Slack is no different from email

2016-03-04

It was never going to last. The backlash has started against Slack.

According to Rebecca Greenfield in Bloomberg Business at the beginning of the year, when etiquette guides start to appear its the "beginning of the end" anyway. Meanwhile, Samuel Hulick wrote a long read to tell us he was breaking up with Slack because it was turning his "workdays into one long Franken-meeting".

So why are people starting to complain?

Slack started out as a tool to reduce email and according to their own research, their customers report a 48% reduction in email and 25% fewer meetings. Yet in a recent piece in The Atlantic the author lamented that:

getting back from vacation once meant clearing voicemail, returning calls, and catching up with co-workers by the water cooler. Nowadays, it’s catching up on hundreds of emails and Slack messages, and then responding as necessary.

Justin Glow wrote about his attempt to unplug from Slack for a week. He concluded:

The nature of my particular role, and our company's reliance on Slack, makes it feel nearly impossible to be absent for stretches longer than an hour or so.

As Slack has grown in popularity, its users have also integrated the communication patterns it supports into the norms that define the expected behaviors in their workplace. Unfortunately Slack (and to be fair, tools like it) have features that encourage users to be constantly connected and attentive to the stream of activity. Slack also makes it extremely easy to post rich content and aggregate other information into it. As others have reported, the more critical Slack is to work practices, the more difficult it becomes not to be available and the fear of missing something important increases stress.

This means that the solution may not be as simple as adding new features to Slack to manage activity overload (although it may not hurt). The real challenge is that Slack wants to be at the centre of user activity, but it is architected as a real-time messaging application - in other words, it works best when everyone using it is online at the same time and concentrating on it. The implications of this will vary, meaning that some people will absolutely love Slack while others will find its creates stress, increases the length of their effective working hours and adds to information overload.

With some thought and proactive management it should be possible to mitigate the negative outcomes that some teams or work groups may experience with a tool like Slack. This could include:

  1. Not using Slack like the cc field in an email - just because it has been posted in Slack, don't assume everyone has been informed.
  2. Resisting Slack's demand to be at the centre of work flow - use a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous tools appropriate for the activity and the people doing them.
  3. Not being afraid to call out people who are just creating noise and need to DSFW.

In this respect, Slack is no different from email. We need to play to its strengths, while not giving into our own distraction or constant attention.

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