Slack is many things: an engine for collaboration and a distraction machine; a community-builder for an office and a facsimile of high school cliques; a service to streamline work and to blur the lines of your work/life balance. It is the bane of my existence and also, at times, the only salve for a stressful day.
Think of AOL Instant Messenger, but for people with jobs. Better yet, think of coworking space provider WeWork, with its promise of delivering office culture as a service. Slack does that too, but online rather than in a physical space. At a time when more people are working jobs behind screens, sometimes remotely in distributed workplaces, Slack is the new office watercooler. It is the work environment you have when you’re stuck at your desk for hours and can’t hover by the glorious office plant wall or the craft beer taps in the kitchen. (For the record: Our office has neither.)
And if Slack has its way, its service could soon shape your office culture, too.
One billion messages in a week. Nine hours connected to the app. Ninety minutes of active use. These are impressive figures for a newly public company looking to show investors how sticky and central its platform can be for businesses. But these numbers also highlight Slack’s potential to be an inferno for anyone who prizes their time, focus, privacy and some semblance of an anxiety-free life inside and outside the office.
To be clear, I am old enough to remember the dread of a boss calling my desk phone and asking me to come to her office. I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by the madness of meaningless emails. I’ve been told to communicate with colleagues through AIM and Gchat. But Slack is somehow more all-consuming because, well, it’s more fun and GIF-filled and deceptively non-threatening.
“It’s expected that there will be more of an immediate answer because you are expected to be on Slack all the time,” said Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies technology use in the workplace and has too many Slack groups of her own. “With emails, people can turn it off. They can batch their emails where they just look at it two or three times a day. Because of the social component with Slack, it’s harder to do that.”
At any given moment, day or night, when I open the Slack app I am almost guaranteed to see little red dots next to the names of various channels and users telling me how many unread mentions and messages are waiting for me. Entire conversations may have unfolded in the time it took me to grab a cup of water — faster than I ever remember email exchanges metastasizing. Some of these may be about the Bachelor; some may determine the future of my employment.
The casual nature of Slack makes employees comfortable sharing sentences in writing, on a company account, that they would never say on a company email account. The casual nature of Slack masks the fact that you can effectively tell which employees are online — and presumed to be working — and which are not based on whether there is a green dot next to their name. The casual nature of Slack makes it easier for colleagues and managers to send you messages after work hours — it’s only a Slack message, after all, and look, this message has a partying parrot eating popcorn.
And Slack is only becoming a bigger part of my life. First, it helped turn colleagues into friends. Now my actual friends — sorry, colleagues! — are using Slack to plan bachelor parties and weekend outings and create a centralized place for sharing Simpsons references. My wife Slacks me dachshund GIFs and baby pictures. And one day, when she’s old enough, our baby will probably create a Slack to organize operations for her first lemonade stand — or whatever Slack-like service has overtaken Slack to make us feel more connected under the guise of being more productive.