- The format is fragmented and constrained
- slack search is broken
- It increases productivity (the bad kind)
- It replaces documentation
- What does slack do right
- trello & jira
Between 2014 and 2016 my working life went through a lot of changes but the worst one was the normalization of slack. Managers like it because it ‘gets things down on paper’, ‘improves reachability’, ‘gets questions answered quickly’. My argument is that it destroys teams’ ability to think, plan & get complex work out the door. Read on for the full story.
slack empowers your worst people to overwhelm your best. It has that in common with the open office.
It normalizes interruptions, multitasking, and distractions, implicitly permitting these things to happen IRL as well as online. It normalizes insanely short reply times for questions. In the slack world people can escalate from asking in a room to @person to @here in a matter of minutes. And they’re not wrong to – if your request isn’t handled in 5 minutes it’s as good as forgotten.
Somewhere along the way we forgot that interruptions are toxic to real work. It wasn’t always this way. On day 1 of my first trading job the only instruction I received was ‘when the market is open, mute your phone.’ The subtext was ‘or else’. If someone said this to me today I’d give them a hug, and I’m not a hugger.
I’ve tried to have this conversation with people who respond with ‘this is an office; it shouldn’t be a library’. At the time I was only livid. If someone said this to me today, two years into my life as a slack user, I’m not sure how I would react.
Remote work culture is a defense mechanism against the distracting open office, and slack is the end run around that defense mechanism. It abrades your team’s adrenal system and forces you to live in the present. Unlike email, it can’t delay messages. Chat makes ‘now or never’ your team’s reality.
When everything is urgent nothing is. This is the master plan of the villain in pixar’s incredibles. slack is a supervillain plot to destroy your team.
The format is fragmented and constrained
Chat is not editable, or not in the way you’d want. You can edit text for some time window but it doesn’t create an alert. I think corrections and careful research are more important than initial reactions. I prefer the G docs model, where comments / questions create an alert and initial text doesn’t.
Chat, at least on slack, isn’t grouped or threaded. ‘What about rooms?’ you ask. In my experience (at 4+ companies) rooms aren’t a clear delineation; they tend to anchor groups rather than topics and topics/conversations still overlap in any one channel. Under the typical use patterns I’ve observed, it’s non-trivial to know what the current topics of conversation are in a slack channel or to assign one of those topics to any given message.
Scrolling would be a great way to identify the topic but scrolling is totally broken. Scrolling up more than two pages’ worth causes nightmare reflows, anchor jumping – things that more civilized computer users from the 80s or 90s would call glitches but modern web users have come to tolerate.
Email is way better at threading and slack has killed it – nobody will pay attention to both.
slack is inherently rushed: I feel like I’m in a hurry to whisper before someone shouts. The ‘is typing’ feature is the nail in the coffin here. It shuts down my ability to think coherently. I find myself composing messages in the address bar with my eyes closed to ward off panic. ‘is typing’ allows slow typists to dissolve group thought.
Paradoxically, speed is just as toxic to group thought, as people will race to get out ideas and leave them half-formed or contradictory. Missing ‘not’ in a sentence is my favorite. When people catch themselves at this they will post a
*not, sometimes a few lines down. I feel like I’m in a wayne’s world sketch.
slack search is broken
In like every way it’s possible to break search:
- in part because unlike threads in email / forums, there’s no natural grouping, so you can only search for messages
- in part because the slack search feature is badly implemented – adjacent messages show up as separate results, even when their before/after context overlaps
- I never know what clicking will do – sometimes it will scroll my channel to the message, other times show or hide or resize the search result
- the ‘more results’ button takes me to a paged view but the first results are the same 3 I just saw – i.e. ‘more’ takes me from page 1 to page 1. WTF.
- ctrl-f, the one constant of web interaction, is broken in channels if you’re searching more than one page up. We can blame this on the DOM but I assume this is because slack’s heavy CSS uses too much memory to keep a long scroll history.
I get that this is just a UX issue and is fixable but (1) I don’t know if it is fixable when your foundation is the sandy marsh that is the DOM and (2) if slack were a tool for augmenting thought rather than preventing it, it would have a working search feature.
It increases productivity (the bad kind)
Goodhart’s law is the one where turning a metric into a target makes it a bad metric. Slack subverts valuable work by making productivity = availability on slack.
