Like many businesses today I use Slack on a daily basis and so does my virtual team. Slack has become a digital replica of our water cooler, it’s become the photocopy room and conference room, and it’s also by proxy a lunchroom where we share our personal updates.
You may not use Slack but there are a number of real-time communication tools that are popular in workplaces today- perhaps you’re familiar with Microsoft Teams, Cisco Spark, Hive, Salesforce Chatter, or Jira. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to refer to Slack but you could easily interchange it with other real-time communication tools.
Whilst Slack allows users to collaborate in real-time and was touted as a tech tool to replace internal email, it poses significant risks to our productivity. Slack sabotages our ability to engage in what Cal Newport a productivity expert calls ‘deep work’.
Slack sabotages our ability to engage in ‘deep work’.
Slack supports ‘shallow work’
Newport, in his best-selling workplace productivity book Deep Work proposes that professional activities that are considered ‘deep work’ are cognitively taxing, difficult to replicate and offer the most value to organisations. Deep work tasks are critical for an organisation’s success and are becoming increasingly rare because they cannot be performed whilst distracted. These are the types of tasks we should be spending most of our working time performing and we should ideally be doing deep work during our prime times of the day.
In contrast, ‘shallow work’, is non-cognitively demanding, repetitive, logistical-style tasks that can be performed when we’re distracted because they don’t add significant value to output and/or they’re easy to replicate. We can often get quick wins with shallow work because we can tick things off our To-Do list and can see tangible results. In contrast, deep work often requires an ongoing commitment and we’re less likely to quickly see overt immediate results.
In most instances, Slack isn’t a tech tool where ‘deep work’ takes place. In fact, having Slack open will sabotage your productivity. The disruption, however, brief, will diminish your performance and output.
Pings and notifications from communication tools hijack our attention. The digital bombardment of notifications and distractions fractures our attention and limits our ability to engage in cognitively taxing work (i.e. deep work). You might be mid-way through some complicated data analysis, or writing a paragraph of a complex report and the ping of a Slack notification (or four) will compromise the deep work. Even if you resist the temptation to open Slack and read the message, just the initial ping or sound will cause your brain to switch tasks. (You see alerts and notifications trick our brains into thinking everything is urgent and important.)
Stuck in a Slack Cycle
When our attention is fractured, as it often is in Slack, there’s a hangover effect which is described as ‘attention residue’. In a 2009 study called “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?”, Leroy proposed that our attention behaves more like molasses than water. Whilst you can redirect our attention, there’s a sticky ‘attention residue’ that stays behind, fixed to the last task you were originally working on. This results in a constant state of partial focus and task-switching with sticky attention residue clinging to every new input long after you’ve gone back to your original task. This is not how our brains work best.
The constant disruptions from Slack stop us completing deep work. Each disruption we face costs us in terms of the initial time our attention is diverted and then there’s a loss after the disruption. This is called the ‘resumption lag’. This is the time required for an employee to refocus their attention and restart the original task after an interruption. A study by the University of California, Irvine found the resumption lag is an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds.1 The financial costs associated with the resumption lag are significant for modern workplaces.
Slack perpetuates the myth that because we’re ‘busy’ (answering messages, or following up with colleagues) that we’re also being productive. It also provides a tangible measure that we’re completing ‘work’ as our colleagues (and supervisors) can track our activity. However, busyness is not a proxy for productivity. We can be busy all day responding to Slack notifications, replying to emails and attending meetings, but have we really engaged in deep work? Have we really completed tasks and activities that add value to our organisation?
“Group chat is like being in an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.” Jason Fried, Co-Founder & CEO at Basecamp
It’s not all your fault…
Workplace technologies, like Slack, have been designed to prey on our psychological vulnerabilities as humans. Developers have deployed deliberate design techniques to make us want to use the technology (and keep us hooked on using it). For example, seeing a red bubble to signal an unread message is a psychological trigger as red is associated with danger and emergency- would you feel compelled to check Slack if it was a baby pink or sky blue icon?
There are a host of other design principles that make us salivate about Slack:
// Intermittent variable rewards. At some point, you would have used Slack and received some good news (maybe some positive feedback on a project, or an instant answer from a colleague). Part of its psychological appeal is that we never know what we’ll get when we open the app of desktop version. Slack, similar to popular social media apps use intermittent, variable rewards (yes, similar to poker machines). The unknown outcome is part of the appeal and why we want to keep Slack open whilst we work.
