Slack Wants to Replace Email. Is That What We Want?

Slack is coming for your job. The workplace chat company, valued at more than $7 billion at the time of its last funding round, is going public this week. It claims to already have more than 10 million daily users and, in its listing prospectus, bills itself as the answer to bloated inboxes everywhere.

This is all very exciting, if you’re Slack. But most of us aren’t quite there yet. The company says it has 88,000 paying customers — a sliver of a sliver of the world’s desk-and-phone-bound office workers, and fewer than work full-time at, for example, Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

Speaking of Google, the company has a Slack alternative of its own, called Hangouts Chat, as does Facebook, in Workplace. Microsoft has Teams, which is bundled with its Office software and which the company says is being used by more than 500,000 organizations. This multi-front attack on email is just beginning, but a wartime narrative already dominates: The universally despised office culture of replies and forwards and mass CCs and “looping in” and “circling back” is on its way out, and it’s going to be replaced by chat apps. So what happens if they actually win?

What We Talk About When We Talk About Chat

A workplace does not simply start using Slack. It is not “adopted” in the manner of new system for expenses, or a new video meeting app. Slack arrives like word of a new office space, or a coming restructuring. Slack is where and how work gets done.

I put out a call for stories from post-chat workplaces, and some replies were indistinguishable from the company’s own case studies. For the right office, it’s a huge relief to chat. “I know for the engineering team it’s a game-changer,” said Shannon Todesca, an employee at CarGurus, an automotive shopping site. “It’s used to keep track of code pushes,” she said, as well as system errors. Workers also report dentist appointments and sick days to the #ooo (out of office) channel, preventing inboxes from getting clogged, or an early heads-up from getting lost.

At Automattic, which runs and a handful of smaller internet services, Slack is the glue that binds a fully remote “virtual office” of nearly 1,000 employees living in dozens of different countries and working on vastly different products.

Scaleworks, a Texas-based tech fund, uses Slack to manage its portfolio of companies, but also to let them share with one another. “The C.E.O.s work collaboratively on hard problems,” said Drew Olanoff, a company spokesman. “Slack plays a big part there.”

Searchable, real-time chat has been a boon to smaller, non-tech companies too. Matt Lien, a producer at Flag Family Media, which operates a pair of AM radio stations in North Dakota, said Slack has improved his daily work experience. “Having a place to put audio files, random phone numbers, breaking news or even memes from our listeners has made all of our jobs easier,” he said. “Not to mention being able to search for a guest phone number if we lose it.”

Many of the purely happy Slackers who I spoke to, however, did tend to share a few traits. The tech industry was overrepresented, of course, and so too were young workers who came of age while chatting online. Also overrepresented were bosses: managers enjoying new “transparency” and “efficiencies,” suddenly given a panoptic view of a freshly renovated virtual office. The sorts of people who might read this pitch from Slack …

As a result of the alignment teams and organizations are able to maintain while continuously adapting to respond in increasingly dynamic environments, less effort and energy is wasted and the human beings on those teams are able to fully utilize their intelligence and creativity in pursuit of the organization’s shared objectives.

… and think, “sounds great,” instead of, maybe, “uh-oh.”

Rank-and-file employees were more likely to share concerns about the new era of office chat. There was the woman who cited a “truly unhinged Slack situation” — dozens of new rooms serving a workflow that seemed only to make sense to the new boss — as one reason she ultimately left her job at a major media company. There was the guy who told of an ambitious new employee at his firm who spent his first weeks scouring thousands of Slack logs dating back years before his arrival. “He has an encyclopedic knowledge of why certain decisions were made and every personnel thing that ever happened,” the employee said. “Every little interpersonal tiff. Every interview we ever conducted!”

There were the new employees themselves, who made the mistake of searching for their own names on their first days. (The venture capitalist Hunter Walk coined a term: “Slackenfreude,” which he defined as “the joy in knowing that as a Slack group grows, the likelihood of a new member searching their name and finding they’ve been slagged on in earlier conversations reaches 99.9 percent.”)

Most common were mixed feelings, often related to privacy and productivity. “We’ve had to consciously discuss using Slack less often,” said Lacey Berrien, who works at marketing start-up Drift. “I had our I.T. team check a few weeks ago, and we were up to over 950 Slack channels,” she said, “and that doesn’t count the private ones.” (The company C.E.O. recently told employees, via email, “Instead of an endless back and forth in Slack trying to get my point across I am just having a real conversation when convenient.”)

Stephanie O’Quigley, a public relations professional in New York City, said her colleagues were not at all reluctant to pick up Slack — which turned into a problem. “Slack was used to try and alleviate the divide between different departments in the company, and we hoped it would make us more cohesive as a company,” she said in an email. “People were constantly chatting via Slack, and with work-from-home employees, conversations via Slack ended up taking much longer than a phone call would.”

Slack also defies the social customs and expectations of email, codified over decades of use and misuse. Some employees — and, crucially, employers — are still learning how to establish rules and boundaries around real-time chat. “I personally felt so much anxiety over Slack,” Ms. O’Quigley said. “I love my job, but nothing triggers alarm bells like when you receive a message from your team or boss after work hours.”

When Anil Dash took over as the chief executive of Glitch, a software development platform, the company had already largely moved on from email, and had been organized around group chat applications for more than a decade. “It was interesting to come into a company with 10 years of practices and zero internal notes,” he said. There were all sort of customs, if not rules, about how to behave, what was expected, and simply how things worked. A room where employees would announce their arrivals, daily, with a morning emojis; rooms where everyone read but few posted; rooms where everyone posted but few were expected to fully read. (The solution? A shared, editable company handbook, outlining expectations and practices where possible.)

