The tool isn’t the problem…
It’s not Slack. It’s you.
It’s been almost a year since we went through the process of switching our entire team at Crew from HipChat over to Slack. At the time, the decision didn’t really carry much weight.
Two tools. Solving pretty much the same problem. Just in different ways.
It was a matter of preference. Which did we like better? Why?
We spent a week trying out Slack, voting every single day on the features we liked or didn’t.
(We even made a website about it called SlackvsHipchat.com and got some sweet Slack socks out of it. Now that’s the power of writing!)
In the end, we liked Slack’s dependability. We preferred its notification system. We liked its mobile app a hell of a lot more. And so we went with Slack.
But 11 months later, with a bigger team and a lot more chatter, I’m starting to think we should’ve asked another, more prevalent, question:
Is it really the tool we should be debating? Or do we actually even like communicating this way?
If you follow the tech community at all, I’m sure you’ve seen at least one of the polemics against Slack, and by association, the idea of group chat.
Over the past year and a half, the narrative has slowly switched from ‘How Slack killed email’ to ‘How Slack killed my productivity’.
Those leading the cry express how, what was initially supposed to free us from the tyranny of our inboxes has actually become an even more demanding master.
Writer and UX guru Samuel Hulick, channeling Medium’s native quit-lit genre, publicized his break up with Slack, citing it’s incessant neediness and ability to turn your day into ‘one long Franken-meeting’.
While Basecamp founder Jason Fried asked if group chat was making us sweat (and then told us it is).
Out of all the Slack attacks out there, I find Jason’s perspective the most clearheaded. Rather than an angry rant about an overbearing partner who won’t take the hint, Jason goes deeper—beyond the tool—to what we’re really talking about here:
“I believe attention is one of your most precious resources. If something else controls my attention, that something else controls what I’m capable of. I also believe your full attention is required to do great work. So when something like a pile of group chats, and the expectations that come along with them, systematically steals that resource from me, I consider it a potential enemy.”
The key line here for me is ‘the expectations that come along with them’.
Expectations and the often chasm-like distance between what we think or feel and what actually is, in my opinion, is the root of all evil.
Read a little deeper into any critique of Slack or chat, and it will always comes down to this same issue: expectations.
So, is the tool really the problem then?
Sure, using Slack facilitates more conversation, but that’s the point isn’t it?To let your team communicate in an open way.
And used in the right way, with the right expectations (that are communicated by those in charge), Slack becomes less of that annoying co-worker bugging you about all the things you haven’t done yet or sharing stupid gifs with you, and more of a living and breathing knowledge base.
Here’s a quick example: At Crew, early on we decided to prioritize oversharing in Slack. Every week, we’d publish our private vs. public messaging to remind everyone to have their conversations in public.
We saw chat more of a constantly evolving knowledge base, rather than a tool for quick communication (although it’s used for that, too!)
Rising tide. Rising boats. You know the metaphor.
Sure that meant more beeps, bops, and little red dots, but it also meant questions wouldn’t be asked multiple times. Done right, knowledge becomes general and company-wide, rather than specific and individual.
But doesn’t this just contribute to the ‘always on’ issue of Slack that everyone seems to cling onto?
Only if you let it.
Again, it all comes down to expectations.
Expectations of when you’ll answer that request. Expectations of what’s actually important, and how we communicate that importance. Hell, even expectations of when you’ll be around.
As a writer and editor, I set myself ‘Slack office hours’ where I’m available to answer questions, check in on conversations, and laugh at stupid gifs that flood our #general room.
Otherwise? /dnd or just straight up quit that shit.
Do I miss out on a bit of realtime conversation because I’m not always there? Sure. But come on now, are your really going to let FOMO rule your life?
Here’s another example: My friend and co-worker Rob, our head of community, spends pretty much all day working with and talking to the freelance creatives in our network at Crew and I don’t think I’ve seen him without his Do Not Disturb on since Slack implemented it.
He chooses when to engage in the conversation when it works for him.
He controls the flow of communication. Not Slack.
And that’s fine. We don’t expect him to do it any other way.
I’ll save my best example for last: When I was in Montreal last, I was hanging out with our CEO Mikael Cho who has his finger in everything at Crew from product design to marketing to building our new 12,000 sq ft workspace. And what does his Slack look like?
And his attitude? Not the stress and anxiety that you’d associate with an app designed to prey on our basic human instinct of needing to respond to notifications. Just a guy who knows he’s got stuff to do, and will get to it when he can.
I’m not saying we’ve figured it out. I’m simply saying that it’s easy to blame the tool when issues undoubtedly arise. If we listen to the wisdom of the stoics, we have no control over what happens, only in how we react to that situation. It’s no different with Slack.
It’s your choice how a new technology affects your life.
There will always be messages—no matter what the medium. It’s how you react to them that matters.
And think of the positives:
With Slack we’re able to create a culture and an inclusiveness for teams based around the world.
We’re able to create a living, breathing knowledge base where employees can discuss issues as they happen and come to a consensus about what matters.
And best of all, we’re able to move away from the hell of totally incomprehensible e-mail chains.
But all of this only happens if we set our expectations from the start.
This isn’t about Slack. It’s about you.
If you hit your thumb with a hammer, you’re not going to go back to using a rock, are you? You’re just going to learn how to use that hammer in a way that won’t cause you bodily harm.
In the end, Slack, HipChat, or whatever your poison, are all just a reflection of the way you choose to communicate.
All these apps do is take your habits and company culture and amplify them.
So, do you need to get rid of Slack? Just like everything, it’s your choice.
But if you’re getting burned out from all the voices, just try to understand why.
Find what works for you and your co-workers. Set ‘office hours’ if it works for you. Or just plain old quit! There are other ways for people to get in touch with you if they really need to.
Set expectations and build a culture of communication that respects what you need to get done and stick to it.
Because, what’s the alternative? Do you really want to go slinking back to your ex (that disaster of an inbox)?
Every relationship goes through it’s ups and downs.
And like all relationship issues, it all comes down to how you communicate.