How productivity apps like Slack are making us less productive

In July, a magazine publisher sent out a proposal outlining a new content strategy to a client. The snag was this proposal skipped the usual internal sign-off process — due to a wider team of people working on it remotely — so the deck was replete with spelling errors, incorrect images and unapproved strategy. 

Unusually for this publisher, the final deck was shared on Slack, the popular workplace tool.  

Suggested edits were lost in a flurry of messages and not every team member had the app downloaded on their phone. It’s an easy mistake to make and a common occurrence.

“Slack can make people hasty,” says an executive at the magazine publisher. “I don’t want to be in a group chat that spins between something pertinent and banal office banter. Sign-off processes for client briefs require a more meticulous way of working. With Slack, I draw the line.”

Slack emerged in 2013, an internal tool for developers working on the now-defunct online game, Glitch. The goal: Unshackle office communication from the hierarchical structure of email to collaborative workflows glamorized by Silicon Valley’s workforce. But not all corporate cultures fit that mold.

Since then, Slack has been criticized for fueling unproductivity, shirking privacy, allegedly not taking harassment seriously enough and, perhaps most unfairly, for blurring the lines between work and socializing. In a lot of cases, these claims are not distinctive to Slack. But a broader emphasis on striking a better work-life balance means some people, and companies, are communicating elsewhere.

A common critique of workplace messaging is that they distract. When Slack experienced an outage for a few hours on June 27, 2018, those who had RescueTime, productivity tracking software, installed on their browsers behaved in a more productive way.

“The structure of how time is spent within companies we see first in their Slack data, so it’s a prequel and a sequel of all communication, and that’s a good thing,” says Jan Rezab, CEO and founder of Time is Ltd., which helps organizations improve productivity. The problem, he adds, is overcommunication, when people use Slack as a chat rather than a communication channel.

In a company of 1,000 employees, there is, on average, one channel per user, according to research by Time is Ltd. An average Slack user gets a message — either direct or in a channel they are active in — every two to three minutes. When it takes roughly 25 minutes to return to a task, this is obviously terrible for productivity.

It’s worth repeating that it’s not Slack at fault but the way people use it. Companies can structure and monitor their Slack use. Notifications can be muted and basic hygiene factors — like auto-deleting channels, restricting new channel creation and mentioning people in channels rather than direct messaging — make it more manageable.

“There are many things that culminated to this culture of overwork,” says Hannah Elderfield, senior behavioral analyst at consumer behavioral insights firm, Canvas8. “A lot of people don’t have a regular nine-to-five where they switch off at the end of the day.” 

A study on 142 employees in 2018, co-authored by William Becker, a Virginia Tech associate professor, highlights the negative impacts of ‘always on’ culture. “’Always on’ organizational culture is often unaccounted for or disguised as a benefit,” the report says. “Our research exposes the reality: ‘flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being.”

There are moves to rein in the tyranny of Slack. A New Zealand real-estate firm has introduced a four-day working week. A Japanese construction company blasts out the theme song from “Rocky,” (“Gonna Fly Now”), on the loudspeaker at 6 p.m. to remind employees to actually go home. At the extreme level, France has passed a law banning work emails outside office hours.

Slack, with its GIFs, private channels and simple layout, puts it alongside personal messaging apps like WhatsApp. When employees fall into using as such, without parameters, is where it becomes a problem.

“That behavior wasn’t predicted,” notes Elderfield. 

For others, Slack also represents a much wider encroachment of tech Silicon Valley culture.

“I don’t want to be ‘always on.’ I don’t want to be contactable at all times, and I am not a profit-making robot for someone else to use up,” says the magazine publishing exec. “Facebook at work, Slack, beanbags and free coffee gives me the chills.”

Company culture, support and flexibility all play a role. According to Rezab, once a company gets to around 70 people, it benefits from assigning specific hires to monitor and manage platform usage. 

“Enhanced communications are beneficial. It’s when you start not having any rules around the use where it becomes a problem,” says Elderfield. “That lack of control, the blurring of boundaries, that’s when people get stressed, and it bleeds into unproductivity.”

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