“I’m old enough to remember workplaces that didn’t have email,” Mr. Dash said. Then, too, it wasn’t quite clear how this powerful and potentially stressful new tool was supposed to be used, which norms it shattered and which ones it would simply inherit from the office before it. “You could email anyone in the whole company,” he said. “You could email the C.E.O. It turns out, nobody does that.”

But messaging the C.E.O. is a whole other thing — just ask Jim Bankoff, the chief executive of Vox Media, where employees were given a way to ask anonymous questions in Slack rooms. (That is no longer the case.) And while everyone whose work involves sending and receiving a lot of emails can tell you about co-workers with different email styles — efficient, obnoxious, absentee — in a workplace chat, which unfolds in real time, your style isn’t just a few of your memorable habits or linguistic tics. It’s you, represented in real time.

Is Faster Really Better?

Slack reduces email, and email is bad, and so therefore it must follow that Slack is good. Furnishing a considerable tailwind to this marketing pitch is that people really do resent their email. Don’t you?

In a 2011 study published in the journal Organization Science, researchers noted that while email was widely regard as a “growing source of stress in people’s lives,” research also suggests that it affords people “flexibility and control by enabling them to communicate from anywhere at any time.” To attempt to address this contradiction, the researchers drew on interviews from nearly a decade earlier, conducted when email itself was still ripping through American offices, and producing its own stories of relief, ambivalence, and horror. Employees’ worries will sound familiar, and in hindsight maybe not unwarranted. “Although, in theory, email’s asynchrony should have granted recipients the leeway to respond at a time that was convenient for them,” the study said, “our informants described strong cultural expectations about not keeping senders waiting.”

Email, the paper suggested, had actually become an “interpretive scapegoat for the workers’ perceptions that they were expected to do more than they could reasonably accomplish in a day.” Email itself was new and required adjustment. It also provided a “culturally sanctioned rhetoric of complaint about overload as well as a tangible ritual for regaining control: to cope with overload, trim your inbox.” Complaining about work might be risky. But email? Even your manager complains about that.

Stephen R. Barley, a professor of technology management at the University of California Santa Barbara and a co-author of the paper, remembers subjects lamenting, nearly 20 years ago, the erosion of work boundaries as symbolized and enacted by email. “I think what they’re really expressing, and most white-collar workers would never say this, is that these technologies are appropriating time at the beginning and end of days, without any kind of payment,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s an encroachment of work into other spaces in your life.”

But with Slack, there is no perfect equivalent to inbox zero; an instant message from your boss during the day might demand not just a quick response, but an instant one; it will be up to us, but mainly our bosses, to establish what a late-night Slack message means or demands, as compared to an email, and what noise or vibration it should cause in the phone that many of us have moved closer to our beds.

Any suggestion that Slack is purely empowering must also take into account that it is, ultimately, a tool paid for by employers, and which grants them full power within it: to set rules; to observe or surveil their employees; to set norms anew, or to change norms that have evolved in ways they don’t appreciate.

Among the small but meaningful technical features of Slack is the ability it provides, by default, to any user to create a new space for talking. An office with a vibrant email culture might spawn long casual threads, or email groups, but Slack’s tendency to produce endless breakout rooms, with varying degrees of perceived privacy, has fostered unexpected results. At The New York Times, employees have used Slack to create spaces which give rise to collaboration about, as well as internal criticism of, the company’s news coverage. Sometimes these discussions are elevated to management, while other discussions are surely observed by management.

For employees raised online, Slack looks and feels like a place to socialize. I grew up chatting with friends online and still do, sometimes in scattered Slack rooms. I have also spent the last 10 years at companies where work chat was the norm and observed the arrival of Slack with both relief and suspicion. Finally, a better work chat app. Then: Oh god, this is really how people are going to work, now?

Despite its emphasis to clients on increasing productivity and reducing waste, Slack doesn’t just blur the boundary between work and play. In some cases, it has also helped foster workplace collaboration of a particular and powerful sort.

At the online publication Slate, two decades of email culture quickly gave way to a companywide Slack in 2014, which splintered into channels for discussing everything from day-to-day business concerns to embryonic ideas. “There’s a higher bar for sending an email than there is for sending a message on Slack,” L.V. Anderson, an employee at the time of the software’s introduction, wrote in an email. Senior staffers were more comfortable starting office-wide discussions over email. “Slack felt more democratic and more welcoming,” she said.

There were dozens of rooms. Among them was #slate-millennial: a self-aware half-joke but also, in time, a space to talk openly about the concerns of younger staffers. “From the beginning, I think the channel felt like a safe space for mild grousing about management, power dynamics and subtle inequities in the workplace,” Ms. Anderson said. A Slack discussion about sharing salaries led to the creation of a shared document, which led to further conversations about inequity.

Talk of unionizing, beginning in 2016 and spurred by a new hire, Tommy Craggs, started offline. Early recruitment leaned on Google Talk. When the effort started gaining steam and fostering major internal debate, it was back to Slack.

“It was the only platform that was easily accessible to everyone in the potential bargaining unit,” Ms. Anderson said. This room would be called #comrades, and it would be private. There was a round of layoffs in 2017; remaining pro-union staffers opened a new Slack, fully separate from Slate’s. The staff — by now minus Mr. Craggs and Ms. Anderson — voted to unionize in early 2018 and spent the next year fighting for a contract.

As negotiations became tense, in late 2018, the union members voted to authorize a strike — by not working on Slack. “Today, Slate’s union is conducting an hourlong Slack strike to express our unity and commitment to what we’re asking for at the table,” the union tweeted in November. The move was met with teasing coverage. It was also followed by a vote to authorize a full strike. By January, they had a contract.

John Herrman covers tech and media for the Times Magazine, and was one of the first three recipients of The Times’s David Carr Fellowship. Previously, he was a reporter for the Business section. @jwherrman

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