Is Slack Better Than Email?

Slack vs Email: How instant message applications can cause more harm than good in the workplace.

The modern workplace is more decentralised and efficient in production than ever. The marginal productivity of (almost) any given white collar worker in (almost) any industry is continually leveraged upwards by bullish technological innovations.

More effective CRM’s (customer relationship management software), more effective computer literate labour, more effective outreach – consequence of more effective data gathering – plus more effective communication methods all contribute to the incline in employee marginal productivity.

It is true we are better off overall – but is each individual piece of technology adding value?

The Problem With Slack

Slack is an American born tech company with an instant messaging product for organisations. They are certainly not the only company in this space, but measured by user count, considerably the biggest.

Slack is fantastically effective at organising and centralising communication for organisations. It is a terrific product, and the way it quickly weeds it’s way into the core operations of a business is remarkable and testament to the product.

The problem with Slack is they represent a step function move towards further disruption from ‘flow’ or ‘deep work’. Slack – similar to social media platforms – is designed to hold your attention. Slack is colourful with aesthetic design, it’s connected to your phone, and because it’s work communication, there is a subtext which implies that immediate attention is compulsory. It is much easier to ignore a message from a friend than a message from your boss.

It is much easier to ignore a message from a friend than a message from your boss

Written communication before Slack was primarily email. Email poses similar distraction – but on a manageable level. Email also forces the author to write in more concise and relevant intent – which is of value in it’s own right. But what email cannot provide which Slack can, is the organisation of multiple departments and business functions into relevant open or exclusive channels. Slack’s core value is their ability turn a 50 layer email chain into a clean and concise one pager.

Comparing Slack vs Email

For the purpose of offering a real insight into this issue I am lucky enough to have worked in two seperate organisations over the last few years which adopted two very different operations for communication.

When I started at the Slack workplace, I initially thought Slack was the answer. A liberating tool. Having just come from an email only business, I felt freedom of communication restored with Slack. All of a sudden I could private message cool news stories to my mates, contribute to a sporting channel by organising events, message groups about parties on the weekend, and decide between different groups who I wanted to eat lunch with. It was great! However, it did not take me long to realise just how much time I was wasting. By the end of my tenure I had uninstalled Slack on my phone and (failingly) resisted to constantly check the desktop application. Slack had gotten out of hand. You were constantly bombarded with white channel notifications and red private notifications. These notifications very rarely, if ever added any actual value to the job I was supposed to be doing, and especially were not as time sensitive as Slack implied.

It is not like all of the messages I just mentioned were not taking place at my email only workplace – they were. It’s just that they were taking place on Whatsapp or Facebook, and since both of those applications were strictly taboo to be paying attention too at work the volume of communication was significantly less. 80-90% less. Slack is a business tool and – in my opinion – a weak sauce social media as well. Slack was integral to my working day, therefore unavoidable, and that blended business with personal even when I was trying to ignore the personal.

A major difference I noticed at my Slack workplace was a lack of walking around communication. At the email workplace we would take long walks around the office, talking to everyone we could. Admittedly wasting loads of time, but no more than the time wasted instant messaging those exact same communications.

At my email workplace we got on the blower (phone) more and we walked around more. However, there were massive inefficiencies in communication, and email was to blame. Looking back on some of the specific daily communications that were held company wide on email – I wish we had Slack.

In review. Personal communication was more effective at the email workplace and group communication was more effective at the Slack workplace. Personal communication was not typically conducted through email, it was more talking, but if it were through email it was more effective due to the necessity of writing in a considered, concise, formal manner. Group communication was an absolute mess with email and – if managed right – quite effective with Slack.

Relevance For A Sales Org

Sales organisations and sales people are less worried about getting into ‘deep work’ or a ‘flow sate’. The nature of their job is fast and constantly moving. With rare exception, are you – as a salesman – required to go into the think tank for a few hours of uninterrupted focus. There is more to it than calling one person and then onto the next but not so deep that you ever need to work on one task uninterrupted for more than an hour.

So therefore Slack shouldn’t be a problem for a sales org? WRONG – Slack is so effectively invasive that even in a sales job it is too much of a distraction. With email, it was so easy to know what to address and what to ignore and I would rarely contribute with internal email communications. Slack is designed so you cannot see what a message is until you click on the notification. Email has subject lines – so you see it in the top corner, address it, and forget it. That Slack notification just lingers, even if you want to ignore it. It is in the design….. Slack is better off the more its users engage. You do not need to look beyond Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to see in effect the powerful control, notifications have over our brains.

Just as an aside – turn off all notifications on your phone for the next week and witness yourself. You will feel better and I promise you will not miss one important engagement nor be any less informed.

Potential Solutions

I think the secret and addictive sauce of Slack is in its personal messaging. Having reviewed Slack and email side by side I would still tip on the side of Slack. Just because the way Slack organises group communications blows email out of the water. Especially when you are dealing across departments and offices. However I would say that the potential downside of each form of communication is much deeper and depraved with Slack. It must be managed with care. Any upside you experience through efficiencies in group communications could be eradicated by the downside of a stifled and distracted workforce. Email’s downside is restricted to clutter and inefficiency, but not so bad as to stifle.

Therefore it is in the managers hands. Can you set limitations and restrictions on Slack? I do not know. But if you could! The first thing I would do is disable any direct messaging – especially disable dm’s for same office communication. I have no data to support this, but I would hypothesise that 10-1 private messages made within the same office exceed those private messages made between offices (which is ironic considering the variable proximity of those two groups). So I would cut down dm’s at the knees, relegate them to outside of the organisation and then edit down channel membership severely, need to know exclusivity only!

I would encourage the workforce to write with intention. Treat your message with the same tenderness you would treat an email. The message should be concise and well considered. The over prevalence of emoji’s in Slack creates this casual, chity chaty comfortable environment that unintentionally promotes a casual, chity chaty style of conversation and creates a social hierarchy that everyone is privy too. Organisations do not need more social hierarchies.

Get rid of the emojis! If a post is good then people will recognise it as good, 50 fist bumps and 20 shakas doesn’t add value. It is just another thing to be distracted over.

Imagine the scenarios below… Slack is a form of social media.

“I need to find the perfect emoji for this post… he said accuracy… oh! the archery emoji, everyone will think that’s so funny!”
“Why didn’t she put an emoji on my post? She always puts emoji’s on my posts, whats going on? Maybe I should put some emoji’s on her post”
“It has been a long time since I put up some emoji’s. Why did he not acknowledge how good that post was!”

Perhaps these features I’m culling is actually what makes Slack great, and perhaps without all these features Slack would never have made it. Perhaps Slack recognises this and will never allow modification as such that removes all the addictive parts. This is entirely possible. If you take away dm’s, Emoji’s and severely reduce channel membership then all of a sudden you are looking at a pretty boring tool.

In conclusion. Like the examples of technological innovations I started the post with, Slack has the potential to contribute to the upswing of an individuals marginal productivity, but not in its current form. Perhaps organisations already recognise all of these pitfalls but don’t have a better alternative to turn to.
Or possibly I have completely misinterpreted all of it and Slack’s actually great.

There is no definitive answer. Only the unique context of each organisation.

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