Slack, released in 2013 and becoming ever closer to ubiquitous, promises to bring the social and cultural life of work completely into the digital realm. But there’s a dark side to that promise.
Slack is a workplace messaging app that lets you carry on numerous conversations with colleagues, on mobile or desktop, private or public, in an appealing, quick and (sorry for this) chatty format. Its initial selling point is as a sort of middle-ground between group emails and in-person meetings. It’s not as stilted or as difficult to search and understand as the former, and not as formal, unsearchable, or time consuming as the latter.
Where Slack is distinguishing itself from previous office messaging and social media apps is in its attractive design and user-experience, as well as its streamlined inter-functionality with other office needs and software (such as Google docs).
Slack allows you to keep budgets, share documents, update calendars, make to-do-lists and so on. The other crucial feature? Its users think it’s fun. The app talks to you in a friendly, off-handed manner, encourages gifs and emojis, and allows you to message all day with your favourite colleagues about anything (companies have chat channels about favourite movies, weekend happenings etc).
The app’s star is only rising. Silicon Valley and the Fortune 100 love it, their employees love and hate it (which, when it comes to social media, just means a deeper sort of love) and the number of users and the company itself is growing all the time. Slack has even started to become very popular as out-of-office social media.
So what’s the catch?
Jacob Silverman at The Baffler, points out that despite the easy-going vibe that the name “Slack” conjures, the main value for companies will be in the ability to index everything – everything – that happens on it. That index will be held by your executives, for perusal at their leisure.
“We are, I think, on the verge of another Slack pivot, if it hasn’t happened quietly already,” Silverman writes, and at some point “the company will be forced to acknowledge that the true value of Slack lies not in its ability to enable productivity, but rather to measure it.”
Slack offers organisations a ‘Plus’ plan that makes all employees’ private channels and direct messages viewable. Last year the company also announced they were working on a manager AI bot that will track the progress of projects and remind employees about deadlines. These sound like great things for a business but potentially troubling.
Because it’s a social app, suddenly people’s relationships with colleagues will be coloured by the knowledge that their boss is hearing them, no matter how informal the app encourages their conversations to be. Combine this with the app’s life-creep (a long-form piece by NYmag that’s worth reading goes into Slack addiction, with sufferers compelled to check it as soon as they wake up) and these features start to suggest a future where you’re never not at work, and you’re always trying to appear productive. Outside of sleeping you may never have a quiet moment.
(Read our article about Microsoft’s new workplace tech that gives your boss AI enhanced 24/7 video surveillance.)
HRM wanted to speak to a company that was using it in Australia so we reached out to Ivan Seselj, CEO of Promapp, and asked him for his opinion. He highlighted its improvement over group emails and the engagement advantages for their global workforce – they can organically foster culture and develop personal relationships with people overseas.
“It’s quite good culture-wise,” he says, “We’ve got a team that’s spread around the world. So we’ve got some social banter channels just to keep people connected; we’ve got local channels so if you’ve got something happening exclusively in, say, the Auckland or Sydney office you can share information there, and we’ve got content needs-driven channels.”
He also said it’s easier to track information that’s being shared between a lot of people. “If you’re looking at the sixth page of emails that you haven’t had time to read that day, you might not see something important, so having these channels you can jump to quickly – we’d find it hard to live without that now.”
What about the need to check messaging all the time: was anyone experiencing it in his office?
“There’s a little bit of that. You’ve got to be aware of your own behaviours. I’m a big believer in understanding what your strengths and weaknesses are. So for me I’ve got to be careful not to do that because you’re not working productively if you’re constantly checking all these different channels out there. I have times where I check it, and times where I turn it off intentionally so I’m not distracted by it.”
Which is something we’ve probably all had to deal with at some point. New technology isn’t a panacea, it’s a tool the usefulness of which is dependent on how it’s wielded. In the case of Slack, that means having the discipline to leave it alone, as well remembering that it’s best thought of as workplace software and not a personal social outlet.
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