Slack didn’t break remote working, your colleagues did

Slack / Getty Images / WIRED

We all remember where we were when it happened. One year ago, jittery employers in the UK told their staff to pack up and leave their offices to wait out the pandemic. Many people haven’t set foot in them since.
Desk plants have died, kettles have sat dormant, the rats have taken over. And, for an entire year, Slack has acted as the de-facto digital office replacement, providing an important lifeline for corporate communications, group projects, endless emojis and gossip. It was a trial by fire for a service whose mission statement is to make people’s working lives “simpler, more pleasant, and more productive”. By this measure, it failed.


The problem isn’t that Slack doesn’t work – it’s that we’re using it wrong. According to Slack’s own figures, we have become far more reliant on messaging as a form of communication. The time people spend sending messages to each other ballooned from one hour and 15 minutes in February 2021 to almost two hours a month later. But that doesn’t mean that we are using that extra time well.
In his book World Without Email, computer scientist Cal Newport exposes the scale of our Slack problem: even before the great remote working experiment, we were checking our inboxes and workplace messages on average once every minute. On average, people have no more than 75 minutes of undistracted, productive working time per day – and that’s not a block of time, but the total amount of uninterrupted time throughout the day.
Factor in research from the University of California and Humboldt University, which found workers can lose up to 23 minutes on a task every time they are interrupted, and they could be left with no productive time at all.
The pandemic has been “uncharted territory” for companies, says Noah Weiss, Slack’s vice president of product. Businesses want people to answer messages quickly, but also to be creative, and take care of their mental health, he says. “I would be naive to say Slack solves those problems.” Weiss argues that Slack simply “provides people with tools” that can help. Then it’s up to the people to use them correctly.


In reality, it’s not as simple as saying that if people find Slack intolerable, they just don’t know how to use it. Part of the problem for those experiencing information overload is Slack’s default settings, which set people up for having as many conversations as possible. A green dot next to each username, the ability to send anyone a notification by using their handle , and no limits on the number of channels or messages we can send anyone at any given time can encourage our worst habits. And mute buttons or notification snoozing functions aren’t going to work if company culture dictates the need to respond as soon as possible. In short, the more you Slack, the more you want to Slack. (Condé Nast, WIRED’s parent company, uses Slack for internal communications.)
Microsoft Teams is in the same camp: it recorded a 72 per cent increase in instant messages sent in March 2020 alone. Its latest figures show that managers sent 115 per cent more instant messages during March 2020 than in January or February, while individual contributors saw their instant messages jump more than 50 per cent. Again, it’s plagued by the same issues. People can use Teams or Slack for pretty much their entire working day to collaborate on projects, easily share and edit documents and jump on video calls. Instead, many use work communication platforms as glorified versions of WhatsApp.
These stats make workplace messaging look like a success, but they are deceptive. Many companies are signing up to workplace messaging systems and letting employees figure out how to use them with no rules or guidance at all. They expect workplace messaging platforms to be the “silver bullet” for the way people talk to each other, says Marc Fullman, research assistant at the University of Sussex Business School. “Often companies hope that they can have a ‘one size fits all’ policy to help employees deal with communications, not just in terms of the content that they send, but also the times a day that they’re using it.”
One employee working for a London-based consultancy, who asks not to be named, says that Microsoft Teams was deployed shortly after the pandemic shut down his office. Almost a year later, no one uses it. “There’s no push to use it. Corporate stuff is sent over email mostly,” he says. His team talks to each other in “completely random” platforms including WhatsApp and Signal. “Maybe things will change gradually as we return to the office, but it’s going to be a while,” he says. At almost £10 per head for a Teams licence, this is a costly delay.


