Slack Can Hurt Your Productivity

March 7, 2016

There’s no arguing it — Slack is a great product. Everyone seems to be raving about the magical team chat app that boosts productivity overnight. If you’re not using Slack you are missing out on an easy productivity boost, right? I mean, NASA seems to be using it to put robots on Mars and it’s making their lives simpler, more pleasant, and more productive.

A few weeks ago I attended the first “Basecamp Way to Work” workshop hosted by Jason Fried of Basecamp — collaboration and project management software. He is also the New York Times Bestselling author of the business book Rework. In short, he’s a smart guy when it comes to productivity and software.

The workshop was mainly attended by project managers and team leads from startups. Naturally, the concept of team chat and Slack were mentioned frequently throughout the day. It was clear that many of these teams were using Slack as their main form of communication. Jason raised some great points as to why this structure doesn’t scale and actually hurts productivity. Before hearing his objections I would have considered myself, like many other people, a Slack advocate.

Why Slack Hurts Productivity

The problem with Slack is not in the tool itself, but rather in the way people use it. It is often used as the main form of communication between teams. It has such a great reputation as a tool that many teams adopt it fast and hard. All other forms of communication go by the wayside and Slack becomes the channel for everything (no Slack pun intended). This communication structure fails because chat does not serve all conversations and communication objectives equally. Following Jason’s thought process here are some of the main problems with team chat apps:

Chat is a Constant Meeting

Team chat is like a constant meeting throughout your day. The chat window that stays open or the notification icon in your menu bar is always pulling you back in. No matter how amazing you are at multitasking you are still devoting part of your attention to your team chat. The more distractions in your day the less productive you will be.

The real trick with Slack is that it does not feel at all like a distraction. Chatting with your team in real-time is rewarding and makes you feel productive. This is just a false positive since the constant distraction of chat most often outweighs any productivity gain.

Slack is good when the distraction is limited. If a team can get in and out and not leave the tool open all day it can be very impactful. Unfortunately, this is not how Slack is typically used.

Chat is Reactive

Those typing indicators are like ticking time bombs. It’s always a race to get your two cents dropped into the conversation before it’s too late. You better be quick to the draw or you are out. You better not think too long about dropping what you are doing now (no matter how important it is) to join in.

fast typer

This sense of urgency that chat invokes results in reactive responses instead of formulated ones. Unlike email or a comment based message thread you don’t have time to contemplate before responding. Each chat conversation is composed of everyone’s first response at that moment in time, and not necessarily their most thought through response.

These quick responses that chat promotes are great for some conversations and horrible for others. If you need quick feedback on a design tweak or another set of eyes on a client proposal, Slack will serve you well. If you are weighing the pros and cons of a new feature in your app or debating a new customer support channel, Slack will likely fail you.

Chat Lacks Context & Organization

You may be the king of slash commands and keyword searching. In fact, you might be like Hacker Typer fast, and you might even start a new channel for every conversation. This still does not result in good context or organization. The nature of Slack chat is long running threads and constant topic switching. This is not much better than keeping all of your communication in a handful of email threads. Sure, you can search it faster and better in Slack, but it’s still all clumped together and you have to search and pull out the pieces you need. You never have quick access to all of the conversations and information related to one topic in an organized way.

When Slack Boosts Productivity

Ok, so if the way that most people use Slack is a productivity drain then how should it be used to actually boost productivity? The tool clearly can be beneficial to teams, and I believe that Jason made a great analogy for when chat is justified. Like switching gears in a car a team should switch tools when communicating. If you are climbing a hill and need more traction you need to downshift, but if you are entering a straight you upshift for speed. When communicating, tools like email and message threads are great for thorough long-form responses, and chat is great for quick reactive responses. Switching channels like this reduces the constant distraction of chat and increases context and organization.

Slack has it’s place in team communication, but I don’t believe it is the end all be all tool for communication. No matter how powerful a tool is it will fail you unless you know when to use it. For many teams Slack has been hailed as the saving grace to their communication and productivity faults. Is it time that we start to rethink how and when we use Slack?

Jason Fried posted an article that covers this very same topic.

Ben Bartling

Ben Bartling

I'm an indie maker, full-stack developer, believer in product-led growth, and somewhat of a designer. I've been an entrepreneur my entire life. I built, grew, and sold my bootstrapped SaaS business – ZoomShift. I'm currently building my next venture and helping others do the same via Recurium. Reach out if I can help.

I write as a personal outlet, and I publish what may be helpful for others. I live in Milwaukee with my wife, son, and daughter on the way.

Feel free to contact me by email or on Twitter. 👋