On Slack and Remote Work
3 min read

On Slack and Remote Work

On Slack and Remote Work

I honestly don’t think Slack is solving anything as compared to email, and in a lot of cases, it’s quite simply making things worse.

As a longtime Slack user (early beta), I started out loving Slack. Now, after a year of using it while working remotely due to the pandemic? I kind of hate it.

Slack as an application is fine. It works well and looks nice. It generally doesn’t get in my way to do what it is supposed to do. I can type messages, read various channels and generally communicate with others in our company.

Where it falls apart badly is that it doesn’t do much of anything to prevent the things that used to really frustrate me when I was working in the office.

The Drive-By

Specifically I’m talking about the drive-by interruption where I would be sitting at my desk, with headphones on to signal that I am actively in the process of work. Someone would invariably interrupt me, breaking me out of that context and into a conversation (usually trivial).

This is quite literally almost 100% of my Slack. It’s honestly just a series of interruptions to my work day, the vast majority of which are ill-timed, unimportant and counterproductive.

I’ve tried many things to solve this. Status icons? They don’t work. People just ignore that you are in a meeting 📅, or have a DND ⛔️ icon or even a 🏝️ to denote that you are ON VACATION. “Hey, question for you…got a sec?” Well, I do now since you just interrupted what I was working on.

Even setting DND in our company makes no difference. People will get the message that I’ve set my Slack to do not disturb, and they break through it and notify me anyways. Seriously.

What’s the solution?

The only solution that I’ve found that actually works is to turn off Slack. I close the app. Since I don’t run Slack on my phone (that’s a whole separate topic), closing the app on my computer means I’m unreachable and uninterruptible.

Obviously that’s a terrible solution as it means I’m unreachable and uninterruptible so if someone on my team actually needs me, they can’t reach me. But it’s the only solution that works because the times that I need to be reached by my team are rarer than the times that the opposite happens and someone interrupts my work for no good reason and my team knows how to reach me off Slack when needed.

The Real Fix

The fix for all this is not to adopt a new tool or app, but rather to invoke a cultural change at work. We need to transition from an expectation of real time, synchronous communication to an expectation of non-real time, asynchronous communication. At the very least, there needs to be some way to reliably signal that a user is open to interruption or real time communication and coworkers should be actively prevented from misusing the tools to interrupt work.

Adopting that cultural change will make it clear to everyone that Slack (and other “work” tools”) suck. It will drive change.

Some feature ideas for Slack

Since Slack does have the ability to drive some of the change from their side, here’s a few “free” ideas for them.

  • Send when available: User A can mark themselves unavailable for a time. User B can send a message to User A, but it’s only actually delivered when User A marks themselves available again. User B is told this will happen so they aren’t expecting an immediate response.
  • Offline for most: User A can set themselves as “away” for everyone except a selection of users they choose. For example, User A could be “away” for everyone in the company except their team or manager.
  • Focus mode: User A can choose a few important channels, and when activating “focus mode” the rest of the channels they are part of are hidden and muted.