Protocol | Workplace

The startup where meetings are optional and Slack is forbidden

Convictional wants to feel more like a university than a business, giving its 30-person team more time to focus.

Slack message with team communicating and collaborating in app on desktop and mobile.

Outside of Convictional, it's hard to find another tech company that doesn't use any chat or messaging platform at all.

Photo: Austin Distel/Unsplash

Convictional, a maker of ecommerce software, has an unusual way of working remotely. Its 30-person team doesn't use any messaging tools like Slack, and the company only has one mandatory all-hands meeting every three weeks — other internal meetings are infrequent and optional.

Is this an introvert's paradise? Maybe. "Surprisingly, extroverts appreciate it, too," CEO Roger Kirkness, who co-founded Convictional with a fellow Shopify alumnus in 2017, told Protocol. "I would say conscientiousness is the thing that's weirdly high among the team."

Not using messaging tools and forgoing daily or even weekly team meetings means employees have more time to get work done without interruptions, Kirkness added.

Apart from the regular all-hands, individual contributors at Convictional only have a weekly one-on-one meeting with their manager, and like other asynchronous or async-first companies such as GitLab, Zapier and Twitter, the company relies heavily on email and document-sharing to communicate. But outside of Convictional, it's hard to find another tech company that doesn't use any chat or messaging platform at all.

Why Convictional does it this way

Convictional's approach to work was born out of "individual contributor resentment" toward being interrupted by Slack and frequent meetings at prior jobs.

After diving into a work style unencumbered by pings and meeting requests, the company's leaders realized that "most of the most valuable work actually happens that way," Kirkness said.

"If we didn't intentionally reinforce that that was the way that we wanted to work, it would kind of fall away," he added. "People would have these weeks that were full of, like, meetings scheduled kind of ad hoc, and people would lose control of their calendars."

Formal, scheduled meetings are some of the least productive, in Kirkness' view. The kind of spur-of-the-moment, casual meetings that happen in offices tend to be more valuable.

But for a fully remote company — Convictional closed its offices during the pandemic and, going forward, only plans to pay for co-working spaces if employees want them — it's hard for those casual meetings to spring up.

At many companies, messaging services such as Slack have provided a solution to that problem. Convictional, however, shuns those tools because of the belief that they both interrupt the deep work required of engineers and keep sales and customer service reps too focused on internal communication when they should be talking to customers, according to Kirkness.

Slack is 'the enemy' at Convictional

People need to focus to work, and chat platforms are detrimental to that, Kirkness explained.

"Chat message is, like, the enemy of working memory," he said. "If you have this problem that you're kind of rotating on, trying to figure out how to solve it, it's extremely harmful to be switching into 'I have this quick question I need to answer,' and then switching back into that work.'"

For that reason, Kirkness tells his employees to block several days a week in their calendars — almost as if they're out of office — in order to prioritize their most important tasks. This creates a work environment almost like an open-source project, where engineers have the freedom to contribute on their own time, Kirkness said: an atmosphere more akin to a university than a business.

"Business, I think, people expect to feel fast-paced, and in engineering, I want it to feel like the opposite," Kirkness said. "Like, a full day uninterrupted by any concerns of the business — just focused on one thing that's difficult."

If the meeting isn't useful, don't go — or walk out

Convictional employees are also explicitly told they can decline any meeting invite — including from Kirkness and other top company leaders. And it's not considered rude to drop out of a virtual meeting if it doesn't feel like a good use of time, Kirkness said.

The company's just-leave-the-meeting mentality, which works online, might not translate as well in person, Kirkness admitted. "If you had the stomach to walk out of a meeting after 10 minutes — if you weren't adding anything, for example — it's kind of rude, but also, arguably, if you don't need to be there, you don't need to be there," he said.

Although they're allowed to drop out of virtual meetings, Convictional employees don't do it often — in part because the company generally cancels any recurring meeting that has more than one dropout.

Who's best suited for life without Slack?

Convictional employees tend to be highly self-motivated and detail-oriented, Kirkness said, and by joining the company, many have avoided paying their peers what he calls a "competence tax."

"If someone learns really fast in a role, they end up becoming the person that other people in that role go to" whenever they need help, Kirkness said. "That can actually make it harder for you to do the thing that you're good at."

It takes time to adjust to this way of working. Sometimes, new Convictional employees make the mistake of directly substituting email for Slack — sending a quick note and expecting a rapid-fire response — in order to communicate like they did at previous companies that are more "hustle-oriented," Kirkness said.

"A lot of that hustle energy is somewhat misdirected," Kirkness said. "It's not directed extremely intensely into the thing that customers benefit from. It's just directed to lots of stuff, primarily internal stuff and social things that don't necessarily move things forward from the customer's perspective."

The only two employees who have left Convictional to date did so because they preferred the clear goal-setting and structure at bigger tech companies, Kirkness said, which may be a common preference for those early in their career. For everyone who does stay, does it get lonely working without Slack?

Kirkness argues that it's remote work itself, rather than Convectional's practice of banning Slack and avoiding meetings, that can feel impersonal. The company plans to have quarterly gatherings focused on team-building, including facilitated discussions to get to know each other on an emotional level.

"You have to have in-person events periodically to get to that deep level of vulnerability and have trusting relationships," Kirkness said.

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