Explore a better way to work – one that promises more calm, clarity, and creativity.

Unpacking Our Dialectical Relationship with Slack

Earlier this week, I published an essay in the New Yorker about Salesforce’s proposed $28 billion acquisition of Slack. You might assume that my feelings toward this slick-interfaced interruption machine are purely negative, but as I admit: “I do not dislike Slack as much as people assume given that I wrote a book titled Deep Work.

What interests me more than easy criticism here is the knowledge sector’s dialectical relationship with this tool. People hate it, but they also kind of love it. Slack fragments your attention into minuscule shards, but it also solves issues that make email nearly untenable as a means of organizing work.

As I elaborate in the essay, it’s in this dual reaction that we find the truly important insight. Slack optimized the hyper-communicative, ad hoc, message-driven workflow that email helped make ubiquitous. We love it because it improves this approach to work, but we hate it because this approach doesn’t scale, and therefore ultimately makes us miserable — an observation succinctly captured in the piece’s title: “Slack is the Right Tool for the Wrong Way to Work.”

Anyway, as always, I recommend you read the original article for a fuller take on my thinking.

9 thoughts on “Unpacking Our Dialectical Relationship with Slack”

  1. If Slack was always used strictly for work purposes, it wouldn’t be *that* bad. But in many workplaces, it looks a lot more like 1990s AIM. Essentially, a bunch of Millenials rapidly punching away at their keyboards and gossiping with and about their friends (and, now, their coworkers).

    • There’s a lot of information in that gossip, though. First, such gossip establishes relationships, which makes work easier. To use the Manager Tools terminology, it enforces and creates relationship power. Second, random conversations can lead to major insights. It’s happened a number of times, and my boss has told me it’s one reason she keeps buying coffee and such for the breakroom. You can’t plan for these sorts of conversations, they need to arise organically, and since we live in a world where even before Covid we often worked with people all over the country if not the world the water cooler isn’t an option anymore. Third, if used correctly the difference between gossip and work is very vague. There’s a coworker that I IM with during conference calls, because we can identify and address issues real-time and present a conclusion in the meeting. If you read the texts without the context of nearly a decade of us working very closely together (it’s a REALLY good thing our spouses like each other!!) you’d think we were just joking around, but we’re really using a carefully developed shorthand to transmit a lot of information. One thing that we are transmitting is our state of mind/emotional wellbeing, which is important (burned-out people don’t do as well as non-burned-out people), but which isn’t something you can schedule a meeting to discuss.

      Everyone has their own workflow, and many people simply cannot buckle down and work for 8 hours without a break. That’s nothing to do with their focus being corroded by distractions, it’s just the way they’re wired–social interaction is important to them. And trust me, when your life depends on someone (I’m a field geologist, this is not a rare thing for me; happened this morning, in fact) you don’t want them watching your back because it’s part of the job. You want them watching your back because they like you.

      I’m not saying Slack is good. I’m just saying that there are some advantages to having a system of relatively informal communication.

      • I think James is totally correct. I’ve noticed that especially in academia and tech, some people have a tendency to deride any frivolous or non-project-based communication as “gossip.” But there’s a big difference between malicious rumor-mongering or bullying (toxic, makes the group less effective) and maintaining casual social connections (essential, makes the group more effective). Being negative or complaining is also not the same as bullying, and does not always have an adverse effect on morale. Negative emotions are a normal part of work, and both venting and giving/receiving emotional support can build stronger relationships.

        As one example, I moved to a new organization and assumed a new role with major extra responsibilities this year. Because of Covid, I don’t have the same ability to maintain social ties at my workplace. I joined an industry-wide Slack for people in this role and have found it really helpful in preventing burnout. This is definitely not deep work, but I think if you can really restrict the time you spend on it (which does take practice), it can actually support your ability to do deep work. My reasoning is that if you feel too disconnected from your work, or don’t feel like you’re a part of something bigger, for many people, it will be tough to convince your brain to spend the time and energy it takes to go deep.

    • I am a Millennial, work for Salesforce, and do not like Slack. Be careful when making sweeping generalizations about an entire generation of humans.

      When I learned Salesforce was implementing Slack internally, I felt defeated. I thought I had finally escaped Slack’s ever-tightening grip on the world of work.

      Later, when Salesforce announced the acquisition of the distraction machine known as Slack, I thought, “Great, now I have to speak well of a product I despise.”

      In my experience, slack is what users do when they use Slack; the product name accurately describes what users do with the product. It is not, as its catchy motto suggests, “where work happens.”

  2. I’m fascinated by this whole issue – not least because I’ve never seen, let alone used, this software myself. Apparently it’s quite popular in Northern Europe, but it hasn’t really caught on yet in my part of the EU. It’s probably only a matter of time, though.

  3. I shared this article with all of my various teams in Slack (which I rarely use anymore). One of my colleagues responded with:

    “Great article. I have a love/hate relationship to it as well. I think it’s “good” for internal communication because by design it eliminates noise from the outside HOWEVER it is still so limited. Asana isn’t much better, obviously focused on project communication. There is a better way.”

    …which misses the point. Slack is NOT “good” for internal communications. Asana is.

    Asana and Slack are two different Universes. Slack fragments attention into slivers. Asana enables “deep work” collaboration at the day-to-day level (even if it isn’t the right tool for strategic thinking and complex planning…which is where Google Docs & Sheets come in).

    The challenge: Using Asana well, like any project management tool, is a learned skill. It requires thought, planning, and organization…which is something that doesn’t come naturally to people, especially people who are used to off-the-cuff, in the moment Slacking & emailing.

    A team that’s committed to Asana will naturally have some people who are extremely organized and get it faster, and others who are more chaotic in their workflows and need a decent amount of training. You have to hold those chaotic people accountable to learning the tool, and that can be particularly tough for really smart people who are naturally messy. Ego can get in the way.

    Google Sheets is the place to lay out a quarterly plan, and Google Documents is where project plans are ideated and built. Both of these link back to/from Asana tasks and are interlinked with one another. Obviously, an annual plan is a combination of Google Docs & Sheets.

    This setup provides a naturally organic planning system that can massively scale. But again: it requires a decent amount of training to master. You also need a really organized Google Drive to make it all work together.


Leave a Comment