You're About to Hate Slack as Much as You Hate E-Mail
David Warsh wants you to imagine an office worker hunched over his computer. “Then comes a little chuckle,” he wrote in the Washington Post. “A rapid-fire series of keystrokes. He hits the send button, and the scene is repeated by another manager across the room.” It sounds like a day in the life of the modern employee, one who spends hours on Slack, HipChat, or any number of work-sanctioned group chat platforms to procrastinate with office mates. But the article is from 1991, and those workers aren’t chatting; they’re e-mailing.
When e-mail first entered offices, people liked it for the same reason workers love office chat: It provided entertainment under the guise of productivity. “It’s fun to share secrets, tell jokes, flirt, complain about fellow workers’ peccadilloes,” wrote Warsh. As it did with e-mail, though, our love of group chat will eventually morph into loathing.
Group chat at work has exploded. More than a million people log in to Slack every day, up from 120,000 daily users in 2014. Teams also congregate on a variety of similar services, such as HipChat, Google Hangouts, and Skype—sometimes using them all at once. Group chat has been lauded as an alternative to e-mail, which is now considered disruptive and burdensome.
E-mail, too, was once seen as a cure—for using the telephone. With its “jokes, invitations to lunch or notes to a friend,” wrote Oliver Bertin in the Globe and Mail in 1987, the technology was embraced as a fun alternative to calling. “The telephone is just one more distraction in an overly hectic day,” he wrote.
Workers are drawn to group chat because it’s fun. It “makes the workplace itself feel like a game,” Amanda Hess wrote for Slate last spring. As with Slack and similar programs, some early users liked e-mail a little too much. In 1992 a Hollywood story analyst told the New York Times, “It’s fun, but it’s a toy,” adding that “e-mail encourages people to chatter and say things that don’t need to be said.” A 1993 Business Times story called e-mail a “video game.”
People hate e-mail now. Recent articles have called it “evil” and the “cockroach of the Internet.” One of e-mail’s initial draws has turned out to be its downfall. “I think the beauty of e-mail is that people can follow up at their leisure,” one enthusiast told the Australian Financial Review in 1996. That leisure has resulted in bloated in-boxes that require constant maintenance. The ability to send e-mail at any time also means you can receive it at any time. A Pew survey from last year found that most people check work e-mail outside the office. In the same survey, 35 percent of respondents said they spend more time working because of the Internet. It’s only a matter of time before we resent chat, too. Let e-mail be a cautionary tale.
Group chat, it’s been promised, will move the bulk of office communications off e-mail and into a flowing conversation. Instead of having to manage an in-box filled with mostly useless messages, people can dip in and out of chat rooms that are the most relevant to their interests and work lives. Group chat makes it easier to find and follow conversations, but only the ones you want. Offices that use group chat reported spending less time on e-mails and in meetings. Research from Slack found that 1,629 users surveyed said they see an average of 48.6 percent reduction in e-mail.
But Slack loyalists may be spending much of that saved time chatting rather than getting work done: The average user spends 10 hours per weekday logged on to the platform, a longer stretch than a workday or a night of sleep for the average American worker, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Chat fatigue is already setting in.
“Slack channels can get pretty chaotic when there are a dozen people or more chatting,” began a section from Fast Company’s Slack etiquette guide, which came out last month. (Aren’t etiquette guides the beginning of the end for any club?)
Justin Glow, a writer for the Verge, quit Slack for a week last fall because of a “loss-of-control feeling.” Chat, like e-mail, encourages communication, which, while fun, isn’t always the best use of time. “It’s very easy to feel productive when you’re not,” Glow wrote. Brendan O’Neil, who works in sales at Robin, a meeting-room app, said he gets “messaging FOMO” when stepping away from Slack to do work. “Finding the right balance of signal vs. noise, I’m trying to improve that,” he said.
“In small doses, it’s all super,” said Chris Collins, an associate professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “The first time you got on a chat function because of the speed, it was probably great. It just becomes overwhelming after a while as it takes off.”
People turned on e-mail by the mid-90s. “Its ease and speed can become too much of a good thing,” read a Financial Post article from 1996. “Imagine the pressure on a service-oriented company, where maintaining the flow of information between customers and staff is key to staying competitive, and where you have to answer hundreds of e-mail queries a day in addition to all the phone requests.” We don’t have to imagine. That’s our reality.
Communication drives the modern office because success and idea-sharing go hand in hand, the thinking goes. “The products of the world are more complex than ever before,” explained Collins. “It takes more people’s knowledge. It means you need more people contributing.” The most successful companies allow more people to exchange ideas more often, he said. Hence the appeal of something like chat, which lets people across different time zones brainstorm all day.
But Collins’s research has found that while idea-sharing within teams is important, “e-mail, chat functions, internal blogs are pretty much useless,” he said. “They have very little impact when it comes to sharing the kind of knowledge to create the big ideas.” Face-to-face meetings, Collins has found, are where new ideas originate. Lindred Greer’s research at Stanford has turned up similar results: Chat is good for brainstorming, but not so much for idea execution.
Increasing chat anxiety does not mean the end of group chat. Slack, Google, and Apple all see the possibility of people overdosing on their services. Each offers its own “do not disturb” mode—Slack unveiled its version just last month—a message to fellow chatters that says you’re busy. The features let people read and respond to messages at their leisure, instead of in real time—which sounds a lot like e-mail.