Shut Down Your Office. You Now Work in Slack.
The messaging service first took over the digital work world. Now it’s everywhere.
Tracey Taylor, the managing editor of my hometown local news site Berkeleyside, is a reasonably hard-nosed veteran journalist, but she sounds a little wobbly at the knees as she tells me about her recent infatuation. She’s fallen hard — for an enterprise software service.
“I was away on a trip when we started using it,” she says. “Everyone was talking about how great it was, and at first I was annoyed. It took me about two days to see the value. Now, when someone on the team tries to contact me in any other way, I get annoyed with them — I just say, put it in Slack.”
Slack, a messaging tool designed for team collaboration, is the working digital world’s latest paramour. Slack is explicitly designed for the office, yet it feels like a friend. It’s business software that you don’t want to quit at the end of the day.
When we fall in love with a piece of software, we want to move in with it, and droves of infatuated users have shacked up with Slack. Now they’re importing more and more of their lives into it. Why switch to a different app to set a reminder, track your hours, keep up with Twitter, or tally a to-do list? Slack is what you already have open, all the time. Sure, the wreckage of past affairs (email, Microsoft Office, the desktop itself) litters our screens. But maybe this time will be different.
If you haven’t yet used Slack, it will not seem all that revolutionary; to the uninitiated, it still evokes “What’s the big deal?” responses. (Former Valleywag editor Sam Biddle, on Twitter: “No more interesting than our desk chairs.”) Slack does not come on like a heavy-duty digital disruptor. Above all, it’s a considerate program: It does things the way you’d want it to, often without your having to tell it — and if you want it to do something differently, it almost always lets you.
What a great partner! But it’s got some ideas of its own, too. It wants to limit the place of those old flames in your new life. It wants you to answer when it calls. It wants to get everything in the open — but, please, type it out. Also: It’s persuasive.
The prodigal child of IRC and Gmail, Slack is, primarily, a group-messaging tool with a memory. Its aubergine-and-teal screen simply and sensibly organizes teams of co-workers into public (within-the-company) channels and private discussions.
Everything public is searchable — so, “just through the regular process of communication,” as Slack founder Stewart Butterfield puts it, “the team builds an archive that’s incredibly valuable.”
Slack moves effortlessly across devices, keeping tabs on your “read”s and “unread”s without breaking a sweat. (Sounds simple, but it’s something competitors like Skype have had a hard time accomplishing.)When you drop a shared link into a message, Slack pulls in summaries, images and videos, a la Facebook. You can store files in it and find them easily (unlike your email attachments).
Off the shelf, you get integrations with dozens of other services — so that, say, piping in every bug report or help request or Twitter mention of your company’s name is a cinch. Developers can easily plug their favorite version-control and project-planning tools directly into the Slack brainstem. “Slash commands” — an update on old IRC practice — let you use Slack like a command line interface. This means that some workers can trade in their cumbersome time-tracking software for a simple “/done” in Slack, and others can use the venerable “/me” syntax to add stage directions to their messages. So if you type this:
Your coworkers see this:
Slack skipped right past the shallow end of the hockey-stick growth curve through a combination of whipsmart design, remarkable flexibility, and dashes of whimsy. (Slackbot, the app’s resident automaton, introduces itself by declaring that it is “pretty dumb, but tries to be helpful.”) Programming outfits, media organizations, and marketing teams quickly embraced Slack even before it was widely available. Invites were hot and hard to come by during a six-month beta that preceded the official launch in Feb. 2014.
A year later, Slack declared that, with half a million “daily active users,” it was the “fastest growing business app ever.” By mid-April, just two months later, the user number was clocking in at 750,000. Growth like that brought quick cash in the door: The company has raised more than $300 million in three rounds since the launch — the most recent at a valuation of nearly $3 billion. But Slack isn’t a revenueless dot-com bubble baby burning through investor dollars; the pricing model is “freemium,” and more than a quarter of its users are paid. (That looks like about $16 million in revenue at Slack’s basic rates — probably more, depending on how many pick higher-cost plans.)
Slack’s business story is impressive but, in this era of unicorn-herding, familiar. At this point, there’s little question that — barring global financial catastrophe or apocalypse — it will make its creators rich. The more interesting question is whether it can really, as it promises, make its users “less busy.”
Slack isn’t just infiltrating the office, or “gamifying” the office; it’s becoming the office. And its overnight success gives us a peek around the corner into the future of both work and online behavior. If there’s a way to move beyond notification overload and “context collapse” and many of the other ills that afflict our digital working lives circa 2015, Slack just might find it.
For a generation, most office work has happened in two venues: meetings and email. Slack maps a route around both of these time-sucking maelstroms.
