How Slack ruined work

IF YOU HAVE a suspicious feeling that Slack is slowly taking over your time at work, you are not alone.

More businesses than ever have turned to the workplace instant messaging platform to combine chat and emails and slay never-ending internal email chains in the process. The appeal is clear – as of September, there were five billion ‘actions’ on the platform every week, one billion of which are on smartphones.

The app may have a loyal band of followers but neuroscientist and lecturer, Lucas Miller is certainly not among them. As a lecturer at Haas School of Business at Berkeley University and co-founder of productivity consultancy, Stoa Partners, Miller warns students and clients on the dangers of getting hooked on Slack.

“Technology advances usually supplant what has come before but Slack hasn’t, it’s just doubled the pain,” he says. The problem, Miller explains, goes beyond the inconvenience of monitoring another inbox. He sees Slack as a particularly “scary offender” in stopping people getting their work done because it encourages them to be constantly distracted. It's scary because messenger-based systems directly tap into how humans seek to reward themselves, and the long term result is unhealthy.

“With email you know you probably have time to read through a bunch of messages and have a day to respond,” he says. “Slack is instant and we get a rewarding hit of dopamine every time we respond to someone or someone reaches out to us to let us know a member of our 'work tribe' needs us. It makes us feel valued and informed, but it also makes us fearful every time an alert comes in that we’ll be out of the loop or ill-informed if we don’t check a message, even though very few truly need our instant attention.”

The result is workers end up checking messages about work, rather than doing any, he surmises. The problem isn't necessarily Slack as a platform, but how people use instant messaging software. Beyond a loss of production, it has the longer term impact that users are either distracted by the tool or anticipating being distracted by it. The result is workers are increasingly finding it difficult to concentrate fully on the task they're doing.

This productivity issue has led some executives to dramatically curb the use of Slack. When she set up her design company, Perq Studio, three years ago, Laura Giffard committed to allowing staff to work to a four day week. To help achieve this, she has two simple Slack rules. Don’t use it, if possible. But if you have to, don’t lose face to face contact.

“It’s often out of our control because a new client will ask us to collaborate with them on it, but my push back is always that there is nothing wrong with email for messages and Dropbox for large files,” she says. “If someone really insists we can use it, but only so long as there are milestones in a project where we agree to have proper meetings.”

By forgetting about face to face meetings, walking ten yards to speak to a co-worker or just picking up the phone, businesses could be unwittingly forcing employees to use cutting edge tools that make keeping up with conversations into a “nightmare”.

And for those who are told they need not worry about Slack, because it will only be used sparingly, Giffard has a warning message: “You can train your people all you like but you can get partners and clients going on there making things more conversational rather than focussed on work,” she says.

“Some people like to chat a lot but lots of people also need to focus and concentrate on their work, that’s what can make Slack such a distraction.”

So, what can you do if your work asks you to use Slack? The company itself is keen to remind users that if they are finding the app distracting, the snooze functions can mute conversations and emojis show a message has been seen but a user is currently heads-down in some other work. Starring channels will also allow a user to prioritise which conversations are important and which are not.

Nevertheless, the problem many users are finding with Slack, and other instant-messaging based productivity tools, is not just needing to check them but rather the fact they are being used in the first place. Businesses may not just lose out on productivity but also on work-life balance if their employees believe they are being constantly monitored.

“Bosses are in chats and so people can feel as if they’re being watched and micromanaged,” says business coach Mary MacRory. “Rather than being allowed to get on with work, there’s always someone looking over their shoulder. You wouldn’t dial in your manager on every call to a client, but with Slack, that is how it can feel.”

So if you're worried that Slack is having a negative impact on your work and home life, don't get locked in the dopamine reward cycle of constantly checking for messages and responding to every notification. Instead, concentrate on the task in hand and, never forget, walking down the corridor to have a chat or picking up the phone can build far better personal relationships without all that screen clutter.

Sahar Yousef: Cognitive Neuroscientist at UC Berkeley, Haas School of Business

Bring Sahar Yousef to your next event.

Find out more information, including fees and availability.