Cut me some slack.
An entire cottage industry has sprung up around hot takes on why Slack is ruining everyone's companies, businesses, and lives - especially during the run-up to its reasonably successful listing on the NYSE. A perfunctory search produced the following:
- The productivity pit: how Slack is ruining work (Vox, May 2019)
- Face it: Slack is ruining your life (Mashable, May 2017)
- Actually, Slack really sucks (Medium, 2016)
- Why Slack is bad for teamwork and Why you should never try it (Medium, July 2018)
- My Company Tried Slack For Two Years. This Is Why We Quit. (Fast Company, June 2017)
- What happened when we took a week off of Slack (Quartz, August 2018)
- How Slack is Silently Killing Your Productivity (Userlike, October 2018)
And that's just from the first two pages of results. I can't help but feel like this is all really familiar...as though the business press and productivity blogosphere and every two-bit engineer had some other punching bag before Slack came along, some other menace that was sapping your company's mojo through constant interruption and running roughshod over the boundaries between work and leisure.
- End the Tyranny of 24/7 Email (The New York Times, August 2014)
- Stop Email Overload (Harvard Business Review, February 2012)
- 5 Ways Email Makes Your Employees Miserable (Forbes, October 2013)
- How Many Emails Can You Handle a Day? (ABC News, July 2010)
- Top 10 Tricks for Dealing with Email Overload (Lifehacker, October 2011)
- You're Spending Way Too Much Time Checking Your Email. Here's What To Do (Huffington Post, September 2013)
- The Cost of Continuously Checking Email (Harvard Business Review, July 2014)
- Tame the Email Beast: Minimize Your Email Inbox to Maximize Your Productivity (Redbooth, March 2014)
Oh right, for ten years prior, email was every armchair business performance consultant's favorite bogeyman.
It breaks your concentration and destroys your ability to 'reach flow' through beeps and chirps and notification badges. Whether by fear of missing something important or by giving way to the compulsion to constantly pull-to-refresh our various feeds of information like the slot machine junkies we are, it encroaches on time that should be without work. It encourages disjointed conversations, and decisions taken without input or consideration from all relevant parties. It impairs an organization's collective memory as messages get buried in inboxes and archives, and then ultimately lost to retention policies. Am I talking about email or Slack?
Ultimately - whether it be Teams, or Hangouts, or Zoom, or Hipchat, or Campfire, or email, or text messages, or phone calls, or whatever - it seems like we're quite literally shooting the messenger. Slack just has the highest profile of the group presently, and so now it's taking all the heat. These things facilitate messages. While each may have a slightly different take on precisely how messages are stored, organized, delivered, and notified about; they are the medium, and not the message.
So with all that said, here are the two real underlying problems that communication tools, Slack chief among them, are taking all the flak for:
1. Your company culture sucks.
Your manager pings you at all hours and expects a response within a minute regardless of regular business hours. Your teammates often follow suit.
People on other teams within your company don't respect your established protocols for requesting work from your team, opting to message you directly instead.
You sat in an hour-long meeting completely unprepared for the discussion because the context was buried several days back in a thread you missed, or in the logs of a busy channel.
A bunch of your efforts were wasted because of a decision taken in a channel that you weren't in.
Slack very well may have been the venue in which all of these wrongs took place. That doesn't mean Slack is to blame. It doesn't enable these behaviors above and beyond being a channel for communication.
Slack is not to blame for your relationship with your management being lopsided. Slack is not to blame when your coworkers ignore your boundaries. Slack is not to blame for your teammates' inability to set agendas and run meetings. Slack is not to blame for lack of alignment behind goals and responsibilities in your organization.
If your company's culture sucks, it's not Slack's fault, and it's not Slack's responsibility to fix it. Shitty company culture, like the sewage that it is, will flow through the path of least resistance. Bad teammates will find a way to mess up your day regardless of the tool that enables them to do it, because they're bad teammates. If they didn't have Slack to do it, they'd do it over email, or over the phone, or by walking over to your desk and interrupting you, or some combination thereof.
2. You don't think communicating with your colleagues counts as part of your job, and you're wrong.
If you happen to work solo on a product that is completely automated and requires no interaction or support for your customers: first, congratulations, but the rest of this post is not for you. Surf on.
Great, now for those of you still with me - to be clear that is all of you - accept the fact that you will get interrupted. That's a part of working on a product with other people in the service of actual customers. If you're not getting interrupted at least some of the time then your relationship with the rest of your coworkers is irreparably damaged, or you have no customers, either of which is an unsustainable situation.
Taking agency over the conditions under which you'll be interrupted is absolutely something you should do. The digital team at NPR had (still has maybe?) a 'diver down' protocol where you'd throw a sheet of paper with the scuba flag on it over the side of your cubicle, throw headphones on, close out IM (at the time, actual AIM) and email, and that was a mutually respected line that would not be crossed before lunchtime or quitting time.
But regardless of your title and role, whether you work in a company of two or two thousand, communicating with your colleagues in a timely and regular manner is fucking table stakes for being a good colleague. If that happens in person, fine. If that happens over email, fine. If that happens over Slack, fine.
What's not fine is expecting your level of interaction with others in your company to be negligible. What's not fine is holding contempt for others in your company who need your input and cooperation in order to do their job. It does not matter if your job title is Senior Whatever Engineer and you got your job by successfully white-boarding a fizzbuzz in brainfuck, it's still not fine to think that tapping away in your editor of choice is 100% your job, and that everything else including communication isn't.
Those are your problems to solve, and Slack didn't create them.