In 2019, Slack, a workplace messaging platform, reported having 12 million users. In 2020, as companies transitioned employees to remote work, that number spiked dramatically. New paid customers increased 140% during the fiscal third quarter compared to a year earlier, according to a company report.
During the Slack outage in the first week of January, users took to social media en masse to commiserate about the inconvenience. An article in the business publication Marker afterwards argued that Slack’s outage was the best thing that could have happened to the company, because it reminded everyone of how central it's become to so many employees' workdays.
During a global pandemic, communication tools such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Cisco Jabber can serve as important channels to help keep all-remote teams functioning, as well as a lifeline to office culture.
But they can also adversely affect productivity. When Slack was down for a few hours on July 27, 2018, productivity went up compared to the previous week when Slack was functioning, according to a report by RescueTime, a time-tracking, distraction-blocking software.
"You could say the same thing about email or text messaging or any technology," a Slack spokesperson tells Grow. "If it's not used in a way people find productive, then you need to think about the way your team is operating and change."
Here's why online tools that are meant to improve productivity, like Slack, sometimes have the opposite effect — and what you can do about it.
Monitoring a constant stream of messages while focusing on one task is challenging, explains Raquel Benbunan-Fich, a professor of information systems at Baruch College who specializes in user behavior and multitasking. And now that online messaging channels are so widely used, workers have no choice but to learn how to balance both.
"We are requiring too much from today's workers because hypervigilance and self-discipline do not necessarily go well together," Benbunan-Fich says. "You should be aware [of the conversation] and refrain [from distractions] at the same time in order to be productive."
Part of the problem is that companies rarely discuss how messaging tools should be used, says Jory MacKay, editor at RescueTime. "Very few workplaces bring in a tool like Slack and have a deep conversation about how to use it properly, expectations around when people should be online, and how long it's acceptable to go without getting a response," he says. "Instead, they assume that modern workers just know how to communicate effectively."
As mentioned, the problem isn't specific to Slack. Workers check both email and IMs every six minutes, according to a different RescueTime study. The constant checking "isn't just from notifications or new messages, either," MacKay says. "We've trained ourselves to interrupt our focus with these tools."
If office communication tools have impeded your productivity, there are a few steps you can take to ensure you stay focused.
There are two types of tasks, Benbunan-Fich says: There are tasks you can do alone (independent tasks) and ones that require collaboration (interdependent tasks). Making a to-do list of all your interdependent tasks can help clarify how much you actually need to be on a messaging platform to collaborate.
"For interdependent tasks, Slack is a help, not hindrance," Benbunan-Fich says. "Communication channels such as those can be helpful for you to ask questions. If you have a task where you don't know how to proceed, you can ask a colleague or teammate."
Writing down your interdependent tasks can highlight how many tasks don't require any collaboration. This can help you decide for how much of your day you really need to be tuned into the messaging platform.
In order to relegate communication tools to one place, a second screen is a "must," Benbunan-Fich says. "I have a different screen where I monitor my communication channels and I kind of keep an eye on them and selectively respond."
Monitor prices range, but a decent model can be found for under $100. For example, a 29" Dell monitor at Best Buy is $90, and an HP 19.5" monitor on Amazon is $80. Some companies might cover the cost of additional work-from-home supplies for employees, while freelancers may be able to log the expense as a tax write-off.
You can also download and exclusively use Slack on your phone, so message notifications will not show up on your laptop.
Video by Courtney Stith
When workers are stationed in different time zones and there can't be a consistent dialogue, Slack messaging can lead to higher productivity, says Jennie Lin, an assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University. She authored a 2020 paper about how collaboration tools affect productivity in the medical field.
Lin's work requires a lot of interdependent tasks with people from around the world, a situation where Slack has proven helpful. Part of the success is clear communication about where everyone is.
"Communication is key in terms of basically adjusting peoples' expectations of exactly where you're going and what you're doing," she says.
In other words, tell your boss you need to log off and focus for the next hour, or communicate with your team that you will be shutting notifications off for the next 30 minutes. Slack allows you to set a status to "unavailable," or "away," to last for a set period. Doing this can help manage expectations about when you are going to respond and allow you to get more work done without fearing you're missing important messages.
While working from home, this is especially important, Benbunan-Fich says. "The social norms are, if you are absent, the assumption might be you are not working," she says. "That's where I think the challenge is."
Seeing as working from home will be the norm for the foreseeable future for many people, it might be smart to put some systems in place that ensure Slack or other messaging platforms do not hinder your job performance.
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