Do You Use Your Group Chat or the Group Chat Consumes You?

Konstantin Komelin
Apr 28, 2016 · 6 min read
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Group chats, such as Slack, Gitter and others have become quite trendy in our industry. Distributed software development teams use them quite intensively to discuss projects, receive hosting alerts, monitor user feedback and have “watercooler conversations”. Open Source communities of hundreds of members use group chats to support their members, announce events, share knowledge, etc. It seems like everybody is happy and productive. I am afraid, that is not always true.

I gained experience working for a couple of different companies that used Slack as their primary communication tool. I have also moderated the Skype chat of a local Open Source community for over three years. Based on my experience, some theory and knowledge of other people I would like to tell you why you should be careful with modern group chats.

In his book “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” Nir Eyal described psychological principles behind products, which users cannot put aside. In such products or applications, there should be triggers, which attract users, and rewards, which make users happy from using the app and stimulates them to do some job or investment in response in order to receive some more rewards.

Group chats have everything mentioned to form a habit. The triggers are notifications about new messages and a fear of missing something important. One of the rewards is to be useful and valuable for the team. The investment is to answer questions and post some news. There are probably more kinds of these components.

If a person’s habit is reinforced with more intense and frequent group chat involvement then it can degenerate into an addiction. You decide how to name your depth of involvement but some people name theirs as an addiction.

And I had to read everything. I felt that I had no choice as often decisions would be made in Slack that I needed to know. And in other ways it was simply an addiction that needed to be fed.

- Dave Teare (AgileBits)

Let me tell you what the addiction can cause.

Productivity goes down

The addiction on group chats could be considered useful in case if your company income depends on a number of messages read and written by your team. For most companies it is not the case. From my experience, group chats actually distract people from the main work activities, break the flow and, as a consequence, reduce productivity.

Group chat is like being in an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.

- Jason Fried (Basecamp)

The flow is broken

The flow is a feeling of high concentration and focus on a task. Creative people can work hours and be extremely productive while they are in the flow. It is like a dream where everything is possible and where your are Superman who hunts bugs that have no chance to survive. For example, some people could even create MVP for their startup overnight being in the flow.

As a software engineer, I know that perfect state of mind and love it very much. I remember days when I got to the office early in the morning to be able to work alone in silence and feel the flow. Sometimes I managed to complete a significant number of my daily duties just for a couple of those productive hours.

What is important to understand is that any interruption can break the flow. And group chats interrupt us regularly throughout the day. Even if you enable Away status or turn off notifications you see a counter of unread messages that makes you feel anxious. On top of it, in some companies it is not possible to turn off the notifications because of the “be available during work hours” policy.

Infinite fatigue

During your work day you have to constantly monitor the chat to not miss an important message, answer your colleagues ASAP and simultaneously perform your work duties. This is what is behind the “asynchronous programming” term (joke).

Constant conversation, constant chatter, no start, no end. You can decide not to pay attention, but that leads to a fear of missing out.

- Jason Fried (Basecamp)

At the end of the day, you feel spread thin and you cannot understand why you are so exhausted because you did not actually perform a lot of work. Familiar feeling?

Introverts are unhappy

One of the typical arguments for using a group chat is to compensate for a lack of real communication in a remote team. Do you really think that people in our industry, not rarely introverts, communicate so much while working in the office? I do not think so.

In the group chat culture it is not possible to stay alone with your work and thoughts, so that can depress introverts who use to avoid crowds.

Tasks lack of information

An interesting observation was that both companies I worked for, which used Slack, did not discuss tasks in their task trackers. Although they had trackers, they preferred using Slack for task-related conversations. I found that approach not very convenient maybe because of the search problem of the chat.

The search problem

In the Slack-dependent companies, I really missed a common knowledge base. Yes, Slack has a great search but project discussions are not grouped by tasks and sometimes contain redundant information.

When I suggested creating a wiki or some sort of a common knowledge base, I was referred to The Agile Manifesto and to these specific sections: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools“ and “Working software over comprehensive documentation”. I think these were misinterpreted but that is another story.

Without categorized and centralized source of useful information, I had to use Slack search to find necessary documents and comments. It was Okay if I knew what to look for, for instance, the document name. If not, I had to interrupt my colleagues and ask them questions.

I have a simple formula for you to think about. If I read a site deployment instructions I would spend one (1) slot of time. If I asked my colleague to explain how to deploy the site or point to the necessary Slack comment we would spend about two (2) slots of time. Obvious? In fact, not to everybody.

The same problem exists in community chats. Useful information sinks in the ocean of small talks.

Bad writing style

Grammar mistakes, punctuation mistakes and slang are good friends of almost any online chat. People simply forget how to write polite formal emails, for example, to respectfully communicate with clients.

Here are my personal ideas on how to start healing the group chat addiction.

Respect the flow state of your colleagues

The flow is magical and can move mountains so do not interrupt your colleague for trifles by mentioning her in Slack if you can google the answer to your question or find it in the knowledge base yourself.

Use task trackers for project related discussions

Almost any task tracker has a commenting feature, so use it to discuss project tasks. That way you will reduce a number of messages in the project channel of your chat. It will also make you write clearly and laconically because your comments can be read by clients.

Start building your knowledge base

Try to convince your colleagues to copy important information from Slack comments to Google Docs or wiki. It can be site deployment tips, company code style guide or anything else that you think can be reused. If colleagues believe that important information from Slack comments is always at hand, create your personal knowledge base and share links to it with colleagues when necessary. Believe me your colleagues will appreciate it in the future, especially new colleagues.

Start using emails again

In your team, choose situations that are appropriate for emails instead of chats. It can be organizational topics, such as vacations, day offs, etc. An upside of the email communication is that it allows you to remember how to write properly. This soft skill can help with your career and life.

Stop considering chat messages as ASAP calls

In your team, agree to use emails for emergencies, such as server failure. The other situations are not really ASAP.

I hope this information will help you to use group chats wisely, save your mental health and improve productivity of your team and yourself. Feel free to disagree with me in comments.

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