Salesforce is paying $28 billion to purchase Slack, the intraoffice texting service that has turned the American workplace into a dystopian micro-Twitterverse. Sold as a tool to improve communication and promote teamwork, Slack has in fact made office life miserable, especially during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Created in February 2014, Slack was a darling of the business world from day one. Without a single salesperson on staff, it had 1.7 million users within two years and was pulling in $45 million in annual revenue. The product’s appeal is often attributed to its founder Stewart Butterfield’s experience developing and packaging consumer products like the photo-sharing service Flickr.
From the start, though, “Slack” was a misnomer: It was intended to eliminate, rather than encourage, time-wasting at the office. Members of a given work team could communicate instantaneously, eliminating the bother of scheduling a face-to-face meeting or walking over to a co-worker’s desk. The idea was to eliminate all the little misunderstandings that create workplace friction and get everybody rowing in the same direction.
I was working as a middle manager in a large news organization when Slack took corporate America by storm, and naturally, my company just had to have it. My feeling was that it was a solution in search of a problem. We already worked in pretty small teams, and I’d never experienced much trouble keeping abreast of what my charges were up to or what my boss wanted. The middle managers in my department all sat together, and if one middle manager needed something from another middle manager, he or she could bellow the request or walk a few paces to the desk of the would-be collaborator in question. Email groups were arranged according to topic and department. And if that arrangement was too slow, you could call a co-worker’s cell phone (we had a company directory) or send a text. If all else failed, you could schedule a meeting.
For a while, the use of office Slack channels at my shop was voluntary. I volunteered not to use them because I couldn’t bear loading yet another communications platform onto my laptop. But as more and more of the action shifted to Slack, I had to relent, especially after Covid-19 made face-to-face communication possible only through Zoom.
You hear a lot of grumbling about Zoom, but I have no problem with it. Unlike Slack, it doesn’t cry for my attention like a squalling newborn babe. Meetings are scheduled in advance; if you don’t want to go, you don’t necessarily have to. Granted, it’s far from perfect. Because two people can’t speak on the platform at once, it’s easier for some pain-in-the-ass co-worker to filibuster. But Zoom hasn’t done any particular damage to office life that I can see.
Slack, on the other hand, has screwed up working life in a variety of ways.
It saps productivity. Intraoffice communication platforms like Slack were supposed to limit the time office workers spent yakking at one another by making the yakking maximally efficient. A 2012 McKinsey study said the adoption of these brave new task-management apps would increase productivity by 20 to 25 percent.
Fat chance. If you widen a road to reduce traffic congestion, what generally happens instead is that you get the same level of congestion, only with more vehicles. Similarly, if an office opts for Slack because everybody’s email inbox is overflowing with crap, it’s magical thinking to believe that their Slack channels won’t soon be overflowing with crap, too. Note the plural. Slack channels multiply like rabbits in heat. A 2019 Recode piece reported that employees at large companies sent more than 200 Slack messages per week. Some of these companies had more Slack channels than they had employees.
It crushes individual initiative. The typical boss has a weakness for believing that everything would be fine if my office workers could only be made to do exactly what I want, every second of every hour of every day. Slack puts that proposition to the test by maximizing the reach of that wrongheaded ideal. The inconvenient truth is that, unless you’ve hired a pack of imbeciles, the success of your company depends on workers showing initiative—which in turn depends on their getting away from the boss long enough to develop relationships with outsiders (sometimes known as “customers”), gathering a bit of information, and thinking matters through. Slack discourages such behavior by immersing hapless workers in conditions of managerial surveillance around the clock.
It encourages snap judgments and bullying. I’m no great fan of meetings, but gathering a group of people face to face to exchange ideas usually forces them to hear one another out in courteous fashion. Slack is like a meeting that never ends, but because it’s done facelessly, there’s much less pressure to be properly attentive and courteous. The social lubrication that comes from looking at another person’s face and hearing that person’s voice—even on Zoom—matters quite a lot, and it’s absent on Slack. Moreover, in pandemic times, we don’t have to worry about bumping into whomever we just gave the back of the hand to at the water cooler. In this way, Slack makes office communication dumber and nastier.
Much has been written about the role that Slack recently played in workers getting managers fired for offenses large, small, and, in some cases, nonexistent, through collective action that intimidated the big boss into cutting the offender loose. I don’t want to relitigate these controversies, but at least some of them might have gone better if they’d played out in person. Like Twitter, Slack encourages a certain detached contempt for the person being criticized.
Don’t kid yourself that this contempt travels only in one direction, up the chain of command. It’s far likelier, especially during economically difficult times, to travel down. I have witnessed, and on one occasion experienced personally, managers expressing a level of nastiness on Slack that I don’t think they would have thought advisable in a face-to-face encounter. Because of its misleadingly impersonal interface, Slack is too conducive to cutting off discussion and barking orders like some Parris Island drill sergeant.
Since we live in a golden age of communications, we’re susceptible to believing that more communication is always going to be better. But Slack has Americans communicating with one another too much, and on terms that don’t encourage listening. We chat too much, converse too little, and could all use more time to be left alone to do our jobs. It’s an odd complaint to raise during a pandemic lockdown, but we could all use a bit more room to cultivate our gardens. The endless yak-yak-yak of Slack deprives us of that necessary solitude.