I’ve spent the last 8 years working for or with tech companies. Before Slack, we communicated in archaic ways: email, mostly, or running down the hall to ask our boss if they “had a minute.”
We spoke less. We spent more time on our own, our heads down, escaping to the literal water cooler to chat with a colleague to clear our mind when we needed a moment away from a problem we’d stared at too long.
At the risk of sounding wistful, I liked it.
I love being in a flow state.
I know the hours when I work well on complicated projects that need rapt attention (8–2pm) and the hours where I should focus on administrative tasks where it’s OK if my mind drifts (2–5pm).
For me, the old-school office vibe worked well for this. It allowed me to plug in and focus until my brain politely asked me for a break.
It offered me moments to unwind and let my mind settle, getting to know my colleagues or walking the office dog.
Mostly, it forced me out of my desk, away from notifications and questions and to-do’s.
(Re)Enter: Desktop Instant Messaging
By 2017, I had been using Slack for about a year. The tech company I worked at maintained 10–20 public channels; standard ones like #dev, #ops, and #general were present, as well as a smattering of less mainstream groups, like #pets and #TOPoli.
I enjoyed Slack. It had a cool interface. It was easy to navigate. It made asking and answering questions fast.
And the little red dots — well, the little red dots were addictive.
Over the next four years, I would work at two different companies. I would use Slack every day, 7 days a week. It would be the first thing I checked when I woke up and the last thing I checked before bed. It would be the only app for which I didn’t turn off notifications.
Slack would begin as a convenient tool that I checked on my time to one that dominated my workday.
To one that I stopped exercising control over.
And I never even saw it happening.
Slack killed my productivity
By 2020, I was working at a 35-person company. We had well over 2 dozen Slack channels. I managed a team of 4 and sat across two distinct teams.
Slack was open on my laptop at all times, an entire screen next to my monitor dedicated to notifications, sounds, and pop-ups.
I would break to use the bathroom or eat my lunch and there was my phone. Not because I was texting my friends or chatting with my girlfriend.
I was looking at my Slack notifications.
My to-do lists stayed stubbornly long. I was constantly adding items to them but crossing them off infrequently. Yet I felt burned-out, exhausted. I was working harder than ever.
The instantaneous, addictive nature of Slack made me feel like I was expected to respond to everything right away.
The little green dot that signalled I was online meant no one should be waiting more than a few minutes to hear back from me.
And the red dots telling me I’d been mentioned meant I was urgently needed.
Sometimes I’d reply to all my messages, close the app, and scroll over my toolbar 10 minutes later to see 20+ new notifications. And I’d go right back into that dark screen, clicking through channels and typing until it was back to zero.
I passed hundreds of days this way.
And now I wonder: did all of these questions have to be answered right away?
In the office where we asked fewer questions — did we have fewer questions to ask?
Has Slack enabled us to work better and faster? Or has it tricked us?
Beholden to a product that promised to free us from isolation
I felt handcuffed to a technology. Tethered to a product that was supposed to help me connect. Instead of enabling collaboration, it had destroyed my ability to focus.
It had left me with a constant hum of anxiety, a little voice saying I’d missed something, or that someone needed me.
The other day, I opened up my old laptop, the one I used in my last two jobs, which has since become the family movie computer. It had restarted to complete an update.
On login, Slack opened.
I had a moment of literal panic. The memory of missing a message that was “important.”
Of not replying fast enough.
Of someone thinking I wasn’t working during work hours.
Of posting my standup at 8am and my checkout at 9pm, always afraid someone would tell me I wasn’t working hard enough.
I haven’t used Slack now in 6 months. My current company uses Microsoft Teams. While the technology itself isn’t markedly different, my use of it is.
I’m back to spending about 70% of my day in a flow state. The other 30%, I’m checking emails, messaging my team, and sitting in meetings.
I haven’t catalogued every minute, but I’d say my output is easily double what it was when I was using Slack — and that’s in less time.
I’m no longer extricating myself from my work to reply to a message, only to spend another 20 minutes getting back into that flow state.
I’m no longer anxious that someone will think I’m not working if I don’t reply right away.
And I don’t expect instantaneous answers back anymore.
If Slack isn’t the answer, what is?
I know we need some way of communicating with our colleagues. As tech companies continue to operate against the backdrop of their employee’s living rooms, I know we need a space to connect, ask questions, and collaborate.
But I don’t know that Slack is the place to do it. At least, I don’t think we’re using it right.
I was 12 when I started using MSN Messenger.
I would get home from school and talk to my friends online for hours, switching from chat to chat.
It was a game for me: chatting with the crush I was too shy to speak to at school.
Gossiping with my friends.
Living in this digital world with my favourite people while the sun went down outside.
Slack is that. As much as I believe in what the company set out to achieve, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a company where Slack truly is “where work happens.”
Instead, it seems that work happens in spite of Slack.
In spite of friends DMing each other for hours during their workday.
In spite of employees arguing about a technical problem on a thread for a week rather than hashing it out in 10 minutes with a whiteboard.
In spite of asking questions that could have been solved with a quick Google.
I know I’m more productive when I’m not constantly checking for notifications. And the reality is, I love my work most when I get to immerse myself in it.
But maybe I’m weird.
Maybe others want to spend most of their day sending immaterial messages back and forth, rather than doing the thing they were hired to do.
Maybe they like answering two dozen questions through their keyboard rather than a 30-second conversation.
Maybe I’m weird. But I don’t think so.