May 23, 2019

Slack, the productivity tool which ain’t so productive after all

Startups are addicted to Slack. Is it harming culture?

“Members of our team were burning out. With Slack, work didn’t sleep,” says a manager at a startup that raised a Series A funding round last year. She prefers to stay anonymous, like many employees critical of the addictive, “always on” nature of the communications tool, which is set to list on the stock market in a few weeks’ time.

Slack is so ingrained in startup life that to criticise Slack is to criticise their company’s culture.

Slack — “where work happens” — has disrupted startups’ internal communications. The tool is considered integral for global and growing startup teams to stay connected, but at the same time, its compulsive nature poses a threat to teams’ productivity — and wellbeing.


Blurring the boundaries between work and play

“It’s totally addictive,” says an employee at a fintech startup with hundreds of employees, who also asked not to be identified.

Slack feeds users with regular dopamine hits as the thumbs up and emojis roll in: “You post and you’re just waiting for the emoji reaction,” they add. “It’s definitely distracting.”

What’s more, this rapid-fire exchange of GIFs and emojis blur the boundaries between work and play — and gives the illusion that work is happening: “I think it gives the impression that there's so much going on, but really it’s just a lot of chat,” says the fintech employee.

Addictive products make money: there’s a reason Slack is the fastest growing SaaS tool in history and is valued at $7bn. But startups may need to think about going cold turkey.

Like many drugs, at first, Slack is brilliant. Usually, when Slack enters startups the teams are small and the volume of messages is manageable. Slack only starts charging once teams are hooked. As teams grow, its usage spirals out of control and it becomes disruptive for all the wrong reasons.

By the time we were at 50 [people], I felt it was causing more problems than it was solving.

“At around 20-30 people it was awesome and incredibly helpful at streamlining comms across teams and getting visibility into the organisation, and generally a useful productivity tool. By the time we were at 50, I felt it was causing more problems than it was solving,” says a manager at a London-based startup.

The impact of the volume of messages and notifications on concentration is obvious. Slack is clever, so even when people impose self-discipline, they feel FOMO. “The thing I find really distracting is the little red dot on your desktop or phone that tells you you've got unread messages. It means I can't separate work from my personal life,” he adds.

At its worst, Slack can cause stress and anxiety for teams, particularly for more vulnerable or junior employees who are already working in environments where employee wellbeing often takes a backseat.

People are much meaner on Slack than face to face.

Speed can make communication thoughtless, while misreading the tone of messages can cause problems: “In Slack, there is no way of being able to express emotions apart from when people use smiley faces and emojis,” says an employee at a property startup. He goes on to say that it’s impacting team bonding as they’re having fewer real-life and genuine conversations. “People are much meaner on Slack than face to face,” adds the fintech employee.

Slack never sleeps

Founders are, notoriously, “always on” — and Slack makes sure everyone on their team knows it. Despite founders saying they don’t expect employees to respond to them immediately, employees tell a different story: “I was getting slacked at 12 at night, then five o’clock in the morning. You think — if they’re working these hours, then they're expecting that of me. And if I'm not replying, then they think I'm being lazy, or I don't care,” says the employee at the property startup. He goes on to say: “I feel emotionally disconnected in my own personal relationship because I'm always being slacked.”

If I'm not replying, then they think I'm being lazy, or I don't care.

On Slack, there is no way to distinguish what instruction is urgent and what isn’t. The manager at the Series A startup says younger employees thought they had to get out of bed at 2 am to respond to messages. She says they’d think, “Well, I better wake up at two o'clock in the morning and start doing work on this.”

The startup had switched to Slack from instant messaging on Google Hangouts and she says she noticed the impact on teams shortly after the switch: “Google Hangouts was less advanced; it wasn't as invasive.”

The green light is the new face time

There is no denying how Slack has contributed to the rise in remote working for startup teams and how that benefits people and teams who need flexible hours. Vivi Friedgut, founder and CEO of edtech startup Blackbullion says Slack is useful for keeping the team accountable on days when they work at home. “We're all together only a couple of days of the week so parents can take their kids to school and come in late or go out early.” She says they don’t have any issues with Slack, but has heard of other companies who do.

Some employees still feel the compulsion to show they’re working, even if they’re not in the office: “I make sure Slack is on and I've got the green light on because that way they know I’m at my desk. Slack is allowing people to get that face time without being in the office,” says the employee at the property startup.

“If I’m working from home, I will sometimes just post a message at 7.30am and then close my computer,” says the fintech employee.

Online presenteeism is contagious. “There's a girl on our team who times her messages to prove that she is online or working. It makes people feel bad even though they have done lots of work,” says the manager at the Series A startup. She goes on to say that this performative working is particularly present if a founder pings: “When our founder posts the message it is really, really interesting to see who is the fastest person to respond to it. It's like — look at me, look at me, I've got to this point first. And I think it's definitely quite damaging.”

But is it Slack’s fault?

“If there is an issue with overuse of Slack, or distraction, or stress, it's very easy to blame it on a particular tool. I actually look at it the other way: Why does that person feel the need to behave in that way?” says Merlie Calvert, founder of 12-person legal-tech startup Farillio. Calvert says she sets clear objectives to avoid this kind of presenteeism.

Merlie Calvert, founder of legal platform Farillio.

Some startups are reverting to using Slack like email. (A move which makes you wonder what the point of Slack really is beyond a more jovial instant messaging tool.) An early-stage film and tech startup employee says: “Everyone has switched to mute to all but the #urgent channel. Days were being lost to Slack and meaningful work was being interrupted with the impression of feeling busy.” One founder says that to manage the volume of messages, she checks Slack only twice a day.

Other startups are taking active measures to manage the tool to encourage concentration. Sophie Marsh, head of operations at temporary retail space marketplace Appear Here, which has a team of 80 across London, Paris and New York, says, “Slack is definitely a game changer for comms between global teams.” She says they onboard all international team members with a week in their London HQ to ensure they feel part of the culture and to meet everyone they’ll be working with. “After that week, I believe Slack is the most important thing for building those relationships, keeping lines of communication open and everyone on the same page.”

Acknowledging the risk of the tool being disruptive she says, “Several members of the team have self-imposed 'Do Not Disturb' Slack periods where they will mute it at set times. We have also introduced regular power hours for specific teams where they all do the same task with no disruptions.” She says this builds focus and momentum in those teams.

If Slack is synonymous with startup culture then it needs to be seen for what it is: the social media tool of the workplace that should sometimes be switched off. As the manager from the Series A startup says, “It's the most invasive form of communication to have at work if you don't learn to control it properly.”