// Alerts & notifications trick your brain into thinking everything is urgent and important. Slack has a Pavlovian effect on us. The notification that dances in the corner of your screen, accompanied by sound effects that dazzle and divert your attention trick you into thinking that you need to check and reply. These effects trick you into thinking everything that comes through on Slack is urgent and important.
// Metrics– when you can see the number of unread messages on each of your Slack channels it’s a very overt measure of what you’d consider ‘incomplete’ work. So we want to plough through this number and get it as close to zero as possible.
// Slack is a bottomless bowl- unlike a meeting that has an endpoint, Slack doesn’t provide an end-point or cut-off time. It is a bottomless bowl- there are no stopping cues. So our colleagues can be sending messages at all hours of the day/night (and often they do).
// We’re hardwired for collaboration– as humans we have a social brain. So we’re wired to connect and collaborate (this is why social media has become so popular). Slack creates perceived pressure for responsiveness- it can create a stressful expectation of instant replies. When our manager sees our green dot lit up in Slack it’s a concrete measure that we’re ‘working’. We also don’t want to be perceived by our colleagues to be slack (pardon the pun). We worry about peers’ perceptions so we want to ‘look’ like we’re contributing (even if it means answering our supervisor’s message at 11pm at night). What will they think if I don’t reply to a message instantaneously?
// It’s a fun place to hang out. Slack is a fun place to hang out. There are emojis shared, and GIFs (more so in Slack than in email). It really is like the digital equivalent of the water cooler so we want to spend time there.
How do you best manage Slack (or online communication tools)?
I’m not suggesting that we should ignore Slack (or other online communication boards). We do need to perform those tasks. Instead, we need to put boundaries in place and be in control of how we use it… and not the other way around where it controls us!
To be in control of Slack (and/or other synchronous communication tools) we need to:
// Disable alerts and notifications in deep work time. Metrics of unread notifications is a powerful psychological trigger that reminds you of incomplete tasks. Turn off Slack notifications when you want to complete deep work so you’re less likely to succumb to distractions.
// Check during your shallow work time. Check in with Slack during your less productive times of the day (i.e. when you’re completing shallow work). I’ll explain more about your chronotype in other blog posts- but knowing when your energy and focus are at their peak can help you to plan your day so that you can engage in deep work during these times.
// Set a timer and go! According to Parkinson’s Law, work expands so as to fill the available time we give it. So when it comes to checking Slack I suggest setting a timer and diving in and checking your messages in one swoop.
// Communicate your boundaries to colleagues- especially if you’re working on a group project. Temper your teams’ expectations about response rates- have ongoing conversations with colleagues about expected response rates. I do an exercise when I deliver corporate workshops with teams where I have them specify their ‘expected’ team response rates for emails and communication tools like Slack. It’s staggering to see the huge disparity in terms of what people consider a ‘quick’ response (everything from <5 minutes to two business days).
// Batch, baby! Just like I advocate avoiding the habit of nibbling on your inbox throughout the day, I also recommend that we don’t leave Slack open during the day. Whilst you can change and update your status, even just seeing the Slack app icon l can be psychologically distracting as it can trigger you to think of the incoming messages and notifications piling up in your account.
// Pick up the phone. Just like replying to emails can create a snowball effect, so too can Slack. Instead of sending backwards and forwards messages, pick up the phone and call your colleague (or even better, walk around to their desk, at a suitable time so you’re not disrupting their deep work) and have a chat. You’ll be amazed at the reduced number of messages.
// Company culture. I work with organisations to review their digital wellbeing and productivity practices. A simple, yet profound impact that improves both productivity and employee wellbeing is to set policies (and practices!) that suggest boundaries around communication. Is asynchronous communication your organisational default? If it’s synchronous communication, employees feel perpetually compelled to complete shallow work. Can you have a policy that prohibits/discourages Slack messages being sent between certain hours? A Slack curfew? Can you carve out times where Slack isn’t used? What policies are in place during leave periods? Having clear policies ensures all employees are on the same page.
Slack isn’t like a critical or unkind colleague trying to compromise your productivity and sabotage your success. It’s more like your fun colleague who is constantly dropping by your desk, or catching you at the water cooler, who unwittingly sabotages you. This means, we have to have firm boundaries to control how we use Slack and maximise the productivity potential it offers us.