Slack Does Not Suck

Michael Atwood
Oct 30, 2016 · 3 min read

A backlash was bound to happen when a new tool comes out that gets so popular so quickly. Some are saying that Slack has ruined their productivity because of the constant interruptions, but is that really the problem with Slack?

At this point, it is common knowledge that interruptions are a productivity killer. Some studies have found it can take around 30 minutes to get back into a work zone after an interruption. A 5 minute phone call or someone stopping in your office to ask a single question can end up derailing a large portion of an hour of work for a thought worker.

All Interruptions Are Not Created Equal

At one extreme are interruptions where your attention is demanded on the spot. These sorts of interruptions include a phone call or someone walking into your office. At the other extreme are interruptions that occur only on your time, email for example. Ideally all communication would occur over email (and not just to limit interruptions), but we do not live in an ideal world.

Slack and other similar tools fill the space between someone standing in your office and email.

Slack Is Not The Cause Of Interruptions

There seems to be a narrative that Slack is causing more interruptions than before. If Slack did not exist would these interruptions either not have happened or would the interrupter have sent an email? More likely than not, the interrupter would have used one of the more intrusive forms of interruption. Interruptions are thus not a Slack problem, but an individual/organizational problem.

How Slack Helps

Slack gives the user who would have normally used the most intrusive form of interruption an avenue to have a conversation, but not be as intrusive. This is a good thing. A Slack alert will always be less intrusive than someone walking in my office. I can configure and push off answering a Slack alert until I have down moment. Even when I’m in the zone, I have moments when I can quickly check my Slack channels.

Still Not A Silver Bullet

While I think Slack offers a path to less interruptions it still requires team discipline and understanding. First, out of the box Slack is configured to be too alert happy, and only the native clients seem to easily differentiate between direct messages and basic activity on channels. The team also must adopt some conventions like:

  1. Lay out ground rules for when to mention a user by name or use the channel wide notifications. These are Slacks equivalent of walking into a persons office and the same respect should be taken.
  2. Constantly checking Slack is no different than constantly checking email or any other type of communication medium. The same personal discipline must be taken. Just because there is activity on a Slack channel does not mean it requires immediate action. The team and its members need to agree and understand this. If immediate action is required then @ someone or a channel.
  3. Prefer public channels, and use direct message only sparingly. This serves two purposes. First, it does not put immediate response pressure on a single person when others on the team may be able to jump in and help. Second, the responses and conversation are now public record.

Finally, do not expect Slack to replace longer forms of communication. Slack is great for a disconnected, fluid back and forth. Longer forms of idea communication still work great in email or a another in between tool like Discourse.