Remote communications – our reflections on Slack
The beginning of this decade is seeing arguably the biggest shift in the history of the workplace. Remote working has become the norm and traditional offices are quickly trying to reinvent themselves for the hybrid future that the world seems to be set on. As Javier Soltero of Google Workspace said: “For many of us, work is no longer a physical place we go to, and interactions that used to take place in person are being rapidly digitized”.
But this isn’t going to be a piece on our physical working future. Instead I want to focus on a change which has been brewing for the past 3 years or so when Slack first burst onto the scene. With sights firmly set on changing the way we communicate, Slack asks people to “Choose a better way to work”. Between March 10 and March 25 this year, millions of people bought into this vision and Slack’s active users increased from ten million to 12.5 million, as more people were forced to work remotely and became reliant on digital workplace tools.
Changing nature of communication
Digital workplace tools like Slack are commonly centred around immediacy and collaboration, and an easy way of describing them to a novice is ‘WhatsApp for the workplace’. They encourage instant, real-time messaging that allows for easy and informal conversations between typically internal teams. Messages tend to be short, reactive and encompassing a single idea – and you often don’t abide by traditional workplace etiquette, asking “how are you?” or “hope all is well”. Email on the other hand, is a slower, more deliberate and formalised medium. There is much less expectation for an immediate response which allows for time to craft a more thought-out reply.
We quickly form these unwritten rules of engagement and I’m honestly not sure how they’re universally decided… it just happens naturally and all the users seem to be in on it. In my eyes messaging tools like Slack work well for cleaning up and freeing your inbox from all the random chats, “thanks” messages and irrelevant emails.
However the interesting thing becoming apparent is the FOMO (fear of missing out) related to instant messaging. While being part of an email chain can definitely make you feel obligated to reply and be involved in a project, messaging groups/channels can spin up extremely quickly and users often feel obligated to join in and be seen as an immediate voice . If you’re not involved in the rapid, exciting, early messages that kick-off a project or online when an impromptu brainstorming session takes over a channel, not only do you lose out on being part of the team that gets work done – but you miss out on the comradery that goes hand-in-hand with this.
The trouble with instant communication
I for one find it hard to switch off while working from home. Where is the boundary between work and personal life when they are so intertwined? Of course you aim to stop at a ‘normal’ time but there is an undeniable feeling that you can always just do that little bit more.
I’m sure we’re all guilty of sending that late night message so you don’t forget it in the morning – and when we could all go into the office there’s no problem with that. But it becomes far more complex when home is effectively your office. There’s a limit to the expression of a message and you can find yourself second guessing the tone, immediacy or true intention. This is compounded further by organisational hierarchy – if someone more senior does this to you, the pressure to react and complete the task is prevalent because you know that they’re aware that you’ve received the message. It’s complex, right?
It is here where arguably Slack falters, and you don’t have to work hard to find its critics: Slack is ruining productivity, Slack ruined work, Slack is bad, actually. But issues of over-work, productivity failures and inefficiency on Slack can be managed by leaders who work to define boundaries and develop an intentional digital cultural practice.
So what can we do about it?
Technology is at the heart of many leader’s future of work strategy and supports a core principle that work is something we do, not somewhere we go. But the move to remote working has happened at such a rapid pace that it has been difficult to stop and review how exactly collaboration tools like Slack are impacting on our aptitudes, relationships and attitudes towards work. Many leaders are focusing on surviving this turbulent period, and the nuances of digital relationship-building and digital cultures may not be a priority. Yet the choices, habits and digital norms that happen now – even without us thinking about them – will be the future. In that vein, we must seek to measure and understand what Slack, or any other digital tools do for different people in the workplace and their impact on organisational effectiveness.
We need to remember what value they can bring in line with the other tools we have to help us do work to the best of our abilities. It’s important to look right back at how they position themselves, and actively question and test whether the realities of them in this remote-first era is what we really need:
Slack: Make work life simpler, more pleasant and more productive
Workplace by Facebook: Bring your company together
Microsoft Teams: Keep the team connected no matter where work takes you
Google Workspace: Everything that you need to get anything done, now in one place
These digital collaboration and messaging workplace tools are here to stay, and they shall continue to grow and evolve around our needs. Covid-19 has put a rocketship on adoption for so many of these platforms and their customers will want more to equip their workforce with everything they need. You need to remember though that we have the ability to shape these products and how they evolve over the next 10 years. Expectations of the end user are at an all time high and they will continue to go in one direction, which can only benefit all of us.
Join Jazz and some of the Temporall team this Friday at 08:30am for our first in a series of intimate, casual 30 minute Zoom chats. This week Jazz delves further into the topic of remote communication and our relationship with digital tools – come along to listen in or choose share your knowledge with the group. Register here.
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