Productivity as a metric is problematic because it’s so hard to measure or even to define in a general way. In economics, total factor productivity is basically wages minus capital, and is flummoxed by the fact that better tools don’t put more money in people’s pockets (employees are generally paid for their time).
At work, productivity conflates delivery and business value. We know how to measure the first but we mostly care about the second. Optimizing delivery rate has bad effects on products and teams:
- Middle managers will make deliverables smaller and less valuable so they can declare a win to their bosses or so the C-suite can brag to shareholders
- Which in turn moves design work from domain experts to PMs, resulting in nuts designs
- And it increases utilization, which leads to burnout, reduces safety margins, stifles innovation (that’s what those spare cycles were getting used for)
These points are part of a larger tug of war between middle managers and programmers. That argument is out of scope for this article, except to say that pervasive chat empowers middle managers (i.e. people who like to check in a lot) to do so, at the expense of your creatives’ well-being and your long-term organizational health.
Why are people blind to this? I think because most people never understood how work gets done or don’t think about it. Now slack comes in and makes ‘work’ visible in the form of instant replies to quick questions, dancing emoji stickers, and nonstop chatter, and some people are like, ‘yes! look at all that my team has accomplished’.
It replaces documentation
I think most people agree that when knowledge workers work together on teams they need to use writing to agree on what to do. On slack the quality of that writing is plumbing new depths. There’s a world of difference between a well-considered G doc that has been edited by multiple people vs a stream of consciousness mixed in with people’s WFH announcements and ‘look what my cat did’.
24/7 reachability also hurts good docs practices. When people couldn’t get ahold of each other at all hours orgs had to design for redundancy, i.e. write things down such that they could be understood by someone else. But there’s a whole generation of workers and even companies that never experienced that.
The information critical to your company’s ops is stored in three places:
- documents (including email)
The slack model increases the percent of your company’s critical decisions that rely on a specific brain. Good luck with that.
What does slack do right
There’s one way in which slack edges out trello & jira for project management. T&J don’t implement backpressure; slack does, because there are limits to attention.
But this is a goldilocks problem – neither the jira ‘kitchen sink’ model nor the slack ‘off the dome’ model is ideal. Also, lots of people want to use slack trello AND jira simultaneously without any sense of shame (2 is egregious but 3 is insane). Also, slack isn’t the right solution for project management, at minimum because it doesn’t have good aggregation views; not that jira really does either. We need to build scheduling tools that have well-considered limits, not the arbitrary limit of what people can process under high attention pressure.
trello & jira
Are also things I hate.
They promote this icebox theory of design. What did a PM think of six months ago that hasn’t been started? Let’s do that. If your best people aren’t inventing and assigning projects, why should anyone bother showing up to work?
JIRA has a screen real estate problem. Have you seen the articles about SERP shrinkage, where a G results page in 2004 was mostly results and now it’s mostly ads? JIRA started out this way. 90% of the text on the screen isn’t your project’s information, it’s JIRA chrome.
Another JIRA flaw: highly formalized process is usually a hindrance, especially considering who in your organization invents, applies and benefits from process. Hint: middle managers.
The commoditization of communication isn’t working. So let’s get off the wagon and start making considered plans again. A blank sheet of paper is all anyone has ever needed to do this well.
Orgs do have a real need to get questions answered. You can say chat is the closest thing to this, but it comes with too many costs. Stack overflow was a cool innovation when it landed – marking questions completed. But bear in mind that the previous SERP winner, expertsexchange, hid the answer because they wanted to charge you for it, not for UX reasons. And SO has become relatively shitty now, and replaced docs for a lot of OSS libs.
Deleting uber didn’t fix labor relations in the gig economy, but your org can free itself from chat anytime you want – all you have to do is to stop.
Stop reading if you don’t care about any of the following:
- increasing your best people’s happiness
- being less reactive to distractions
- being more focused on real progress
If you do care about those things, also stop reading but after you do, go dump chat.
I took 4 months off in 2015 and when I rejoined the workforce in 2016 – distraction city. People were checking buzzing phones in meetings. Chat alerts were click-click-clicking all the time. There was no cultural support or even real understanding of the idea that you need to turn this stuff off to get any work done. I made this point to a PM and his response was ‘oh, you have ADD’.
Slack and the toxic behaviors it implicitly endorses will give ADD to your whole company. Want a one-click competitive advantage? Delete your account.