At a communications agency in Manchester the opposite scenario has played out. Slack channels have taken over everything, from managing projects, to having “random watercooler chat” or even “football banter”. “It completely changes the way we talk to each other,” says one worker, who asks not to be named. “I check Slack constantly throughout the day to keep on top of messages, requests and questions while also updating my team on what I’m working on.”
What’s clear is that the onus is on workers themselves to set limits to their messaging. Weiss admits that his boss “probably doesn’t know” that since he started working from home, he switched off Slack notifications on his phone. “What I realised was if I’m working, I’m going to be on my laptop. I’m not running between meetings all day long anymore,” he says. “When I’m not trying to work, and I’m with my wife making dinner, the last thing I want is someone sending a direct message to me that gets me thinking about work when I explicitly chose to leave work, even though it’s only walking ten feet away to my kitchen.”
Weiss argues that people can get more control over platforms like Slack by muting or changing the frequency of notifications. But in practice, many people can’t afford to ignore notifications. Slack knows this, and Weiss knows this, which is why the company has a help page with tips for cutting the noise. It might be a distraction, but right now there’s no stopping Slack. In the last quarter alone its sales revenue was $250.6 million, and it added 14,000 paying customers, a 180 per cent increase over a year ago. But if Slack hasn’t solved the headache of corporate communications, despite its popularity, maybe another company can.This has made it a major target.
Alongside Facebook, Google and Microsoft, other, less well-known messaging platforms are elbowing in on Slack’s space to offer more “mindful” alternatives. San Francisco-based messaging service Quill is one contender. The company, which is backed by Index Partners, came out of stealth mode last month to launch what looks like a simplified version of Slack. “Quill reduces notifications, and reserves disruptions for critical or time sensitive messages,” the company’s website says. Barcelona-headquartered company Doist is more brazen, advertising its messaging app Twist as “the Slack alternative for teams that prioritise clarity”. It describes Slack as “a mess” and claims its platform is “asynchronous by default” to avoid notifications and “distractions”.
Other platforms are emerging in sectors where Slack doesn’t work. Yapster, a messaging service for people in the frontline retail and hospitality industry, caters mostly to mobile users or those who don’t have time to read notifications while they work. “Customers come over to us from the frontline economy where they’ve tried to implement Slack at scale, or some of the some of the Microsoft on Facebook products, ignoring the fact that their business model is inappropriate for our world,” says Rob Liddiard, the company’s chief executive.
Oxfordshire-basedYeo Messaging uses geofencing and facial recognition technology paired with a Slack-like messaging function to help people who work with confidential documents on a daily basis but find messaging platforms aren’t secure enough. People can send confidential documents through the app and recipients can only view them if their face has been scanned and approved by the app. Messaging services like Slack simply aren’t able to do this, says Yeo Messaging chief executive Sarah Norford-Jones. ”They’re not authenticating who you’re actually talking to, anybody can have a look on the computer, open it up and see Slack and start reading your messages.”
For Slack, none of these contenders are necessarily a concern. But our return to the office is. When vaccines allow people to return to their desks this summer, messaging won’t go away, but it will need to evolve. As companies opt for a hybrid, asynchronous working environment, people will need new ways to include colleagues working remotely as well as ones sitting next to each other in the office. And they need to fix the way they are using Slack. Ahead of its merger with Salesforce, Slack has taken a page out of its future parent company’s playbook, aiming to offer certifications to people who can train other people to use Slack properly.
Fundamentally, Weiss is convinced that people aren’t sick of Slack, they’re sick of meetings. “They feel like we are now spending more time in meetings than pre-pandemic. Those meetings are more draining than ever, because you get none of the rich social interaction, but you get to stare at yourself in the mirror, and 20 eyeballs blinking at you from all the different faces.” He’s right. By the end of 2020, 1,500 office workers from 46 countries were telling the Harvard Business Review that there is “no respite from work” and that they were completely burned out, receiving endless messages and sitting in neverending Zoom meetings.
Weiss and his team are trialling a new product internally at Slack that will allow people to replace regular, tedious meetings where people talk one at a time about updates in their work. Instead of being on a video call all at once, people can upload video, audio or text files to Slack and participate in the meeting when it’s convenient to their work schedule. There’s only one catch – this will translate to more messages, and more reasons to check Slack.
Natasha Bernal is WIRED’s business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
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