After working remotely for close to a year, Slack is my closest confidant
A couple of weeks ago, I was having coffee with a friend at his local coffee spot in Los Angeles. Like any coffee shop in any major city, the vast majority of people floating around were students trying to study while flirting with the person sitting across the table from them or younger people who worked for companies that didn’t require them to be in an actual office. As such, the coffee shop had become their new office, the baristas their co-workers.
Working from home, or in this scenario, working from your local cafe has its advantages. There’s no enforced dress code, there are always new people to talk to, and of course, flirting seems to be less dangerous when you’re not in an office full of co-workers. But hey, maybe that’s just me.
Working from home also has its disadvantages, as I’ve come to learn. 10 months ago, I made the best decision of my life — to leave my newspaper job, which I loved but had major problems, and work for my dream site. The events I’ve been able to cover, the people I’ve been able to interview and the friends I’ve made through working at my current job weren’t ever things I thought I’d be able to experience and I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be there. The only issue that I face with some of my co-workers is that I work remotely. And working remotely, for me, is the pits.
I’m a social person. I thrive on being able to talk to someone in an office or get lunch with a co-worker. I like surrounding myself with people who are interested in the same things, going to events with them and building up that camaraderie through the social aspects that come with traditionally working in an office.
This was the conversation I was having with my friend, who had recently gotten a job that he’s very happy with, but that also leaves him working remotely. He’s based in Los Angeles and his company is in New York City, so the option of even going in one or two days a week simply doesn’t exist. For the most part, he enjoys the freedom, but he confessed to me that he did miss seeing people on a more frequent basis and, perhaps most importantly, he couldn’t fight off the feeling of disconnect that came with not being physically near a co-worker.
We lambasted these problems, moaning to each other about the complications that arise with working remotely — I couldn’t remember when the last time I wore pants “to work” was— but then a singular word came up that made us switch instantly from bitching about the one aspect of our jobs we didn’t like to, like the rotten millennials we are, praising the advancement of communication platform technology.
Gmail chat didn’t cut it, Skype remains a terrible platform to do anything and Facebook Messenger has its limitations. In an era when you need to communicate with more than five people at any given time, and to an even larger extent, feel like you’re close to them, Slack has been the only messaging platform that has done anything to even remotely remove that physical barrier that divides employees — whether it be by just a few blocks, cities, states, or oceans.
“When I first got the job, my editor asked me if I ever used Slack,” my friend said. “And when I said no, she said my life was going to change. I thought she was exaggerating.”
I had a similar experience when I first joined my company. Prior to being brought on, we used Gmail Chat at my former newspaper to communicate more easily about breaking news stories that needed to be hit. As is human nature, that quickly dissolved into a series of inside joke-related doodles and loving insults tossed at one another throughout the day. Gmail Chat wasn’t great, but we never really questioned how bad it was because it was a secondary form of communication. We still all worked in an office together, side-by-side. Gmail Chat was just a luxury that kept us from shouting at one another across the room.
Being based in Toronto, with the majority of my co-workers in New York City and a few others sprinkled across the country (San Francisco, the midwest, and elsewhere), Gmail Chat wouldn’t cut it anymore. Luckily, it was never an option because by the time I joined my company, Slack was already a thing that most media organizations had invested into and embraced with open arms.
From the first time I used Slack, what shook me immediately was how human it felt. Unlike Gmail Chat or Skype’s chat function which still felt standoffish to me whenever I had a discussion with someone on it, there were enough communication options in Slack to translate everything we do through normal conversation: emojis were emphasized reactions to certain things, gifs introduced me to my co-workers sense of humor or interests, and, of course, we had the ability to have mass, group conversations about any topic we wanted to discuss without it feeling like a clusterfuck.
There are a lot of similarities between Gmail Chat and Slack, don’t get me wrong. They have many of the same functionalities, but there seems to be something more personal about Slack that creates a better working environment than Gmail ever did. Or perhaps it’s just the lack of confusion that doesn’t accompany Slack that does Gmail Chat that I appreciated, but whatever it was, it made working from home feel slightly less remote.
Slack went from being a simple work tool to a preferred way to communicate with co-workers, and eventually, friends. Once I was introduced to it, I asked my friends if they had used it all. One, a typical tech snob (which I say with the utmost love and adoration), said that he had been using it for quite some time and the other said she was just recently introduced to it, as well. We decided to set up our own group on the platform and have found ourselves migrating away from mediums like Facebook Messenger or even text to talk over Slack. It’s easier, it’s more convenient and there’s a level of fun that we’re experiencing on Slack that we just don’t get from other messaging platforms. Considering that the entire point of communication is to connect, learn, and have fun with people we have in our lives, the level of enthusiasm we have for using a product should rank pretty high on our criteria list.
That’s not to say that Slack is perfect. Because it’s definitely not. The company has issues with video calls and the app on my iPhone seems to lag quite a bit whenever I’m using it. Like any other app or communication tool, it also faces outages sometimes and when those happen, it’s a pain in the ass. But in an era when email feels super outdated and Facebook Messenger feels too intimate oftentimes for day-to-day work conversations, Slack is this little unicorn (that’s a pun I will not apologize for) that appeared out of nowhere and did more than I think creator Stewart Butterfield thought it would.
Even if it’s a faux connection, Slack gave me the opportunity to feel closer to people that I didn’t really know and build a connection with some. In one particular case, it gave me the opportunity to develop a friendship with someone I now consider one of my best friends and sister. We built an entire friendship on Slack and even far long after the work day is done (although it is never truly done), we often return to Slack to talk about something stupid.
Midway through writing this, I remembered an interesting experiment that VICE’s Motherboard team embarked on. According to former managing editor, Adrienne Jeffries, Slack could often be more disruptive than productive. Ironically, for the same positive reasons I listed for enjoying using it, the same could be used to paint it as negative. The constant little red dot that appears on the Mac app is like Whack-A-Mole and is hard to ignore, for example, or someone will post an interesting article in a Slack channel and conversation will derail.
The Motherboard team was split on whether Slack was beneficial or a major distraction and decided to take a week off from the app and see how it went. For the most part, people in VICE’s Brooklyn office were okay with not returning to Slack and most admitted that being off of it actually improved their relationships with each other within the office. But, unsurprisingly, those that worked remote found the week even more lonely.
Sarah Emerson, a contributing editor that’s based in San Francisco, said:
“As someone who works remotely, it made me feel a little more isolated than I already am. Slack is probably 95 percent of my human interaction during the workday, so I found myself missing the background noise of people chatting.”
“The background noise of people chatting” is perhaps the best way to sum up what makes Slack feel special. Because we’re not in an office, often times the only background noise we get is whatever’s playing quietly on television or the sound of lattes being made and students giggling through flirtation in cafes. Having this constant chatter on a system like Slack, as strange as it may sound, actually erases some of the isolation that comes with working remotely.
As we move toward more people being able to work from wherever they want because of the internet and how connected we all are, there will be less of a reason for companies to buy real estate and create physical offices. While there’s no argument that people should be working with each other, and that will never go away entirely, having a tool like Slack will make the jarring transformation for many much easier.
Slack isn’t perfect, but it’s the best thing we have right now.
As I left my friend in that coffee shop, I promised that I would DM him over Twitter sometime or message him on Facebook. He laughed and said we should just set up a Slack group with a couple of other friends also spread out around the country (and Canada) to make it easier for all of us. I laughed and said, “Do we really need to spend more time on Slack?”
The answer, apparently, is yes.