Group Chat Is An Open Office

Slack isn’t killing your productivity. Your behavior is killing your productivity.

Illustration by Chris Gerringer aka Paperbeatsscissors.

Over the past few months I’ve been reading a lot about why Slack (and similar tools, like HipChat, but let’s focus on Slack since it’s by far the most widely used) is thrashing productivity by demanding far more attention than it saves. The complaints rarely have much to do with Slack as a communication tool and much more to do with Slack as a driver of behavior in the office. But is that fair? I don’t think so.

The article that first sparked the public discussion was a fantastic and hilarious breakup written by Samuel Hulick, titled “Slack, I’m Breaking Up with You.” In this modern man-and-machine public betrayal, Samuel identified exactly what went wrong in his relationship with Slack and why the two needed to break up. Between us, though, I think the real problem was that Slack has over 2 million other partners. Even if they weren’t exclusive, that’s pretty shitty.

Samuel’s article — and one other popular takedown of group chat written by Jason Fried — focus on the “always on” nature of group chat that is soaking up our productive hours and replacing them with things like all-day meetings, keeping up with every conversation ever, and a sense of urgency only matched by those seagulls in Finding Nemo. This argument, that behavior is driven by the atmosphere in which we work and the tools we use, is not new. In fact, nearly every complaint can be tracked back to a similar complaint against open office environments.

The claims are that open offices create all-day meetings. The conversations in open offices attract eavesdroppers who don’t want to miss out. Worst of all, they kill our productivity. They also come with many positives and, if a culture is built around operating efficiently in an open office, many of the negatives can be eliminated. Group chat, and Slack specifically, is no different.

These are not Slack’s problems. They are your problems.

Here’s the thing, our team at Mostly Serious works in an open office and we’re pretty fond of Slack. We’ve had an open office and used group chat for nearly 6 years (first with HipChat). We also place a lot of value on productivity and agree with Jason Fried that attention is one of our most precious resources. We can’t behave like those seagulls if we ever want to get anything done. Because we try to solve the problem, proactively, of lost productivity in our studio, I turned to our team and asked some questions to better understand how we’re riding this wild animal others seem to struggle so greatly to tame.

When asked what they do to focus, “putting on headphones” and “turning off Slack” were the most common responses. In our office, putting on headphones is effectively closing your office door or turning off the open office. Now, take many of the complaints levied against Slack and they can be solved if you tell yourself (or your team) “just turn the damn thing off!” In fact, the number one complaint, that Slack is “always on,” is no longer a complaint if you just press CMD+Q. And in case you’re one of those people struggling to keep your wandering eyes off Slack as you’re reading this, I’ll give you a moment to go turn it off before we continue.

Proof that our open office can operate without the dreaded all-day-meeting effect. Photo by Keen Creative.

Several complaints about Slack are based on the implication that it can’t actually be turned off, like a fear of missing out or the unread badge number haunting you. This is absolutely true. But there is also a pretty clear solution: Stop doing those things. If your team is incapable of killing an app in order to get work done, you probably have a larger problem on your hands than using or not using Slack. If your managers are incapable of allowing your team to shut off an app, you probably have a larger problem.

The counter argument is that Slack is built to take advantage of our natural behavioral flaws and becomes stronger every minute it is able to feed on our happily dancing fingers and minds. Well, sure, okay, I’m not going to say Slack isn’t a pleasure to use for both good and evil, but that power is entirely within your control.

Jason Fried is a new opponent of open chat (not terribly long ago he built a product to try to do what Slack does), but as he pointed out in a 2010 TEDx talk that these are chosen distractions, like compulsively checking Facebook and that these distractions aren’t all that different than the norms of our past, for example, smoke breaks. Here’s a segment from his TEDx talk on this topic:

Now, managers and bosses will often have you think that the real distractions at work are things like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and other websites, and in fact, they’ll go so far as to actually ban these sites at work. Some of you may work at places where you can’t get to certain sites. I mean, is this China? What the hell is going on here? You can’t go to a website at work, and that’s the problem? That’s why people aren’t getting work done, because they’re on Facebook and Twitter? That’s kind of ridiculous. It’s a total decoy. Today’s Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, these things are just modern-day smoke breaks. No one cared about letting people take a smoke break for 15 minutes 10 years ago,so why does anyone care if someone goes to Facebook or Twitter or YouTube here and there? Those aren’t the real problems in the office.

