Is the recent ‘Slacklash’ legit? The data says no.

We examined the backlash against office chat tool “noise,” and found that what people are really complaining about are … people.

Illustrations by Eric Nyquist

Economists once warned employers about grave risks to office and shop efficiency and to personal efficiency, too. The danger? All that noise in the modern office, from the ambient sounds of passing automobiles to clattering typewriters. In 1927, The Science News-Letter reported on the smart executives who “look over their plants and offices to see whether excessive noise is making their employees inefficient, weary, and perhaps impairing their hearing.”

In 2017, workplace pundits are cautioning executives about an even bigger threat to efficiency: Slack. Drawing on a few high-profile “why we quit Slack” blog posts, a steady stream of media outlets (and a dedicated website) have proclaimed a “Slacklash” — a backlash against office organizational and chat platforms that’s driven by workers who complain they are drowning in notifications, dings, and message alerts, and are unable to focus amid all the digital nagging from co-workers and colleagues.

“The allure of the always-on nature of Slack and instant gratification was just too strong to resist,” proclaimed David Teare, founder of the Toronto software company AgileBits, in a widely quoted post titled “Curing Our Slack Addiction.” The technology news site Motherboard grandly announced a one-week break from Slack to “give reporters a chance to refocus on writing stories and encourage more in-depth conversations with editors”; it then published an oral history chronicling this life-changing experience (what was considered as ordinary life, two years earlier). And a Bloomberg Business headline announced, “You’re About to Hate Slack as Much as You Hate E-Mail.”

But those headlines don’t entirely mesh with what office workers think about Slack and similar office communication platforms. CXO Magazine conducted a survey of 788 workplace messaging users: people who’ve used Slack, Microsoft Teams, and/or Facebook Workplace within the past year. Contrary to the buzz, less than a third of messaging users said they find it distracting. That’s no more than the number of people who find email distracting.

Only 1 in 10 chat users actively dislike using it — a figure that remains the same no matter which of the three big platforms you look at. “I’m much happier now that I don’t use IM of any kind at work,” says Jamie Biggar, who is the communications and campaigns director at Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation.

Suddenly, the so-called Slacklash looks wildly overblown. Sure, both messaging and email can be distracting — but that’s because people can be distracting.

And it seems that many managers agree. “We introduced Slack with a reminder on how and when to use email in the hopes that emails that say ‘yup’ and ‘got it’ would be eliminated,” Denise Taschereau said. As the owner of Fairware, a promotional products company, Taschereau must deal not just with internal email, but with current and prospective clients. “Slack reduced my number of emails and for that I’m grateful,” she said.

Plenty of workers also shared that sentiment. “Slack’s interruptions don’t drive me crazy, because each one is an email I don’t have to deal with,” said writer and communications consultant James Glave.

Roland Tanglao, a tech support professional, put it more bluntly: “Slack and IRC [internet relay chat] both suck. … But hey, they are both better than email.”

In the CXO Magazine survey, many respondents expressed a similar sentiment. When we asked people for their favorite way of communicating at work, chat systems — including Slack, Teams, Workplace, SMS, and a range of other tools — were in fact the most frequent answer: 44 percent of respondents named a chat tool (or chat/messaging in general); email took the number two spot at 36 percent.

Respondents said things like:

“It’s fast and easy, less formal than email, and the person can answer at their own convenience so you don’t disturb them if they are in the middle of something.”

“It saves me a walk over to someone’s desk to ask a question (I usually get distracted when I walk over and it makes me less productive).”

The email enthusiasts

What was interesting about the survey results, though, was that while more respondents said they preferred chat tools over email, only 41 percent of messaging users said chat makes them more productive, while 66 percent of email users think email makes them more productive. As a result, some people choose to stick with good old-fashioned email.

Gene Sherman owns Vocademy, a small business that runs a makerspace in California. His team gave Slack a try for about a month, and was quickly overwhelmed. “My employees aren’t early adopters,” Sherman said. “Just learning to use Slack takes time. We probably could learn to use it, but as a startup, we have a lot of other stuff to learn.”

