I have a troubled relationship with my smartphone. I love the convenience and access it gives me, but it's also made it more difficult for me to control my impulsive behavior. The way I became hard-wired to robotically open certain social applications like Twitter or Instagram dozens of times a day, sometimes without even realizing it, eventually led me to delete them from my phone. I still keep accounts on these platforms, but my use is limited to occasional checks from a desktop browser. You could argue this has made my smartphone way less smart, but I feel much more in control of what I choose to spend my time doing, and less of an urge to fill idle time with feeds of quasi-useful information.
Several months ago, I started to get this familiar loss-of-control feeling with Slack, and I started to wonder if there's a hidden cost to being hyper-connected at work. The benefits are obvious — barrier-free communication company wide, increased transparency, smart integrations — but how is having a centralized communication platform affecting the way we work and our productivity as a company? As an employee, how am I affected by being constantly connected to my job? How much do I really depend on Slack? I wanted to find out.
I know it's cool to hate on email but sometimes I wake up to 176 Slack notifications and think pls pls condense this into a coherent email— Lauren Goode (@LaurenGoode) August 25, 2015
In the two years since it launched, Slack has become a major force in group communication, used by over a million people daily and worth an estimated $2.8 billion. It has become an indispensable tool for Vox Media: in the 18 months since we moved the company over, nearly 800 people (making up full-time employees and contributing writers) across a half-dozen countries have sent almost 17 million messages — an average of over 50,000 per work day, not including bots or integrations. It's at the central point of nearly everything we do: our editorial teams organize and break news through Slack, and it's where our product deploys, errors, and sprints are reported and tracked. Our People & Culture team uses it to answer benefit questions and share policy, and our CEO, Jim Bankoff, hosts one of our more popular channels called #vox-media-ceo-ama where he fields any and all questions on a wide range of topics. If you work at a company that has adopted Slack as the default communication tool, you have also likely found a number of interesting and unique ways to make it a core, irreplaceable part of operating your business day to day.
Originally, I didn't feel distracted by Slack at all. On my phone in particular, I felt the opposite — like I was benefiting myself and the company by finding small windows of time in strange places to be productive at work. Over the last few months, however, I've found myself impulsively and habitually checking it to catch up on channel activity the same way I used to open Twitter when in line at the grocery store, or any other time I spent in between more meaningful activities. I started to question if I was actually being productive, or if this was just another way to fill a void with information that didn't really matter.
I craved a reset. How critical was Slack to my ability to do my job? Could I still be a productive employee without it? Was the massive amount of time I spent lurking and interacting with fellow co-workers increasing my productivity, or hurting it?
This called for something drastic: in order to understand the influence it had on me and my job, I was determined to quit using Slack entirely for a full week. It took only a few minutes of contemplation, however, to realize it was literally impossible to do my job without it. This was a scary feeling — to not have the freedom to detox in the same way I have with other addicting platforms. Quitting cold turkey, even for a small amount of time, was out of the question. I might as well throw my laptop in the Potomac and go on vacation. Instead of quitting full-stop, I had to come up with something more reasonable. Something that would force limits on time and energy spent on Slack but not jeopardize my ability to do my job. The next iteration felt more reasonable:
First, I would delete the Slack app from my phone for the whole week, no exceptions. This, I reasoned, would keep me from impulsively checking channels when mobile, and ensure I don't spend idle time at home checking in on work instead of being an attentive husband and dad.
Next, all desktop and email notifications would be turned off, and I would adopt Slack "office hours" for four hours a day (two hours before lunch, two hours after), keeping the application closed on my laptop at all other times. Given that I spend well over 40 hours a week logged into Slack on average, this would cut my time in half or more. Gulp.
Finally, I would tell no one at work about my experiment. I wanted an honest assessment of how critical my consistent, virtual presence was, and to understand what repercussions I would face by not being available for work at all waking hours.
On Monday morning, with my rules decided, I deleted the app from my phone, turned off desktop notifications, and got to work.
One of the biggest problems with a centralized communication platform in the workplace is that it's very easy to feel productive when you're not. Simply having the app open and catching up on the backlog of conversations across your channels feels good, like you're getting work done (and to be fair: sometimes you are, of course). It really looks like you're working too, and is a safe default state to leave your sometimes-visible-to-others desktop. Just having the app open sends the message to anyone who might notice that, hello, nothing to worry, I am being a productive employee.
With the app closed for half of my first day, I had a renewed sense of focus and attacked my to-do list, but my mind was preoccupied with what I was missing in Slack. Did a fire need extinguishing? Is my boss asking me something, waiting for an answer? Why are people in the office laughing quietly to themselves? Did someone drop a sick taco GIF? With the app closed, I could only wonder while I waited for my next batch of office hours.
Why are people in the office laughing quietly to themselves?