I have always strongly agreed with Jason on this point and many of his insights while growing 37signals (now Basecamp) have heavily influenced our own company. It seems, though, that Jason has chosen to blame Slack and other group chat applications in 2016 where he has done the opposite for chosen distractions in the past. I agree with his original assessment, which must, logically, apply to group chat like Slack. In other words, it’s not Slack that is the problem; it’s the allowance and even promotion of the negative behavior to penetrate your culture that is the problem.

Some teams simply won’t be able to establish and maintain rules to ensure productivity in an open office or with Slack as part of their daily process, and that’s entirely okay. Not every company is built to take advantage of the benefits Slack or an open office will offer; however, it’s also clear that not every company is incapable of eliminating many of the negatives. You know, because each and every one of us is a special and unique creature.

Setting Some Ground Rules

Our team is made up of people who understand the importance of hitting deadlines, having large chunks of time to focus on tasks, and the power of productive time over butt-in-seat time. We understand why these things are important because everyone on our team has experienced what it’s like to create things for a living. Even our project manager, who may not be directly designing or coding, has written music for years and knows a song isn’t born of finding out what type of lunch concoction adam posted in our Slack #foodie channel.

Based on that understanding, we established rules to ensure our open office promoted productivity instead of detracting from it. For that same reason, we have put some rules in place to get the most out of Slack. These rules have removed nearly all problems we face with Slack with the exception of those that need to be solved by turning the damn thing off. As with many other areas of your work life, sometimes you just need some good old fashioned self discipline to get shit done.

1. Quiet Time

When we’re not playing guitar in a circle like a beautiful office commune (that has never happened outside of the photo op), you’ll likely find a nearly silent office full of headphone-wearing designers, developers, and writers. We have become well conditioned to limit the number of distractions in the office, thanks in large part to Slack being our communication hub.

But what do you do about Slack? The same thing. Select hours, half days, or full days and completely block them off as time people can and should stay off of Slack. Even better, make it mandatory and force people to close Slack. Anyone caught sneaking a meme in #random loses taco privileges.

2. Kick ’Em Out

Steve Jobs, when in a meeting with someone he felt wasn’t necessary, would politely ask them to leave. When someone is in a Slack channel when they aren’t necessary to the task being discussed, politely ask them to leave. Or /kick them and react with the 👢emoji.

This will immediately remove the stress associated with that person trying to keep up with a conversation that isn’t relevant to them in that moment, prevent them from feeling like they should needlessly follow along, and give you the satisfaction of using the👢emoji.

3. Turn Off Notifications

This isn’t for everyone, but if notifications are scary to you or they stress you out (I’m with you), turn them off. Slack never notifies me of anything. In order to know what is happening in Slack, I have to open and check Slack. If I don’t, it’s never on. Hey, there’s another “always on” fix! Two birds, one notification stone.

4. Ban The ASAP Culture

This is probably the most important point in this entire article. I pulled this from Jason Fried’s list of negatives:

2. An ASAP culture. Now! At its very core, group chat and real-time communication is all about now. That’s why in some select circumstances it really shines. But chat conditions us to believe everything’s worth discussing quickly right now, except that hardly anything is. Turns out, very few things require ASAP attention. Further, ASAP is inflationary — it devalues any request that doesn’t say ASAP. Before you know it, the only way to get anything done is by throwing it in front of people and asking for their immediate feedback. It’s like you’re constantly tapping everyone’s shoulder — or pulling on everyone’s shirt — to get them to stop what they’re doing and turn around to address what’s on your mind. It’s not a sustainable practice.

This shouldn’t exist. It simply shouldn’t. This is one of those issues where, if it has penetrated your culture, you probably have bigger fish to fry than Slack allowing you to continue making this mistake. Slack doesn’t condition a company to accept the ASAP culture nearly as much as the leaders within a company condition people to accept and allow this mentality.

Here’s Jason’s advice on the topic of ASAP and how to manage it within your business, from the book he co-authored, Rework:

“So reserve your use of emergency language for true emergencies. The kind where there are direct, measurable consequences to inaction. For everything else, chill out.”