Email is the easier target. Nobody loves email anymore, though everyone still uses it. But there is nothing inevitable about its place in the office. Think back to its arrival there two decades ago, if you’re old enough (I am). At first, it made no sense! If you thought of email as the digital equivalent of post-office mail, why on earth would you send it to the person sitting across from you? Why would you send a message all the way up to the server and back just to get it to the inbox of someone sitting 20 feet away from you?
That incredulity lasted about a day. Email worked, before long everyone had it, and it became the least-common-denominator of digital communications. You could get a lot done with it, too — before spam and email marketing and email notifications all went bananas. Email’s biggest drawbacks were that it was confusing (as legions of embarrassingly misdirected replies and forwards attest), and it piled up in guilt-inducing, neglected snowdrifts.
Butterfield, Slack’s CEO, saw a larger problem with email, an organizational memory problem: “Whether you’re the CEO or an intern, on your first day at an email-based organization, you can’t see into anything — it’s all locked in people’s inboxes. You literally have no access to anything that happened in the past. There might’ve been hundreds of thousands or millions of messages exchanged at the company before you got there.” Slack doesn’t make everything transparent, but it brings a whole lot more into the light.
Slack can fulfill the promise of what was once called “the Intranet” to provide a behind-the-corporate-firewall repository of know-how and history. It can constrain some managers’ bad habit of withholding information to hoard power. And it can put email back in its original place, as a vehicle for messaging across organizational boundaries.
Meetings, of course, have been around a lot longer than email, and many of us still find in-person talk to be a higher-bandwidth experience than typing on screen. But too much meatspace meeting time is squandered on the organizational equivalent of throat-clearing and paper-shuffling. How many employees have, at some point in their careers, written the frustrated, never-to-be-sent email that says, “Dear boss, you only think those six standing weekly meetings are useful”?
As Scott Berkun — a software manager-turned-author who analyzed the distributed-workplace dynamics of Automattic, the company behind WordPress, in his book The Year Without Pants — wrote:
Most people doubt online meetings can work, but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don’t work either. Being online does mean everyone might be distracted, but plenty of meetings today are filled with people with their laptops open, messaging each other about how bored they are.
At many workplaces, Slack has already put an expiration date on a lot of meetings. Says Lane Becker, a veteran entrepreneur who’s now at Code For America, the civic programming nonprofit: “If you can create a temporary asynchronous channel that is tied to a specific set of people and that you can use for a period of time, and then once it’s finished, you can get rid of it — all of which Slack makes super easy — then half of our meetings start disappearing! Like, why have that meeting?”
Code For America uses Slack not only to coordinate the work of its 60-odd employees and fellows, but to connect a wider network of fellowship-program graduates, partners and fellow-travelers outside the organization. It’s perfect, says Becker, for maintaining relationships that are “sort of in between a loose tie and a strong tie.”
At Slack itself, Butterfield says, “About half of the product managers no longer have any regular meetings. Instead they have a time of day, each day, when everyone just posts what they’re working on. If you have a question, that’s the point at which you can ask. It gets to the point where it’s so routine that no one ever says, ‘OK, everyone, post your notes.’ People just do it.”
If Slack cuts down on in-person meeting time, it multiplies the number of ad hoc online meetings. It enables small confederations, loosely joined.
“You actually can use private Slack channels as a way to very explicitly subvert organizational hierarchy,” says Becker. When a candidate applied for an opening at Code For America whom he and a few colleagues thought would be a good fit, but whose unconventional background posed some hurdles, they set up a private Slack channel to try to make the hire happen.
Becker says this is a kind of office improv that you couldn’t pull off, pre-Slack. “It says, for this purpose, in this moment, we need to reorganize the way this business is shaped, around these people and this intent. And in everyday life in a business, you just couldn’t do that.”
When Slack swallows this much workplace communication, a few things happen.
It also reshapes work communication in a more informal direction, making it more like texting, which is exactly how the Millennial cohort likes it. For all the talk of Slack’s making the workplace more like a game — and despite its origins in the wreckage of an ambitious game project its predecessor company created — Slack doesn’t sport the identifying marks of the gamification trend; it hands out no stars, ranks no leaderboards. But it almost demands a certain level of casual play. Highly emoji-friendly, it makes it easy to add custom icons for your team to use. The morning after the Superbowl this year, for instance, Amelia Bates, a designer at Grist — where I do part-time editing, via Slack — whipped up an animated left-shark emoji that briefly ran amok on our channels.
This kind of playfulness seems to bolster the skeptical take on Slack — that it’s just a flashy new skin on the oldest kind of office time-wasting. And yes, of course, people do slack on Slack. If you’re bored at work, any tool will come in handy. Pads empower doodling! I’ve heard there are some incredible things you can do with paper clips.
But we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the casual banter of workplace chat as pure productivity drain. That’s because it also works as team glue. People show more of themselves to co-workers and discover shared interests. “Laughter leads to running jokes,” Berkun writes, “and running jokes lead to a shared history, and a shared history is culture.”
