In 2019, I worked in a typical remote dev team using Slack. Then we stopped.
Why? Slack destroyed our ability to focus and get meaningful work done. It broke down projects because we talked more than we actually ‘did’. Talk is cheap.
I now work on Memo which is an alternative to Slack and email that respects your focus and values high quality communication.
Reflecting on our time in Slack and working on Memo, I now realise there are some deeply troubling issues with the pervasiveness of instant communication that go beyond the loss of focus.
This post is about the positive things that happened to us when we stopped using Slack and how we went about it.
Slack has you believe that life on the platform is: “simpler, pleasant and more productive”, CEO, Stewart Butterfield. But by what measure? Do we consider the number of slack messages you send a good measure of productivity? What amount of ‘work’ do they actually represent?
As a designer, I never used to bill clients for time spent discussing a project (maybe I should have), only the hours I worked. By that measure, time spent in Slack discussing requirements is not, therefore, truly ‘productive’.
However, communication is essential, I cannot do deep work if I do not know what the client wants and to find out, we need to talk. The question is whether Slack helps you communicate faster and somehow better?
In my experience it does not. Slack’s so called productivity is in fact a measure of distractions. In Slack, more productivity equals more distractions.
X pings Y pings Z pings ‘at’ channel and boom, everyone in the company weighs in. It sure looks a lot like productivity but in fact it’s more like ‘being busy’.
Being busy isn’t a good thing. If you’re in a creative role such as design or development, busy is the last thing you want to be. Busy is the enemy of problem solving or creative thought.
This is bad productivity not good and the number one reason we ditched Slack. It’s a world of busy message ping pong that leaves no room for adding meaningful value during the day.
Now we practice ‘good productivity’ by assigning time for better quality, more thoughtful sprints of communication. For example, our daily team meeting or by writing and receiving longform messages that give everyone time to respond at their own pace.
The rest of our time is dedicated to focussed work with clear outcomes, i.e. good productivity.
Synchronous communication is live, two (or more) way conversation. A classic synchronous form of communication is the good ol’ phone call.
Asynchronous is the opposite, i.e. email. When you use a tool designed for sync, asynchronously it all goes wrong and vice versa. Slack is instant messaging so in theory, synchronous but you can turn it off so is it asynchronous?
Slack is terrible at both sync and async. It inhabits a particularly useless grey area that is neither proper sync nor async.
If you need to talk to someone, ring them. You can speak a lot faster than you can type.
If you need to write something down that needs some consideration, email it. If you send it in Slack, someone will have interrupted you six times before you finish and mashed up what you were trying to say.
All the time you spend waiting for the other person to type is removed when you have a phone call and anything that needs to be written down needs more consideration than an instant response.
The key to effective communication is to know what method to use in what circumstance. We use video for a daily meeting, phone calls for urgent problems that warrant the interruption and Memo for written communication.
Slack’s UI taught us bad communication habits. Everything about the product design encourages bad behaviour: speaking without thinking, kneejerk reactions, not giving space for everyone in the team to contribute, assuming everyone is listening to you all the time and assuming it’s ok to just bash the door down and interrupt.
None of this is ok. At some point, Slack normalized this ‘always on’. It normalized interruptions regardless of the value that person is adding in their focussed work.
If you value deep work in your company (and I suggest that you do if you want to get anything done) then your culture should be one of respect for each other’s concentration.
Obviously if the Armada is making shore, pick up the phone and give us a ring. Hell, light the beacons, send for help but otherwise, let me decide when I’m ready to accept new information and communicate.
The blame lies squarely with Slack’s UI. The behaviours encouarged by the design erode the values of deep work. For a new team setting up Slack on day one, they may never experience communication norms that were forged in more mature teams.
The solution is to have a culture of respect for focus. The outcome has been hugely valuable for us and to think, we we all pay Slack for stealing away focus time at our companies.
Stop paying for Slack and start earning back the value that focus time will definitely give you.
On the darkest days using Slack it looked and felt like a dirty addiction. We all know that checking messages issues a dopamine hit but what I didn’t realise was the damage to my focus that was doing.
When I wasn’t using Slack, my thoughts were clouded by the desire to check Slack. So while I wasn’t even using Slack, Slack was using me.
Then the addiction spread. The number of times I checked Whatsapp increased. The frequency with which I browsed Facebook (also now deleted by the way) increased. LinkedIn, Email, forums, hell I was checking my letterbox 8 times a day ‘just in case’.
Slack’s addiction is the same effect slot machines have on gambling junkies. The chance there might be a sweet something to distract us in the chat window creates a powerful reward pathway made all the juicer when there is actually something there.
This is why Slack destroys productivity. Not the busy kind, the actual, valuable, useful kind of productivity that helps you make progress.
A day spent being busy but not really turning out anything useful is a sad day and one that made me feel worthless. This was the moment I realised Slack had to go.
Even now, over a year out of the woods I still get urges to check apps compulsively. I overpower it with the thought that each distraction selfishly eats into our runway by a few seconds.
Awareness of the value of focus and well-being in the workplace is getting better. There are some great writers, for example Cal Newport gives you a practical framework for thinking about deep work. It’s easy to read and easy to follow.
At Memo we have made it our mission to reclaim focus in a distracted world.
In the post-Slack fallout, I realised my personal bank of knowledge was depleted and I needed to get back control of that.
When I write things down, they become a useful reference. At the time you write it, this doesn’t seem important but give it a few months and suddenly you cannot find what you thought you were looking for. It sets in like woodworm in your cricket bat - you don’t realise until it’s too late.
I’m not even talking about ‘covering your backside’, just words you want to refer back to, maybe an address, a quote or some great advice a colleague sent you. Simple things you know roughly live somewhere in your memory but you need to see it again to get the context or remember the exact details.
Slack makes this impossible to find. Sure, they provide a search bar but the issue is with the way you are made to communicate with one another in Slack. There is little to no structure and thousands of bitty messages drown out the useful bits.
Before Slack I had a pretty good file of useful conversations I could refer back to. During Slack I had a million jumbled words (a good third of which were actually emojis) which represented very little value at all. Now I am re-building my personal knowledgebase.
Once you start a culture of instant, addictive reaction in Slack, you create a fear that your voice will not be heard. Or worse, that if you don’t contribute, you’re somehow worth less than your colleagues.
In fact, while you’re focussing on some deep work you’re almost certainly adding more value than you counterparts pontificating in the ‘moonshoots channel’.
Therein lies the issue. The FOMO culture is destructive in the extreme because everyone in the team feels obliged to be constantly tuned in. Even the nagging potential that an important Slack announcement might erupt at any moment prevents people from truly slipping into deep work.
When we quit Slack we were able to slow down in a good way. Now we communicate less now but when we do write, it’s far higher quality. This is the benefit of slowing down.
Where we’ve sped up of course is with our ability to deliver valuable work. The enormously valuable shift back to focus has meant we are eating through our roadmap far quicker and with higher quality innovation than before.
I got so mad about this we decided to try and be part of the solution, not just winge about it. That’s how Memo came to be. We pivoted our whole product to focus on this problem after this experience.
If you’re motivated by going deep and truly productive focus, check out Cal Newport’s book on Deep Work and then check out Memo.
Memo is an open communication alternative to Slack and our mission is to: ‘reclaim focus in a distracted world’.
But why not use email? In summary, email is almost as bad as Slack IMO. Spam, newsletters, push notifications. Memo offers a fresh perspective on communication that is respectful of your focus.
It does this through minimalist design that does not create addictive reward pathways but it also does this by making every message you send more valuable.