Work

In Defense of Slack

Vox claims Slack sabotages workplace productivity. So Slate staffers took to Slack to respond.

The Slack logo with hearts around it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Slack.

On Wednesday, Vox published a reported essay headlined “The Productivity Pit: How Slack Is Ruining Work” that accused Slack of, well, ruining work—specifically by making it so easy to communicate that staffers communicate with each other far more than they need to. “Much like the ubiquitous open-floor plan,” Vox’s Rani Molla wrote, “this type of software is meant to get different parts of a company working together, to break down hierarchies, to spark chance interactions and innovations. In practice it can be hell.” Slate relies heavily on Slack for idea generation, assigning, spitballing, and breeze-shooting to blow off steam, and staffers reacted to this piece with great fervor. An edited excerpt of the Slack conversation inspired by Vox’s take on Slack is below.

laura.bennett
What did you all think of Vox’s VICIOUS TAKEDOWN of Slack

derreck.johnson
There’s some irony in the fact that I was reading the story and the Slack clicks were going off like crazy in this channel and I felt like I was missing something.

dan.kois
The primary foolishness in the Vox piece, as far as I’m concerned, is in this sentence: “Notably, the total amount of time we spend communicating is roughly the same as it was six years ago. That means the addition of workplace chat apps hasn’t actually lessened the amount of time we spend communicating.”
In what universe is communicating not part of your job? Slack makes communicating easier and faster and more fun, so for me has been a net gain.

rebecca.onion
The article seems to believe that chatting is Bad and can/should be engineered out of existence, somehow. We used to chat a lot on an email alias called slateed—there were some epic threads there—and now that happens on Slack, whereas email is a place for me to put together a big bunch of thoughts on a project and send them to an editor. This piece seems to think that the entire workday should consist of me drafting these long, well-considered, super-researched emails, and never chatting? I don’t see how that’s possible and I don’t really like the implication that workers don’t want fun, and only want to produce

dan.kois
Or that Fun cannot also be Productive

daniel.schroeder
I haven’t finished the Vox piece because I come to slack for people to explain it to me

shannon.palus
It helps my :sparkles: writing process :sparkles: deeply to send informal semi-considered thoughts to my editor. Brainstorming!

rebecca.onion
Right, and there’s something about the way Slack is that makes those informal thoughts seem more welcome
Maybe because it’s more ephemeral? Or, it has fun emojis or something

shannon.palus
It makes it ok to riff on ideas, no big deal if one is bad.
(Many are bad)

ruth.graham
The piece also calls email a “digital time suck,” but I do real work on email, too. I write memos, file pieces, make interview requests, and so on. What’s the standard for “real” work?

dan.kois
Tweeting

rebecca.onion
It is hard, a little bit, for me to evaluate what it would be like to use Slack if my job were not to find and execute stories for a digital publication?
Chatting about memes is sometimes our job
We come up with a lot of story ideas via chatting about memes

daniel.schroeder
set the channel topic: chatting about memes

rebecca.onion
Part of me wonders if the answer to “Is slack good for workplaces?” is just … different for every workplace

dan.kois
It in fact is different for every employee of every workplace.

erin.nichols
I’ve been on the dev team at Slate for >8 years, but the Before Slack (B.S.) days still haunt me.
my memory is that there were literally hundreds of emails that were completely irrelevant to me every day, often with zero or 1 line of text (many were just subject lines)
it takes work to make slack useful. I mute most channels I’m in

dan.kois
Yes, agree Erin.
But Slack is so much better at helping you do that work than email ever was.
You can segregate the stuff that’s distracting, save it for later.
You can mark yourself Away.

daniel.schroeder
Also there’s the camaraderie Slack fosters and how it takes the place of in-person conversation, which some might find alienating, but does a great job at building relationships between people who aren’t in the same physical location as you

ruth.graham
Yes, @daniel.schroeder. As a remote worker, Slack is the no. 1 reason I feel so integrated into Slate’s workplace culture even though I only see you people once or twice a year. I don’t have access to the literal watercooler. (Does Slate have a watercooler?) But chatting about memes makes me feel like I know you. I DO know you!