Let’s apply that advice to Slack use: Reserve your @channel mentions for true emergencies. For everything else, chill out.

5. Use the App Appropriately

This is one of those solutions that can only really come from using the product. Slack is great for many, many things, but it’s often overused at something it’s not so great at: working through difficult problems by thinking a line at a time. This is a very real problem, but it stems from a misuse of the toolset available in an application like Slack.

I spend a considerable amount of time writing articles, outlines, and internal messages, and Slack’s Post feature is a phenomenal tool for that use case (but seriously, Slack, you need to add spellcheck to Posts on Mac, like, 6 months ago). I am able to write and share an article (with a lot of typos, because spellcheck is missing) with our team and receive comments back, when the person is available, directly associated with that Post (that spells hierarchy as “heirarchy” because… you get the point). Using Slack’s features as intended makes it a great tool for thinking through a problem and receiving feedback later.

What wouldn’t work so well is 56 lines of scattered thought, but Slack seems well prepared for many different use cases if we understand and educate ourselves on the tool. Then again, if I sent you 56 emails for every line I typed instead of writing the entire email and hitting send, I would expect you to think I was being pretty silly.

One of the reasons we value Slack as highly as we do is because it’s much more than a group chat app. If used effectively and appropriately, Slack can replace many internal tools while streamlining internal processes by intelligently incorporating integrations.

6. Don’t Use Slack as a Hat

Just as we have to understand how to appropriately use the features of Slack, we also must understand what Slack should not be used for (yet). Well, probably never as a hat, but we’ll see. They have some very smart people over there.

One of the biggest problems we have with Slack is that we don’t really have a way to delay messages. Reminders work for small needs but not for larger requests. Let’s say we’re heading out early for the day and need something from someone before we start in the morning: It’s tempting to drop an @ mention, but now we’ve interrupted someone’s productive time at 3pm. This is something Slack isn’t good at (yet), so we turned to another tool, Wunderlist, to solve this problem. Slap the need on the appropriate person’s list, assign a time it’s due, set a reminder for them if necessary, and get your happy ass out of the office and enjoy the day.

We run into quite a few of these issues but typically find pretty quickly that we’re trying to use Slack for something it’s not meant to do. We enlist a few other tools, and often we can quickly identify which tool would be more appropriate to solve the problem at hand without wrecking someone else’s concentration. Then, after you know the tool you’ll be using, you can probably add the integration to Slack.

6. Sign out of Other Groups

One of the primary concerns I’ve heard about Slack from friends and in the articles outlining the faults of group chat is how many groups people have signed up for. In Samuel’s tragedy, he admits to being a part of ten different Slack teams. TEN! I don’t think I’ve been a part of ten things at once in my entire life, much less Slack teams.

I am currently on three Slack teams — Mostly Serious, Springfield Creatives, and one that includes industry peers and friends I would otherwise keep in touch with using similar tools like iMessage or email. The two non-work teams are set to Do Not Disturb during work hours to avoid the hassle of trying to explain to Ted why I care about this topic as much as I do. Those conversations can wait until I’m sitting on my couch watching Baskets.

The part I don’t understand is why on Earth someone makes a poor decision to join ten Slack teams and then wonders why the poor decision has led to a poor result. If you bring even a few of your friends to work with you, they are going to be distracting and your boss is going to wonder what the hell you’re doing. It’s probably time to tell your friends you have work to do and Mom won’t let you play on Slack until you finish.

Getting Better All the Time

We’ve been using Slack for a while now and, outside of not having spellcheck in posts on the Mac app (yes, I’m really hung up on this), we’re very happy using it as the hub for our communication. That doesn’t mean we won’t need to continue to identify and set rules as a team to protect our productivity and sanity, just as we do with our open office.

My argument is not that I believe group chat is the best form of communication in all situations, and it’s not that we shouldn’t be attempting to find the best way to increase productivity for ours teams; it is that Slack, or group chat as a whole, is not inherently a problem.

Just like open office environments, there are drawbacks and advantages. What may not work for one company may work perfectly for another. Some companies may never find the benefits of group chat and others may never be able to navigate around the negatives. The key, for us, is to look deeper into our behavior and office culture before looking to blame an application for our failings.

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