Nonetheless, there was a benefit to his company’s experiment: It forced his team to think about their ever-expanding communications toolkit, and decide which tools they really wanted to use. “We were also using Facebook, text, carrier pigeon — you name it,” Sherman joked. “After our Slack experiment, we made a company policy of no Facebook messaging and no text messaging. A group question can go one-to-one on Gmail chat, but if it’s a group chat, we email, because it gives us a nice history.”

Cristina Moon runs marketing for Search Inside Yourself, a corporate training program that teaches mindfulness and emotional intelligence. No surprise, then, that her team gave careful thought to whether group messaging could play a role in their work. “The computer engineer on staff was actually the one who told me that he tries to avoid chat and messaging apps,” said Moon. “They can definitely be distracting, and FOMO [fear of missing out] is real when you come back from time off and see weeks’ worth of unread chats.”

Tech transitions

New technologies have always met some office resistance. The anxiety about chat distractions greeted email in its early days. A 2001 study on the cost of email interruption found that 70 percent of emails that got dealt with were opened within 6 seconds — “quicker than letting the phone ring three times.” (The fact that the authors compared the time with a ringing phone attests to just how long ago 2001 was.) If only we could find the right approach to email, the authors argued, we could “enhance employee productivity by reducing the number of interrupts an employee receives.”

Fifteen years later, digital interruption is so ingrained in the texture of our workdays that it seems more relevant to think about which types of interruption to tolerate (and how to minimize their impact) than to somehow hope we can escape from interruption at all. Take, for example, a 2015 experiment measuring the effect of interruptions on task attention. Researchers found that keeping other applications open — even chat and email — had no impact on task completion times; what did have an impact were face-to-face interruptions.

What changed? We did. Synthesizing two decades of research, a 2017 paper presented at the 25th European Conference on Information Systems offered a grand theory of tech-mediated interruptions. The authors noted that the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral impact of interruptions can be mitigated by a wide range of tech tweaks or personal strategies, ranging from adjusting the frequency of notifications to organizing interruptions by relevance. And indeed, more than 20 years into the email revolution, many of us have developed some combination of technical, strategic, and habitual ways of managing email interruptions.

That’s exactly what people and organizations are just starting to do with messaging. One common adaptation is to turn off notifications, the relentless ping! ping! ping! that announces each incoming message.

“My colleagues know that I check Slack and my other messaging apps few times a day,” says Vida Morkunas, a project manager, who is among those who turn off notifications. “They know I will respond, but the constant notifications were driving me up the wall.”

Cristina Moon recommends thinking about how to signal your availability, too: “This can mean putting your avatar on red when you really don’t want to be disturbed, and having an emergency mode of communication in your profile, like your cell number,” she suggested. “And really being on red when you don’t want to be disturbed, not just all the time.”

These strategies must get adjusted on a person-by-person level; Eden Spodek, who runs a digital communications agency, relies on notification preferences to minimize disruptions to her workday, said “You have to play around with them a bit to find what works best for you.”

Strategies like these are likely to become even more effective as Slack and its competitors introduce features to address the distraction issue. While Slack’s leadership team has largely avoided engaging in the Slacklash debate, their product development timeline suggests that they’ve registered the concern: In addition to introducing a long-requested message threading option at the beginning of this year (so you can tune out digressions), the platform now features highlights, so you can skim just the most important posts, and status updates, so you can declare yourself unavailable for some period. Another hint that the distraction problem is on their minds? The company’s dedicated help page for reducing Slack-related noise.

Even with these distraction-beating features, however, group messaging apps like Slack are never going to win over everyone. “I don’t get Slack,” says Lesli Boldt, who heads a communications firm. “I’m kicking it old school and phoning people.”

What do you think? Are office chat platforms such as Slack and Microsoft Teams a distraction or have they made you more efficient? Email us here.

CXO Magazine is a new publication founded at Northeastern University to chart the ideas, events, and people shaping the future of work. Learn more.