derreck.johnson
Speaking as a remote person who used to actually be in an office: Slack is the workplace for me now. I took to it very quickly when we integrated it. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the fact that I’ve engaged heavily in some sort of chat culture since like junior high/HS. AOL, CompuServe, PC Link, ImagiNation, etc. One of my biggest personal rules was to never check email on evenings or weekends. But since Slack, it actually makes me wanna “check in” sometimes. Just to make sure everything is cool. But on the same notion, I have noticed that I spend less time on email.

dan.kois
This is key!!

dan.kois  
Being able to “check in” to the workplace and instantly get a sense of: Is everything OK? Is everyone currently freaking out about anything? Is there breaking news or a problem? That all matters a lot on a Saturday, and so I find that Slack is just as effective at quelling my work anxiety as it is at causing it.

erin.nichols
from a dev perspective, having a place to chat and send blocks of code is essential.
most of my dev comms in the B.S. days were via personal Gchat with co-workers
there are a ton of features that make sending code (including syntax highlighting if you use the snippet feature—this is not a feature of any email client I know of) super easy and useful in slack
maybe I should thread this :grimacing:

daniel.schroeder
I LOVE THREADS

dan.kois
threads :skull:

daniel.schroeder
if you’re not threading in DMs you’re not using slack

laura.bennett
wow what do you love about threads daniel
bold claim

dan.kois
thread it

THREAD BEGINS

daniel.schroeder
Threads are fantastic because they allow for cross-talk to be separated into a new stream so the main conversation can continue without confusion
branching thoughts are why threads exist

dan.kois 
great argument that the proper response to this Vox piece is “you’re using slack wrong”

THREAD ENDS

dan.kois
Also, at a place like Slate, the most frivolous messages can turn out to be “productive.” I can’t count the number of times that a casual aside by one of my co-workers in a slack channel has turned into a piece. Learning about each other’s odd habits or quirky fandoms is invaluable. That means, of course, that part of my job is to Be On Slack: reading, steering conversations, mining ideas, and sometimes cutting chatter off. But that’s a useful (and fun) aspect of my (and every editor’s) job. And I expect that’s transferable across industries, even ones where an offhand joke about bathrooms doesn’t turn into Product https://slate.com/human-interest/2019/01/public-bathrooms-divide-pee-and-poop-not-gender.html

Does Slack make others feel like they must be Always On? That was the Vox piece’s argument, especially for remote workers

rebecca.onion
Ha, no, it’s the opposite for me?
I feel like half the time people are like “Girl, get off here, do some work”
I would be very curious to hear what editors actually think about writers who are chatting on slack all the time. My projection is that it’s viewed as not necessarily great, but I could be worrying for no reason

dan.kois
@rebecca.onion As an editor I’d say we … chat on slack the same as everyone else. As long as the pieces get written, we don’t care! We cut off chatter if it is overwhelming a channel that’s purpose-focused, but otherwise, it is fun to have fun with your co-workers.

rebecca.onion
What freedom!!! *chats on slack forever*

laura.bennett
lol I feel SOMEWHAT DIFFERENTLY in that I would be lying if i said i did not notice when a writer who owes me a piece is gettin super slack-happy
just going to chat town on some totally unrelated topic

dan.kois
Respect The Process, laura

rebecca.onion
I guess I just feel like all the problems that are identified in the vox piece are not problems with the technology, necessarily, but problems with human mgmt of the technology?
And so … if slack is a problem then manage it differently??????
It doesn’t sound mind blowing when I write it down lol

daniel.schroeder
yeah this is very USER ERROR
I think slack should be fun. if it’s not fun or informative then you’re doing something wrong

shannon.palus
Right, like: do distribute Slack etiquette guidelines

heather.schwedel
i can’t imagine editing pieces and pitching story ideas over email. i pretty much only use email now to reach people outside of the company

ruth.graham
Without Slack, I’m sure I would be a 100% efficient master of productivity, operating at max capacity at all times.

rebecca.onion
I would certainly NOT just take that time and apply it to twitter

heather.schwedel
as a shy person, i feel like slack has allowed me to come out of my shell and get to know my co-workers and be part of the company sooo much more than i would over email or in person

daniel.schroeder
yeah, and slack doesn’t have the permanence of a sent email
I can delete it

rebecca.onion
DANIEL

ruth.graham
You are NOTORIOUS for deleting.

dan.kois
(edited)

daniel.schroeder
look I stand by slack deleting as an important and useful thing

daniel.schroeder
which I can thread about too

dan.kois
thread, then delete the thread