If you have an hourly quota of widgets to weld, maybe, chat is just a productivity-draining distraction. If you need to be creative — or just to think about how to be smarter about welding your widgets — then distractions might turn out to be useful.
“Slack does make us more productive,” says Crystal Fawn, director of engagement at Atavist, the Brooklyn-based multimedia platform and publisher that has been using Slack for about a year. “But not in a traditional way — not checking more things off a to-do list. For any company that’s in the innovation space, the distractions are really important to our productivity.” Looking at some link a co-worker has shared may be an interruption; it might also spark a breakthrough idea.
Says Becker: “Opportunities to build relationships and trust with people are critical to business, and they are totally present within Slack. That is not wasted time! It’s critical time that people need to be spending with the people they work with.”
I wanted to test all these gut-felt assumptions about chat — across the spectrum from “procrastination time-sink” to “creativity enhancement” — against some actual research. But Slack itself is way too new for that, and there’s not much more scholarship about workplace chat in general. James Herbsleb, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, has co-authored a number of papers on the topic, mostly looking at programming teams. His most unexpected finding: The top 15 percent of developers — the people who write half the code — also chat the most frequently. “Apparently,” Herbsleb wrote me in an email, “chatting a lot is an indicator of high productivity, not just useless socializing.”
Or, as one paper concluded: “Our results might suggest that the information gained from interruptions may be undervalued.”
Slack’s website announces, “We’re on a mission to make your working life simpler, more pleasant and more productive.” Occasionally, something different will happen. A former colleague who we’ll call Jordan told me the only Slack horror story I’ve found. But it’s a doozy.
Jordan, an exec at a San Francisco startup, introduced Slack into the office. Before long, the CEO was using it — along with a system of Dropcams that recorded audio surreptitiously — to keep tabs on the entire team, nights and weekends included.
“I felt in the crosshairs all the time,” Jordan recalls. “I know he’s an extreme case. But it was almost like a silent big brother.” Instead of the warm-and-fuzzies so many Slack users get, Jordan got a “horrible I’m-being-spied-on feeling,” and eventually sought therapy — then found a new job.
Even in situations where the boss isn’t this kind of control freak, Jordan sees a downside to Slack. “You’re expected to be on all the time. Slack basically follows you — it’s really smart about it. It starts at your desktop, and if it doesn’t get a response within a certain amount of time, it goes to your phone, and if it doesn’t get a response on the phone, it goes to your email. So the sender knows there’s no way you didn’t see their message. And that comes with expectations.”
Reply, and you’re signaling your co-workers, I’m on the ball. Don’t reply, and people will imagine you’re playing hooky.
Such paranoia is the exact opposite of the “less busy” state that Butterfield and his crew intended Slack to produce. When you put a tool in the hands of hundreds of thousands of people, they are going to use it in all sorts of ways you didn’t predict.
As millions of Facebook users wake up to the perils and paradoxes of collapsing the entirety of their social existences onto a one-size-fits-all frame, off-label use of Slack — outside the workplace — is beginning to explode. Slack is elegantly positioned in the grey areas between our public and private selves. Some people are setting up Slacks to hold open public discussions on topics of shared interest, a la Usenet or BBSes (here’s a directory); others are setting up Slacks for specific groups of friends or families.
Nick Greene, a business development associate at Atavist, says he and a group of friends got tired of using cumbersome old email to organize their summer beach-house rental. This year they set up “Beach Team” on Slack. Everyone loved it. “But we didn’t get anything done,” Greene recalls. “We were just sending each other pictures of Rihanna.” The planning work slunk back to email. Maybe Beach Team will spring back to life when summer arrives. Or not. “Hopefully,” says Greene, “when we’re at the house, we’ll just hang out with each other.”
Butterfield says Slack won’t discourage such uses, but it’s going to keep building the service for its intended purpose of supporting workplace teams. Still: For users, the service is awfully compelling. In the course of working on this article, I started using a personal Slack to track to-dos and capture ideas. Sure, there are plenty of other apps out there I could (and do) use for such things. But Slack is where I am already — it’s how I keep up with colleagues at my part-time editing gig. And it’s nice enough that, all other things being equal, I’d just as soon stay there.
Multiply that experience across Slack’s exploding user base, and you have a recipe for the kind of exponential growth that makes investors drool. When I talked with Butterfield from his Vancouver office, our phone call kept getting interrupted by pneumatic drills working on the floor below, prepping more space for the growing Slack team.
It was a pretty lousy environment for an interview; I had a hard time hearing the guy. When I hung up the call, my eye landed on my Slack window, politely signaling me from my iMac screen with some new messages and reminders.
Oh, right. I could have avoided all the noise if I’d just done the whole interview with Butterfield via Slack itself. After all, it was where both of us already were.