Maybe we should all rethink “instant gratification” culture in the workplace.
7 min read
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Slack Technologies (or WORK as its new NYSE ticker is called) will start trading on the New York Stock Exchange today, making this company the latest in a parade of highly valued tech outfits to go public this year.
Related: How to Get a $1 Billion Valuation in Just Eight Months
This is a tool you’ve surely heard of: Slack’s chat and collaboration platform has become a workplace tool to more than 500,000 organizations and was valued privately last year at more than $7 billion dollars. So it must be the latest, greatest way to communicate, right? Well not so fast…
“Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work,” Cal Newport, once said. He’s associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of six self-improvement books. And in my opinion, that particular quote from his book Deep Work nailed the problem with Slack: Because, when I think of Slack’s impact on productivity, I think of words like frenetic, shallow and reduced focus (a.k.a. deep work).
Today, Slack will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange as a direct listing (meaning no underwriters, no new shares, no offering price — just existing shares).
Some estimates from investors are pegging the value just south of $20 billion dollars. And that may be fine for investors and for those who like chat-room tools. Slack after all is an excellent real-time messaging, chat- room application.
But it’s also, to my mind, a drain on productivity and deep work when it is used as intended. Here’s why:
The ASAP culture
Slack capitalizes on the current ASAP culture shaping our world. From the instant nature of search engine results, to on-demand grocery delivery, to Uber, and real-time updates across the world on Twitter, we are all now accustomed to “instant everything.” Waiting for anything is increasingly regarded as a negative experience by those people doing the waiting.
Combining the ASAP culture with a group-chat application promotes an unhealthy level of “always on” and real-time everything. And real-time business communication provides a false sense of productivity: The reason is that it provides us with a figurative hit of dopamine via the “instant gratification” we receive when we get immediate feedback or answers (even if they aren’t the best-thought-out answers).
Consider the famous, maybe infamous, “Marshmallow Experiment.” You’ve probably heard of this research, which was carried out in the 1960s by a team at Stanford University led by a professor named Walter Mischel. The short version:
- Children were brought into a room and had a marshmallow placed in front of them.
- They were told that if they didn’t eat the marshmallow for 15 minutes, they would be given a second marshmallow as a reward.
- The choice was, Eat one marshmallow now or wait 15 minutes and eat two.
- Most children did not make it to 15 minutes, but some did.
Follow-up studies were conducted on each child over the next 40 years. The children able to delay instant gratification outperformed those that couldn’t in areas such as SAT scores, physical fitness, social skills and stress management.
The research was later challenged and, some say, debunked. But at the time, its conclusion seemed clear: If you delay the need for instant gratification in the setting of business communications, you’ll produce better work by being able to focus more deeply on the work you are doing.
Related: Stop Fooling Yourself. Productivity Tools Like Slack Are Secret Enemies of Collaboration
Shallow and synchronous conversations
The demand for synchronous (real-time) conversations leads to a lack of depth. Researcher Linda Stone coined the phrase “continuous partial attention” in 1998. This is not to be confused with multitasking. Where multitasking is a conscious choice, continuous partial attention is something we do without even thinking about it.
Stone described continuous partial attention as paying “continuous partial attention in an effort not to miss anything.
“It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis,” she said. “We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multitasking.”
So, how does this relate to Slack? Slack both promotes synchronous communication and feeds into prolonged continuous partial attention, neither of which promote healthy business communication or focused work.
And this is what leads to generally shallow conversations in Slack. We look to fulfill our desire for instant gratification by providing answers and making decisions while we are in a constant state of continuous partial attention.
Lack of organization
Slack recently introduced threading to help solve the problem of conversation organization. However, this is a only a partial solution to the larger problem of organization in Slack.
Take Basecamp or Teamwork as examples of better ways to organize communications. You can create a message in either of these tools and give it a proper category to make information retrieval much easier. All files and comments are automatically placed under that specific message. In Slack, you have to rely on users to make sure they keep everything in a thread (among a sea of streaming real-time chats), and there’s no way to categorize these for later.
Files constitute another issue, as do tasks. Using Slack for team communication necessitates the need for at least one additional tool and likely more than that. In this scenario, you have Slack as your communications tool along with Product A for task management. Slack does integrate with services like Dropbox and Google Drive, but there’s no organization within Slack as there is in competing tools.
Do you comment on a task in Slack or have the conversation in the task-management product? Does everyone follow this rule? Is integrating with a project=management tool that simply copies the conversation into Slack worth it? Is the file linked in Slack, or the project management system, or neither?
As becomes obvious, a lack of organization feeds into unnecessary sub-conscious decisions and thought processes, which produce needless cognitive load and distract from actual work.
The notification indications on channel names promote notification fatigue. Unless you have super-specific channel names, you really have no idea what the context of the notification is. You need to go into the channels, one by one, to discern what needs your attention and what doesn’t. Imagine doing this in a marketing agency with channels for each client as well as broader internal channels.
Real-time chat promotes fear of missing out in addition to all the other issues I’ve talked about here, especially when it’s used as the primary communications tool in business. This is especially true for entrepreneurs who may have team members from various time zones.
Your time and attention are your most important assets. You need to ruthlessly guard and manage these assets; otherwise someone else will manage them for you, and your work will suffer.
Managing notifications is important. Ideally, you’d want your notifications to be based on specific context (“Where is this file?” vs. “Someone hacked the client’s website.”), so you can respond appropriately rather than having only a general idea of what the notification is all about.
What to do in place of Slack.
First, you can invest in tools and processes that allow you and your team to participate in focused work. Real-time chat has its place in business, but using it as your primary mode of communication poses many, many issues you should strongly consider before implementing it.
Also, thankfully, emergencies are uncommon: There are few instances in which pulling someone off his or her work is worthwhile to the end product. Some of this is company culture and some of it is a byproduct of the tools a company implements.
Related: Slack Is Adding Email Conversations and Calendar Integrations
Slack, all told, is a fantastic real-time group chat tool. But, ask yourself: Is a real-time tool the right choice for your business.