I quickly discovered not being available on Slack gives the impression you're not actually at work and getting things done. During my experiment, it took way too long not to feel self-conscious during the hours I spent with Slack closed — like this time didn't count, or I might as well have been at the bar — even though it was some of my most productive in months. None of my co-workers noticed my decreased availability or said anything, of course, but it didn't stop me from feeling like I needed to make my presence more known during off-Slack hours. This meant I made more of an effort to leave my desk in our DC office to chat with people in meatspace — a positive side effect of the experiment which seems very obvious in retrospect, but I hadn't anticipated. Being able to do this was a luxury that over 20 percent of our company who work remotely can't benefit from, and I wonder what added pressures they feel by relying almost solely on Slack to interact.
Having quick access to your co-workers, I found, can also create a dangerous impulsiveness. You wouldn't walk into someone's closed office while they're on the phone and start asking them questions, expecting them to answer right away. But when the entirety of your company is available at your fingertips, you may not think twice about asking anyone anything at anytime and expect an almost immediate answer regardless of what they may be doing. You may even get annoyed when they don't respond immediately. Because it requires so much less effort than getting up and walking across the office, or picking up the phone, you may also find yourself bothering your co-workers with questions whose answers are easily found via Slack search or internal documentation or even Google. You may also find yourself micromanaging your employees in new and annoying ways because it's so easy to have a direct connection to their attention at all hours of the day. Not being logged into Slack for significant amounts of time during my work day made me realize I did all of these things way too much.
With Slack closed, I spent more energy critically thinking, researching, and fully forming my ideas, thoughts, and initiatives. When logged in, it's easier to share half-baked work for feedback and receive the same warm feeling of gratification when presenting a fully formed thought or completed project. Even when writing this article, I had to fight the urge more than once to share my notes or early drafts with certain co-workers for feedback, and I was grateful I had forced myself to not be logged in so I could focus on finishing it rather than seeking early gratification on an unfinished product.
The presence of the closed Slack icon in my launch bar was so powerful that I had to remove it altogether as I kept opening it during off hours without thinking. It's uncomfortable to realize these sort of habits — where the slightest glimpse of familiar iconography can cause you to unconsciously interrupt whatever you were originally doing — are lodged deep somewhere in your brain, and I was happy to be rooting them out bit by bit.
Mobile proved to be its own set of challenges. It was an unnatural feeling to walk into work and finally open it for my morning session without having read anything since the afternoon before. Normally I'd check my unread channels and direct messages from my phone a dozen times between my commute home and bed, falling asleep with the comforting feeling I was all caught up and ready to start fresh the next morning. Instead, my mornings started with dozens of bolded channels shouting at me with literally hundreds (if not thousands) of unread messages, and bright red direct messages unanswered. The anxiety of so much unread was often too much, and after working through a few channels and direct messages, marking everything as read at once with shift-escape became my closest friend. When I did work through unread channels, only on occasion did I discover critical information I couldn't have gone without. In the fast-paced environment of Slack, abstinence renders everything stale and irrelevant quicker than you'd imagine.
On some days during the experiment, I found it almost impossible to stick to my office hours. Certain things needed to get done, and Slack is central to so much that I had to stay logged in longer in order to complete a task or work through an issue. More than once, hours would go by on Slack where I was supposed to be logged off, and looking back it's hard to tell if the time I spent was crucial to satisfying any of my goals and initiatives.
Despite my inability to adhere strictly to the rules, I finished the week feeling good. I ended up not missing Slack on my phone, except for when the train had me running late for a meeting and I didn't have a way to contact anyone to let them know (except for email, which of course they hadn't checked). I don't plan on reinstalling it, but I will make sure I have more of my co-workers' phone numbers in my phone. I grew to be comfortable at home not feeling the urge to check in on work, and my wife and kids were grateful for one less thing to distract me in the few hours every evening we have to spend together.
The office hours, on the other hand, were much more difficult to adhere to and — as much as I'd like to say otherwise — I don't think they can be sustained. The nature of my particular role, and our company's reliance on Slack, makes it feel nearly impossible to be absent for stretches longer than an hour or so. But I do plan on continuing to log out at both scheduled and random times on a regular basis to focus.
I could see making this kind of "detox week" a recurring thing
One unexpected benefit is that even when logged into Slack, I now find myself less distracted. I can shut it off mentally in a way I wasn't able to before, and let unread channels and messages go for much longer than I would have prior to the experiment. I anticipate this will wear off, however, and I could see making this kind of "detox week" a recurring thing.
None of these experiences — positive or negative — are exclusive to Slack, of course, or indicative of everyone's workplace habits and behaviors. I love Slack, and think it's an important tool that has been critical to our success. However, I do think it could improve by adding functionality that helps promote a better balance between life and work — things like proper status messages and advanced vacation / away settings. Until then, I will continue to use my own approach to balancing the need to regularly interact and be available on Slack while staying productive and happy in and out of work.
Justin Glow is the senior director of product at Vox Media. Illustration by Dylan Lathrop.