Slack came as a solution to our email problem, but its game-like elements can be problematic, writes Dr Jamie Woodcock


Slack
, if you have never come across it before, is an instant messaging application. As the company itself explains, it is “team communication for the 21st century” and one intended to result in work having “less email” and becoming “more productive.” They claim that their customers see an average 48.6% reduction in internal email, and we can all relate to the problems of email; starting our day by working through the mostly spam messages, dealing with cumbersome email threads, and returning to it throughout the day.

Slack’s claim to be a replacement to email stems from its instant messaging capabilities integrating with other notifications, calling, file sharing, media, and even sharing gifs. It is also available through a browser, computer, and smartphone, meaning that it can easily become a regular feature throughout the day. It taps into start-up culture, being popular with software and media companies. As one article described it, “it is a cool office culture, available for instant download.” It has become part of the hipster package for increasing creativity, along with open-plan offices, talking about ‘decks’, drinking flat whites, and organising stand-up meetings.

There is a risk in thinking that these kinds of changes will transform an organisation into a more creative, productive, or effective version of itself. However, Slack is just a tool of communication, like email or even telephone calls. Slack offers a range of different capabilities, but on its own it cannot solve a lack – or failure – of communication in the workplace. I regularly use Slack for two geographically disperse research projects. Sometimes we use it frequently to collaborate on pieces of writing, while at other times we just use it to share updates on general progress. In a horizontal team, it provides a cost-effective way to work together, despite distances and time zones, something that would be very challenging by email alone.

Slack has become increasingly popular within organisations, moving beyond the horizontal team to encompass the hierarchies of the workplace. The use of email to manage the workplace has clearly added to the general workload: another message in the inbox that needs to be replied to. It becomes a sort of busy work – unproductive time away from other tasks. Instead, as the founder of Slack explains, you can have “all your communication in one place, instantly searchable, and available wherever you go.” However, the immediacy of Slack also risks creating a situation that actually multiplies that busy work.

It is worth returning here to the film Office Space with its brilliant critique of office communication. The protagonist of the film, Peter, compiles testing procedure specification (TPS) reports for bank software (the reports themselves representing stereotypical busy work). He once made the mistake of forgetting to include the coversheet on the report, and in return receives numerous memos and visits to his cubicle from his supervisors. He is fully aware he needs to include these, but receives frequent reminders of the policy. These are a kind of managerial busy work. Despite these visits, there is no real communication between management and workforce. This only becomes worse after a hypnotherapy session goes drastically wrong, after which Peter tells the consultants (who have been brought in to downsize the company) exactly what he thinks of the work and management. This moment of real communication is instead taken as a refreshing approach to the company.

Introducing Slack into this environment would not improve the communication – instead Peter would be constantly harassed by notifications pinging up on both his computer and smartphone, demanding attention for something he is already trying to do. In this sense, technology is often posed as a solution to a problem. In the case of Slack, it is even presented as a technological solution to another technological problem: email. However, technology is designed, developed, and used within existing social relations – even if it then goes on to shape them.

Slack emerges from a context of user experience design thinking in which significant investment is made to keep the attention of users. As Molly Fischer has recently argued, “slack induces the same anxious, attention-hungry rhythm in its users, the same need to endlessly refresh, and gives off the same illusion of intimacy in an ultimately public space.” It draws on the same feedback loops as social media that is becoming increasingly pervasive throughout our lives, demanding an always-on attention. In this way, it “also makes the line between work and not-work blurrier than ever.”

One of the biggest problems with email is the way it continues regardless of work hours. This would not be such a problem if it could always be put off until the start of the work day (although this would exacerbate the problems of email discussed above). The integration with smartphones means we are only ever one notification away from an email that must be dealt with immediately – or another reminder about TPS report coversheets. In response to the stress this can cause, recent legislation on the ‘right to disconnect’ in France requires companies with more than 50 employees to establish hours when workers do not need to engage with email.

The persuasive design of Slack is a form of gamification, the introduction of game-like elements into non-game domains like work. As Molly Fischer comments, noting his previous incarnation as a games designer, “Slack’s creator keeps trying to invent endless, unwinnable games.” This can be seen in the appealing design of the app, the feedback loops of notifications and reactions, to even the use of emoji’s and gifs. However, as I have argued with a colleague in a recent paper, gamification is a deeply problematic activity, seeking to capture play in the pursuit of workplace control. I have written at length about the negative effects this creates in call centres, but these technological systems of control are becoming increasingly common. However, the blame for these problems does not lie with Slack – instead it is seeing the tool itself as a solution to the problems of communication and culture at work.

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Dr Jamie Woodcock is a fellow at the LSE and author of Working the Phones. His current research focuses on digital labour, sociology of work, resistance, and videogames. Jamie completed his PhD at Goldsmiths and has held positions at University of Leeds, University of Manchester, Queen Mary, NYU London, and Cass Business School.