Slacking Off: Can Office Chatrooms Make Us More Productive Time Wasters?

Group chatting platforms like the much-hyped Slack are being praised as a fun way to boost productivity at work. But not everyone is a fan

Photographer: Jamie Grill

When Normative, a software design firm, introduced Slack to its staff nine months ago, the first office chatroom looked like Twitter during an episode of Game of Thrones. GIFs and jokes flowed freely and employees, mostly the men, chatted with abandon. The guys having the most fun had been chatting online since early chat client mIRC was popular in the 1990s. "They hopped onto it and immediately got what Slack was and how to communicate," says Amrita Chandra, the head of marketing at the Toronto-based company. 

What was a work-approved free-for-all for some, however, was overwhelming and exclusive to others. The "crazy IRC behavior," as Chandra describes it, was intimidating. "People weren't participating." She clarifies: "A lot of the women weren't participating."

Most of the talk about Slack, now valued at $2.8 billion and likely coming to an office near you, comes from the perspective of the power users, like the men at Normative and media people, whose natural habitat is online chat rooms and social networks. Per those types, Slack is the best thing to happen to office quality-of-life since jeans became work-appropriate. Group chat has turned the workplace into an ever-present water cooler, a sanctioned place to goof around with co-workers that also miraculously improves performance and productivity.

But not everyone considers Slack (and other group chat platforms like HipChat and Campfire) entertaining or useful. "Working in an active Slack (or Campfire for that matter!) is a productivity nightmare," John Herrman recently wrote on The Awl. "Especially if you don’t hate your coworkers." Of course, if you do hate your co-workers, you're also subject to their terrible jokes all day. "Seventy percent of the chats are people doing standup comedy with each other," says a media professional, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of offending his co-workers. "Just as I find staff meetings to be a colossal waste of time and not productive, I think having the whole staff in a chat room all day is, too."

Slack markets itself, in part, as the meeting replacement we desperately need. More than half of all meetings are considered unproductive, but a necessary evil. This meta-analysis of decades of research found the practice costly, unproductive, wasteful, and unsatisfactory to both managers and workers, but "essential to accomplish tasks that individuals cannot complete by themselves." Most jobs require some form of collaboration to get things done.

Founder and Chief Executive Officer Stewart Butterfield created Slack as a side project while developing the now-defunct multiplayer game Glitch, and the platform incorporates a lot of game mechanics to capture people's attention. Merely digitizing team communication empowers more people to engage, according to Lindred Greer, a researcher at Stanford Graduate School of Business. "In the chat room, you can't see things like hierarchy or dominance. If you have someone who is assertive or aggressive, it equalizes participation," she says. Without the judgmental side-eye of a co-worker or the terrifying prospect of an eyebrow raise from a boss, people who would usually stay quiet can be more vocal. Introverts can flourish as much as extroverts, which is great for creative brainstorming, says Greer. 

Actually getting stuff done is another matter. People are more motivated to perform when there's face-to-face interaction, says Greer, and recent research out of Harvard Business School found that while group chat can help generate ideas, it delays problem solving and execution. Virtual teams can also experience more personal conflict. The perceived freedom can make firing off an inappropriate joke all too easy. "It's like Lord of the Flies," Greer says. "What do people do when they aren’t being monitored? They don't feel norms of appropriate behavior as much. You're more likely to make horrible jokes." Context and nuance don't translate well over the Internet, resulting in misunderstandings compounded by physical distance.

For workers who find the brave new world of work chat all too much, opting out often means missing out. Sam Wallace, an account executive for PR firm LaunchSquad, says his co-workers have fully embraced Slack but, for most of the day, he ignores it. "What ends up happening is you go onto this group message board and have 150 posts," he says. "People have been going for four hours and you haven't checked it. You have to wade through this long history and find out if there's anything useful or interesting to you."

There are remedies for the haters, though. Sports website Deadspin has enacted what it calls Slack Law for employees. "If you're riffing on something for a particular amount of time on Slack, you have to turn that shit into a post," a staff writer told Slate. Other companies program bots that shame people into working. Normative has a separate chat room reserved just for jokes and GIFs. "It has completely changed the way we use Slack," says Chandra. "We have women absolutely not just participating, but starting channels of their own, leading discussions. There isn't really that gender gap."

For some, however, Slack might never fit into their personal working style. "I think that people love the digital water cooler and they just love ... being able to multitask," says LaunchSquad's Wallace. "I'm more of a real-life talking kind of person—not to be snobby or anything like that."

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