breakers

As productivity tools get more plentiful, using the right ones can make or break your company’s retention plan.

Picket signs with "no" signs over Google Drive, Outlook and other app logos

Someone rejecting a job based solely on its tech might make you scoff, but it can happen.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Alex Torres just couldn’t envision spending his entire work day in Microsoft Teams.

He was close to scoring a six-figure job at an enterprise software company. The workload seemed manageable, the people seemed smart. But the first round of interviews took place on Teams. Torres, a San Francisco-based writer with experience in the tech industry, likes to be delighted by his workplace tools. And Teams doesn’t spark joy. When the recruiter asked for his writing portfolio, he said no.

“I literally told the recruiter: 'I’m sorry, using Microsoft Teams is not for me,'” Torres said. “I never thought I would be passionate about this. But I am.”

Rejecting a job based solely on its tech might make you scoff. Plenty of people made fun of a user on Blind who claimed they denied a job offer because the company used Outlook. Many of the people Protocol spoke with acknowledged that rejecting a job based on tools is a bit extreme. Even Torres admitted he might be an outlier.

But workers have a new kind of leverage in today’s job market, with intense demand for tech talent and companies’ fear of losing workers to the “Great Resignation.” Many of us spend our days online, beholden to the communication and collaboration tools that let us do our jobs remotely. Add this tool reliance to worker leverage, and it makes sense that candidates might steer clear of a company that forces them to use tools they hate.

“More than ever, a candidate has the choice to really customize their personal employment experience,” said Josh Drew, regional manager at recruiting firm Robert Half.

I will always ride for my tool of choice!

Despite the preponderance of new productivity tools, the world of work is still overwhelmingly binary. You’re either a Slack person or a Teams person. You like Outlook or you like Gmail. You stand by Zoom or BlueJeans (though fans of the latter are probably dwindling). Adobe Illustrator or Figma. The internet loves “this or that” debates, and workplace tools are no exception.

There are a million reasons you might like one tool over another. Maybe it has to do with familiarity; plenty of new products are daunting, and it’s easy to stick with what you know. It might depend on how your brain works. Sometimes people are genuinely more productive using a certain tool. But if two tools have essentially the same function, the reasoning might become a little less rational.

“With Microsoft Teams, it just feels like I’m doing work,” Torres said. “It has more of an old-school, IT-ish feel to it. I don’t have anything more to complain about it other than the fact that the vibes are off.”

“The vibes are off,” or as hiring platform Knac CEO Ariel Lopez said about receiving a Teams invitation, “something in my spirit is uneasy.” Most people don’t have the time to painstakingly compare tools side by side. Our tastes and choices often come from general instincts and impulses. It’s personal and, obviously, subjective. Some people might refuse traditional workplace tools in general, like freelance UX director Noah Conk. He says: To hell with Slack and Teams, let’s use Discord. Hence the need for a centralized, IT-sanctioned group of tools. A workplace where everyone uses a separate tool stack sounds hellish.

But the pandemic-driven explosion in workplace tools, particularly collaboration software, has given workers more freedom to act on their tool preferences. A 2021 Gartner survey showed a 44% rise in workers' use of collaboration tools since 2019, and a 10% rise in use of tools obtained outside of IT. Understanding what candidates want in a collaboration tool is more important than ever.

“If you're not using the most mainstream platforms, candidates can be put off — or at least, that'll prompt them to dig in way more on tools and processes,” Medium's head of People, Lauren Newton, told Protocol. She said offering the most “mainstream and popular” platforms at this point is “table stakes.”

What makes a tool cool?

Though we all have our own opinions, we can often come to a consensus on what’s popular. Inevitably, as tech companies grow older and bigger, their products accumulate baggage. Meanwhile, humans have short attention spans, and we like trying new and fun tech. This dynamic is apparent across all kinds of workplace tech, especially with an explosion in productivity startups (Figma, Notion, ClickUp). Slack versus Teams is just one example. Slack, though now a part of behemoth Salesforce, still benefits from its early hot-new-product branding. Microsoft, a longtime giant in workplace tools, is the elder in the room. As a 46-year-old company, Microsoft has plenty of baggage and products it needs to account for.

Even if tools are perceived as “uncool,” they can be ubiquitous in the workplace: Teams reported 270 million monthly active users in January. Workers may be increasingly choosing their own tools, but cost and IT convenience are still what mostly drive tool adoption. UX design expert Jared Spool works with Adobe, which he said recently made the leap to Microsoft workplace tools. “I don't think anybody cares about the usability of Microsoft products for the end user,” Spool said. “So many companies use it, it's got to be easy.” (Adobe didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Not all companies have the luxury of being able to try out new tools all the time. Updating your tech stack requires careful consideration and plenty of time, both of which can be hard to come by. In health care, for instance, “they have to be prioritizing patient care, and not, 'How can I make my workflow surrounding patient care be as optimal as possible so that I have more time for patient care?'” said Katie Sagaser, who is currently an executive at biotech startup Juno Diagnostics and used to work in a major hospital system. She said she's happier with her tool stack now, but acknowledged that in a hospital environment, employee-favored tools are a low priority.

But if companies do have the time and resources, particularly in tech or tech-adjacent industries, a popular tech stack might be the tipping point that clinches a job acceptance. Candidates might read into a company’s choice of tools and decide they know the company’s culture.

Your tools may reflect something deeper about your company

It’s difficult to know what a job is really like until you’re in it. Sussing out a company before you accept its offer, therefore, is crucial. Talking to current employees helps. But its tools might clue you in as well.

Spool believes that choosing a job based on the tools that the company uses is superficial. “It’s sort of like refusing to date someone because of the shoes they wear,” he said. But in certain instances, Spool can see why someone would place more weight on a tool stack. If the company won’t let you use a tool you like for no clear reason, for example.

“It communicates a set of values that that organization has, which is they don't care about the efficiency or effectiveness of the people who are trying to get their work done,” Spool said.

Staying attuned to employee tool inclinations is a must in the context of employee retention. Conk said companies shouldn’t solely consider price when evaluating workplace tools. “If people are happier using another program, and it costs a little bit more than investing in your employees that way, it becomes a strategic thing for the company to help retain their employees,” Conk said.

Colin Day, a creative director at Microsoft Teams, maintains that employee tool preferences are ultimately more about the people who use them than the design of the tool itself. “There’s an emotional bond that's created when a person has used a collaboration tool in their previous workplace,” he said. But “the emotional bond, interestingly, is more strong between people themselves.” He said if recruiters face pushback on a certain collaboration tool, they should emphasize it’s merely a space or “architecture” for employees to work in.

“You might not like the architecture, but is that going to be a deal-killer?” he asked.

For people like Torres, it might. For others, salary, flexibility or DEI efforts are the more important considerations. One thing is for certain: The job market is full of opportunity, and more tech workers are able to reevaluate their deal-breakers. Companies need to look at retention from every angle if they want to keep talent. If enough employees or candidates voice disdain for a tool, maybe it’s time to listen and do something about it.

“The opinions have always been there,” Drew said. “The weight of those opinions is probably stronger than ever.”

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