At some point in the pandemic, Aleshia Hayes realized that most of her work related to virtual-reality research had moved onto Discord. She was dismayed.
"I just don't understand whose great idea it was to merge my gaming life with my professional life," Hayes said.
Hayes, a technology professor at University of North Texas, has been using her personal Discord to connect with other video gamers for a while. When the pandemic brought everything online, Hayes' research communities, like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, needed a way to meet. They used a patchwork of tools at first, including Zoom, Microsoft Teams and a little bit of Discord. When people grew more concerned about Zoombombing, Discord became the prime spot.
Discord underwent a major branding and mission transformation in 2020, moving beyond a platform solely for gamers. Aided by a boost in users from the pandemic, Discord became a place anyone could chat and hang out with their friends. The uses of Discord grew to include study groups, language learning and bonding over hobbies. With everyone on Discord, it was only natural that it would creep into people's professional lives.
People have strong feelings, both good and bad, about Discord as a work tool. Its voice chat is easy and highly functional. A lot of people already have it, making it easy to talk to both your co-workers and client base. But Discord is also full of distractions, and lacks the integrations necessary to become a full-fledged work tool.
It's unclear if becoming a work productivity tool is something Discord even wants (the company declined to speak to Protocol for this story). From the way Discord talks about itself — "your place to talk and hang out" or "where just you and a handful of friends can spend time together" — it seems to have no interest in becoming a part of your workplace. But it might not be up to Discord.
Who's using Discord for work? And why?
Most of the people Protocol spoke to for this story work in the video game industry and fit the classic Discord demographic: young, tech-savvy, into gaming. They tend to have Discord accounts already and are familiar with the interface. They like the consolidated communication, the flexibility and the friendly vibes. Slack and Teams, while free for smaller groups of people, aren't great for talking to people outside your organization. And they're both more formal.
James Bartholomeou, communications manager at video game agency ICO Partners, said his team started using Discord for work in February 2020. He'd been using the platform for six years or so, joining servers for his favorite podcasts and playing games with friends.
Bartholomeou and his co-workers use Discord for daily standup meetings, quick communication with clients and longer discussions using the threading feature introduced in July 2021. They do gaming sessions on Fridays to round off the week. Some even work in shared servers all day so they can hear each other and bounce ideas around.
"I like that it's given us a way to stay connected as a team during the lockdown," Bartholomeou, who's based in Brighton, England, said. "It brings back that idea of working in an office with people."
Angelo Saraceno is a support engineer at Railway, a small cloud infrastructure company. Railway has been using Discord for work communication from the get-go. They invested in the Discord Nitro subscription, which enhances chat and allows profile changes, among other things.
"We all prefer it, being the demographic we are," Saraceno said. "We route everything to Discord, we route our emails to our Discord, we route our feedback to our Discord."
Saraceno appreciates the informality of Discord, perfect for his small and nimble workplace. For him, Discord's audio chat is the equivalent of knocking on someone's door for coding help. He can offer Railway's customers software support directly on Discord, and doesn't have to juggle the typical array of workplace tools.
Discord is free if you spring for the Nitro subscription. This, plus its flexibility, convinced Amy Jo Kim to try it out with her team at Game Thinking, a game design services company. Some of her friends and colleagues love Discord. Others do not, often because they're older, don't want to learn another tool and, crucially, their friends aren't there.
"Some people in my community love Discord, some people are kind of Discord-nevers," Kim said. "I had my team try Discord because we like to run experiments."
With Discord's drop-in audio, Kim thought: Hey, maybe this is a way to consolidate and use one less tool. She found the experience less than satisfactory.
The main issue with using Discord for work, sources said, is it mixes work with play. There's no way to separate out work servers from fun servers, or toggle between work and personal accounts.
Hayes, the professor at UNT, scrolled through her Discord server list during an interview with Protocol, muttering "friends, work, friends, friends, work, friends…" and so on. She's able to change her username to a more professional name based on the server, but that can get difficult.
"A concern for me is that someone might use an account that is associated with their most vulnerable self, and not think about their username 'f***boy69' if they go into a Discord server as a student at a VR conference," Hayes said.
Of course, people could create separate Discord accounts and log in or out. But that's a hassle.
"It's quite often you'll be playing games with people in Discord, and then you might have to have that same contact on your work account," Bartholomeou said. "It becomes kind of a mess to manage."
Another issue: receiving work-related messages on your off hours, when you're having a fun night on Discord with your friends. Bartholomeou said in his past role with Focus Home Interactive, he used to get bombarded with messages late at night from people having issues with games.
Kim found Discord to be noisy to use for work. She doesn't feel the need to socialize with her team all day. Link sharing is more difficult, because Discord doesn't have many integrations outside YouTube and Twitch. "We're there to get our work done, we're not 20-somethings," Kim said. "And we like working together, but we're not there to socialize."
She's not compelled by the "Discord is free" argument. And now that Slack has the Huddle drop-in audio feature, that's what she's going to use. "Something that's easier to use and saves me time, it's a no-brainer for me to pay for that," Kim said.
Abril Vela volunteers with Illinois High School's Esports Association, which uses Discord to coordinate tournaments and communicate with students. She finds it hard to keep up with messages.
"Discord is definitely designed to take in that much information, that many people, and it's hard when you mix that with trying to get work done," Vela said.
Does Discord fit into the future of work?
Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research, said Discord's adaptability from small to large communities and convenience may make it attractive to some workplaces. It's free and easy to set up. Saraceno, the Railway engineer, pointed out another thing pushing Discord into the workplace, even against the company's wishes: Young people love it, and young people are the future.
"They're going to carry those habits with them into the next workplace, and that's going to add pressure," Saraceno said.
But Discord doesn't have many of the essential integrations and features that large organizations need. Plus, it reserves the right to delete any content for any reason. "Many companies would find that problematic," Rubin said.
Slack and Teams are some of the preeminent workplace tools, with very neutral, workplace-friendly designs and integrations to fit companies' every need. Discord's look and branding is very different. The interface was clearly designed for a community of gamers. This can be off-putting to some, including Vela, the esports volunteer.
"Learning a new interface is always difficult," Vela said. "While it's very similar to something like Slack, you can tell that Discord was created for a different audience for a different purpose, and it's a purpose that I'm still adjusting to."
It makes sense that Discord wouldn't want to enter the world of productivity tools, Rubin said.
"Do you really want to get yourself involved in what's going to be a pretty epic battle between Slack (owned by Salesforce) and Microsoft, two very powerful companies both vying for these corporate deals?" Rubin said.
It's very likely Discord wants nothing to do with work. It announced threads — which are essential for workplace communication — as a way to dive into an interesting or thoughtful discussion with friends. As Rubin said, "When people tell you who they are: believe them. That holds true for tools as well."
Hayes summed up what might be Discord's greatest fear: "I think the fact that my professional life has leaked into my Discord has made me less likely to engage with Discord."
But it seems that people are going to do work on Discord no matter how Discord feels about it. Hayes wants Discord to at least make it easier and give users more control. A start would be allowing account toggling.
"Problems are opportunities," Hayes said. "If they gave me that autonomy, I think I would be more likely to want to use it than Zoom. Because you can do a lot in Discord."
Correction: This story was updated Oct. 12 to clarify that James Bartholomeou previously worked at Focus Home Interactive.