Can your team get by without Slack? Some founders say they’re considering it. The emoji-filled messaging tool is integral to many of our work lives, but some tech leaders are ready to walk away.
“It’s just distracting and overwhelming,” said Flo Crivello, founder and CEO of the virtual office software maker Teamflow (arguably a competitor of Slack). “It’s got this insanely genius engagement loop where we keep re-engaging with each other. We keep pulling each other back into Slack.”
Crivello stirred up a conversation on Twitter last week when he posted that he was “strongly considering banning Slack at Teamflow,” and that he at least planned to give each of his engineers a “monk week” — no Slack, email or meetings — once a month. Already, he aims to limit meetings to two hours per week for engineers.
It’s not just competitors who are coming out against Slack. Roger Kirkness, co-founder and CEO of the e-commerce startup Convictional, told Protocol last year that his team didn’t use any messaging apps because their tendency to interrupt deep thinking made them “the enemy of working memory.”
Abe Winter, founder of the early-stage book meetup app Klerb, doesn’t have a need for Slack because he’s only working with two colleagues at the moment, both freelancers. But in 2018, Winter wrote a blog post criticizing Slack as allowing “your worst people to overwhelm your best” by interrupting and distracting them.
Since writing that blog post, Winter told Protocol that he’s been diagnosed with ADD and started taking medication and working on time-management techniques. These days, he would likely be “less prone to being drawn in” to distractions on Slack, he said.
“That simultaneously makes me wonder if I was reacting to having undiagnosed ADD in the workplace, or if Slack is giving teams ADD — like, the inability to do forward planning, only being able to do work reactively,” Winter said.
The challenge is that Slack has bad “message discipline,” Winter said, which leaves users needing to read every message in a channel in order to monitor it for information that might be important to them. It’s particularly challenging for users who may have a harder time ignoring certain stimuli.
Slack’s VP of product, Ali Rayl, has admitted that overwhelm is a real problem when it comes to the product, and the company is constantly iterating to improve. “What have we done with the visual presentation of Slack activity that's making people stressed out?” Rayl asked in a June interview. “How can we change that visual presentation to just lower the temperature a little bit?”
Spokesperson Lauren McDevitt pointed out in an email to Protocol that the app is customizable to different work styles. Users wanting a quieter experience can pause notifications, set Do Not Disturb hours and limit the channels shown in the sidebar. Emoji reactions allow users to quickly mark the status of a project without having to write a reply-all message, McDevitt said.
Last month, senior accessibility manager Sommer Panage told Protocol that the company is dedicated to making a product that works for everyone. “‘How could someone else experience this?’ is the No. 1 question we ask.”
Is Slack too much fun?
It’s hard to deny that as far as messenger apps go, Slack is fun to use. But that might be what makes it so dangerous for productivity.
Amal Dorai, a partner at Anorak Ventures who spent over six years at Microsoft after it bought his collaboration software startup, LiveLoop, said there’s an upside to Microsoft Teams’ relative unpleasantness. (He hasn’t used Slack in a work context.)
“What that did was limit how much people use it,” Dorai said. “People get in and get out. You need to send a message to someone about some service being down and you send it. You don’t go and hang out and talk about your weekend and stuff.”
Teams’ “charmless nature” is likely unintentional on the part of Microsoft, Dorai said, and a byproduct of Microsoft’s focus on selling to the enterprise, where buyers prioritize productivity above all.
Async vs. synchronous collaboration
Slack can be used both as a real-time chat tool or as something closer to email, where an immediate response isn’t expected. Advocates of both asynchronous and real-time, synchronous communication have critiques of Slack, though.
Crivello, whose product allows teams to move their own avatar around a virtual office while visible to colleagues on video chat, said the “pendulum has swung too far on the side of async,” but that he prefers email to Slack as an async tool. Async limits relationship-building and slows down communication, he said.
Vivek Sodera sees Slack as more of a synchronous tool. As the co-founder of the $30-a-month email tool Superhuman, Sodera said he’s “very much bullish on asynchronous comms.” (Shawn Wang, head of developer relations at Airbyte, has pointed out that Slack can discourage a culture of internal documentation, which is especially crucial for teams that operate more asynchronously.)
Sodera agreed with Crivello that Slack is “a massive distraction.”
“It’s like the digital water cooler,” Sodera said. “In the early days, it was fun, pre-pandemic. Post-pandemic, it’s become so exhaustive in terms of one’s own time, productivity, well-being, etc., because there’s just this constant need to get back to people.”
But is it so bad to be the digital water cooler? Now that many teams don’t see each other in person often, Slack is a major way that colleagues stay connected, banter and get to know each other personally.
For Sodera, the difference is distraction. In the office, colleagues may chat around the water cooler for a few minutes, then return to their desks and get back to work, he said. Slack can continue to be disruptive because “it’s on all the time.”
In December 2020, Sodera’s co-founder Rahul Vohra wrote about how Superhuman had reformed its use of Slack, which had made the team “less thoughtful and more stressed.” Among the rules: Only use Slack if the message needs a reply within three hours and takes 30 seconds or less for the recipient to process.
On Twitter, Crivello suggested his own product as an alternative, though he told Protocol that his team still uses Slack because it “started with it initially” before building Teamflow’s own messaging tool. His team still uses Slack for both work and fun (sharing memes, for example).
One advantage of Slack is its insularity, Crivello said. Unlike email inboxes, which fill up with both internal and external messages, Slack is “less noisy” because messages don’t come in from outside the team. But it’s still too noisy for Crivello, who said email “has a lot going for it.”
“I wish there was an email [account] that was like, ‘This is only your internal email. It’s an email that only your internal team can reach out to,’” Crivello said.
For those who aren’t convinced they should Slack, it may still be worth trying a “monk week,” or at least turning off notifications from time to time.
“We didn’t have Slack, we didn’t have email, when we put a man on the moon,” Crivello said.
Update: This story was updated on Sept 16., 2022, to clarify that Teamflow is a competitor of Slack.