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Slack: The Infernal Noise Machine.

Phil Bennett Posted by Phil Bennett in Communication 4 min read

I am now certain that Slack is the worst thing that has happened to the workplace since the misappropriation of Herman Miller’s Action Office concept, which birthed cubicles. 

Slack is a noise machine. Slack is not one of those nice noise machines that play relaxing bird noises, or calming whale noises that help you get to sleep. Slack is one of those 90s electronic bleep machines that make electronic farts, machines gun noises and the classic ‘bomb dropping’ whistle and boom. 

These ones: 

I did some estimates using the data Slack provides, and in my current organisation, every person spends around three and a half working days a month just reading irrelevant messages in public channels.  

Dopamine-Driven Communication

Slack has been successful because it mimics how we communicate with our social connections via messenger apps, like WhatApps, iMessage and Facebook Messenger. It creates the same dopamine response you get when chatting with your mates in that fire meme group. Emoji responses, GIF integrations, fast, quick responses. It makes communicating at work fun. 

Here lies the problem. Messenger tools benefit from generating more messages. They want you to use their products more often. The more you return, the more of a data profile they can build on you and the more they can target you with relevant ads. Slack obviously doesn’t target you with adverts, but the more you return and feel the tool is useful, the more dependent your company become on the platform, and the harder it becomes to cancel your subscription. 

We can all relate to the experience of posting a contentious message in a Slack channel, or something you hope will inspire people to take action and the warm fuzzy vibe you get as the emoji responses and GIF replies roll in. They reward you and increase the chance you’ll do it again. The tool rewards ‘as much communication as possible’ rather than ‘as efficient communication as possible.’

This is what creates noise in the system, making it so much harder to pick out the signals — the work that needs to be done, and the decisions that need to be made.

The messaging tools that Slack mimics were also designed for something other than planning and organising in larger groups of people. Anyone who’s tried to agree on a place to meet with more than a couple of friends will understand how badly these tools are designed for this. If they don’t make meeting for a few drinks with friends easy, why are we using this model to coordinate building complex software systems? 

The Social Benefit

I’ve presented this dopamine-driven communication as a bad thing, and it is. I believe that clear communication helps us deliver value, but there is another side to that coin. 

There is one fantastic feature of Slack’s dopamine-spewing design. It’s a great community and online culture-building tool because it mimics platforms we use to connect with people we like. Channels buzzing with fun emoji responses and silly GIFs create a place where people can belong, which is vital in remote, hybrid and distributed companies. 

Separating the Party and the Productivity

The problem I face when complaining about this problem to people is that the question that comes back is, “What’s the alternative? Going back to Email? Yuk!”. What’s happened is that Slack has positioned itself as the only solution by being quite a good communication platform. 

But let’s focus on using Slack for what it’s good at; social chats. We can then try to find better solutions for conversations where clarity and decision-making are essential. 

And these tools already exist: 

  • “Mouth words” are amazing at getting a quick consensus. Jump on calls, go and sit next to someone and chat it out. Anywhere where the question is broadcast and received simultaneously allows you to get to the collective answer quickly.
  • Ticketing systems, like Jira (yes, I said it), are an excellent place for logging decisions once they’re made because the decision is connected to the work to be done. That context is critical. Digging back through Slack for decisions is never productive.
  • Emails and Memos can be helpful If you’re making a one-time broadcast to a group of people where the status is fixed, i.e. you’re not looking for a conversation on a topic just to let people know something is happening or has been decided. It focuses on making sure you understand the message you want to deliver. You have to get it right the first time without an edit button! Posting things like this in Slack invites discussion and muddies the conversation.

Finding the right tools for what you want to communicate is important, and very rarely will the right tool is Slack.