Neil is typing.
This seemingly innocuous message in Slack has cost me several hours of productive work.
The red dot is always flashing and 30 unread messages greet me every morning, most of which I don’t even care about. Quite often, particularly while doing deep work, I find myself coming out of my trance-like state because of Slack’s chime.
There’s a vibrant conversation going on and everyone’s chiming in with their opinions excitedly. Or, Dave brought donuts for everyone and I want to be the first one to know. Sometimes, there’s this long thread with people quibbling over Ruth bringing her corgi to work and I couldn’t go back to the article I’m writing without reading all 179 replies.
Slack (and its friends) is a pit that I find difficult to get out of and is killing my productivity.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a Slack-bashing piece. (This is.) I love Slack. I’ve used Slack for a while and it’s easy to collaborate and communicate with the whole team.
It’s stunningly designed and super slick. Its greatest strength is its simplicity. It’s as easy as falling into a pool filled with pudding.
Which is precisely why we all love it. It’s frickin’ easy and it gives me instant gratification.
But is it too easy? As we look around at each other swimming between graham crackers and banana slices, should we be concerned?
Slack killed email, or did it?
Slack set out to save us from the barrage of emails that inundate our inboxes, and boy did it. Hundreds of emails a day? Gone! With Slack, you don’t even need email.
My company stopped using email for work communication three years ago. I don’t even remember the last time I sent an internal email, all thanks to Slack. Now, I don’t waste time sitting in my email client, waiting for responses and sorting through email threads.
But actually, Slack didn’t kill email. It just made it cool again.
During the reign of email, my biggest gripe was being CC’d on irrelevant reply-all emails. Any message I have to go through that doesn’t concern me or impact my work is a time suck.
My inbox used to be a giant lasagna of marketing emails, layered on internal emails, layered on newsletters, and more, all topped with amazing pharmaceutical deals.
Taking a look at my Slack account, it looks pretty much the same. It’s a cooler UI, and I don’t get the spam from people I don’t know, but everything else is still there.
Slack is better than email, but it has the same foundational problems.
The sirens of Slack
My biggest problem with Slack and other chat-based collaboration tools is that it forces communication to be synchronous. I send a message and I expect a response in real-time. Some people start with a “Hey” or a “Good Morning”. They wait for a response before saying anything else. It’s great to digitally connect on a human level with my coworkers (sitting across the room), but it can be a brutal assault on my productivity.
Every message is screaming for my attention and it’s intrusive by nature. Since there’s no way to determine if a message is important, it’s quite easy to get sucked into a vortex of unimportant information. But, it just feels like I have to be continuously connected to keep up with conversations.
Sending a message takes less effort than thinking if a message needs to be sent and so channels are rife with bulky, low-quality threads. As a result, the important messages drown in the visual cacophony caused by irrelevant missives.
And the worst thing is that Slack wants you to spend even more time inside it–everything should come into the pudding pool. Integrate your storage! Integrate your calendar! Integrate your fitness tracking! And it’s all so easy.
After a while you get the feeling that you could run your whole business right from the pudding pool. Why would you ever need to leave?
It’s not Slack, it’s us
Part of the problem lies in our human nature and how we abuse the tool. You know how you just open the refrigerator, hoping that new food will automatically appear? That’s basically Slack. And, there’s new food almost every time you open it. So, there’s a constant pull to keep opening it from time to time. But unlike Facebook or Twitter, it’s guilt-free because you do it for work-related things, right? Checking Slack is the equivalent of hitting the refresh button on your email and just waiting for something to take away your attention.
Slack’s ubiquitous nature–it’s available on both laptops and smartphones–means I’m always connected to my work. There are times I turn on the DnD mode or the snooze option, but I still find myself checking the channels once in a while, even when I’m out on vacation. It’s addictive.
When I get an email from someone, they don’t expect an immediate response. It’s asynchronous communication. I can choose to read the message and move it to my low priority bucket if it’s not important.
This is not the case with Slack. If I’m online and I don’t reply within 10 minutes of getting a text, the other person gets restless. I’m guilty of it as well. I feel we’re being pressured into a permanently responsive state. It hurts my flow and lowers my productivity.
Yet we feel like we are being productive by blowing through more messages. Slack makes all these problems really blurry and helps you move through them fast. And, you can add a party parrot to your responses.
Your company is not helping
In many workplaces, if you’re working, you’re expected to be available on Slack. Always.
If you are not in a co-located space, Slack is the way remote workers prove that they are working. When your boss is halfway across the globe, you need to maintain an active Slack presence in case they think you just take a walk whenever you feel like it. *gasp*
The truth is those who’re actually productive do not have time to be on Slack the whole day. Because all we do on Slack is talk about getting work done, rather than actually doing it.
Giving Slack to your employees without some hygienic rules around it is like giving every child in a school an iPhone that shoots out candy when you use it, yelling at them when they don’t have the phone with them all the time, and then telling them to focus on their book reports. It’s a tad irresponsible.
C’mon, cut some slack
Let’s be honest. Tools like Slack, Workplace, and Teams focus on the stickiness of the product. They want to grab your attention and maximize the time you spend on them.
What we need is a communication platform that’s human-centered, built with focus and productivity in mind, rather than just product engagement. Something that truly empowers teams to be productive without hijacking their focus.
The future of work, as I see it, is where successful companies don’t require their teams to be connected all the time. The companies making this shift see the value of deep work and the importance of setting time aside to fully disconnect.
Until then, enjoy the pudding while it lasts.