If you’re not yet using a chat system to collaborate with your colleagues at work, you probably will be soon. Apps like Slack (the most popular) are rapidly redefining how we communicate. And the market for such tools was estimated at a staggering $4.5 billion last year. But do they actually make life better for any of us?
Progress in communication technology has helped us become ever more connected in the workplace. First it was the phone, then the fax, then email and mobile phones, then social media. Now we have Slack and its ilk.
Mind versus machine
Whatever the tech happens to be, one thing is generally true: our brains struggle to keep up. We change our communication style much more slowly than we change tech. And the consequences can be highly disruptive (and not in the cool, desirable sense that Silicon Valley marketers intend when they use that word).
Emails are devoid of intonation, so they can sometimes misfire badly. An off-the-cuff text may arrive at the wrong time and leave us puzzling how the sender could be so thoughtless. We shoot back a reply. A row ensues. But the odds are that things would have been fine in either case if we’d just been talking to each other.
The Slack effect
We’ve been using Slack at Emphasis for about two years now. It’s revolutionised how we communicate with our colleagues. And for the most part, the change has been for the better. It’s instantaneous. Its archive is easy to search. Conversations are much easier to track, and it’s far less of a jumble than email. It also integrates seamlessly with our other systems and enables easy collaboration within teams dispersed across the country.
Yet it’s not without its drawbacks. We’ve noticed a definite ‘Slack effect’, which can lead to a lot of tension and misunderstanding. For one, Slack messages are generally short messages, so it’s very easy to misinterpret them as terse or abrupt.
Perhaps the biggest danger is during ongoing Slack conversations. Just a minute or two of writing nothing in the middle of a message exchange can come across as very passive-aggressive. Slack therefore pushes you to keep writing. Often, this leads you to write before you’ve had time to think of how your message might be interpreted. Things can easily go downhill rapidly if you’re not careful.
It takes a lot of mindfulness to realise when a Slack conversation is spinning out of control. In such instances, we resort to ‘time-out’ messages, where we call a halt to the conversation on Slack and take it offline. It’s amazing how a quick phone call can resolve most issues.
Slack has another downside that it shares with email and social media – it’s addictive. I’ve often found myself checking it incessantly, even on a Sunday (despite knowing that everyone else is enjoying a well-deserved break and certainly not posting updates).
Yet, despite these reservations, there’s no doubt in my mind that Slack has changed things for the better. Productivity at Emphasis is far greater than before we introduced it, for example. And it also means that everyone in the organisation is much better informed about what each team is up to. Personally, I think it’s less intrusive than email. And it solves entirely the problem of being cc’d on endless, irrelevant messages. You choose what you want to look at.
In fact, each new round of communication technology has improved things, in my view. (Compare enquiry turnaround times now with those in the 1970s, if you can remember back that far.) Besides, given the fast-paced world in which we now live, we can’t go backwards.
But the technology is only as good as its users (at least until AI takes care of that for us). As a result, the miscommunication that we’ve always been susceptible to is still there. We need to adapt and change what we write, not just what we write with. Otherwise, all the tech does is make it possible to irritate people much more quickly than we ever could before.
I’m dedicating 2017 to researching how science can help us improve how we communicate at work. If you want to know when my next research piece is about to be published, just put your details in the form below and I’ll drop you a line when it’s ready. (This is a special list reserved just for research updates.)
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