Slack and other collaboration tools are great for team building — not productivity.
The business tool du jour, Slack, is so refined in its design that employers don’t even need to train employees to use it: they just sign in to anticipate replies, savour notifications, and be more connected to their colleagues than ever before. This effortless usability has lead to 2.3 million users spending a total of 600 years in Slack each weekday.
Like the ding of a new private message, it sounds great. But, the polish on tools like Slack creates a slippery slope for an increasingly rare and valuable commodity: focus.
According to an almost 10,000 employee survey from Steelcase, the average office worker is distracted or interrupted every three minutes, and it takes more than 23 minutes to get fully refocused on a task. Worse still, employees with higher IQs have the hardest time prioritizing incoming information, making them subject to “a feeling of inadequacy and [otherwise unable] to deal with the workload as a whole,” psychiatrist Ned Hallowell told the Telegraph.
Constant distractions increase anxiety and forgetfulness, and, according to a UK study, cause an actual drop in IQ. Even people who claim they’re capable multitaskers tend to perform less effectively than if they were to concentrate on a single task. The serendipitous state of flow, where a programmer can punch in code like it’s second nature, is next to impossible in a distraction-ridden environment.
Employers are aware of the problem. A survey from CareerBuilder found nearly half of the human resources managers surveyed agree that quality of work takes the biggest hit from distractions. Still, as employers struggle to stay on the cutting edge and present a hip work culture, foosball tables pockmark open concept workspaces, and Slack disrupts the relatively archaic email inbox.
Because, the thing is — Slack is fun.
For the Toby team, Slack is an online ‘watercooler corner,’ a proverbial kitchen table at which we all sit. Slack allows us to connect with our team members across Axiom Zen (our parent company), share fun articles, display our sense of humour, and post important (but ephemeral) notices. Will builders be in the office making noise from 9–10? That lives in the #vancouver Slack channel. Did Snappr just release a photo analyzer that is probably a sophisticated email grab? That lives in #random. Do we need to draft a proposal document for a client meeting? We know we’ll reference the issue again, which means it stays off Slack.
The rule is simple. If it isn’t ephemeral, it isn’t for Slack. Anything living, or anything we want to reference again in the future, stays in Toby, within reach of team members on every new tab.
Slack is fun, and having an avenue for brief distraction, that employees can interact with when they choose and ignore when they need to, provides the same kind of enjoyable office culture as foosball tables and hammocks. But Toby’s move to ensure important conversations never happen on Slack, that issues that might need to be be referenced in the future live exclusively on Toby collections, didn’t happen on its own. It was a conscious decision to embrace the fun of Slack, while ensuring office productivity didn’t take a hit. We encourage ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode, so we can receive and send messages at our convenience — not at the behest of a Pavlovian-inspired dinging noise.
Companies need to train employees to use technology that supposedly “doesn’t need training.” It’s not an issue of ease of use; it’s an issue of being too easy to use, all the time, any time. Personal responsibility and poor self-control are always a factor, but users need to be aware that most digital tools are engineered to elicit compulsive behaviour. They’re designed to make you feel productive without actually being productive.
We can’t fault Slack and other tools for being well-designed and easy to use — Slack’s designers did their job well. It’s our job to make sure we use it, and other tools like it, responsibly.