Slack holes: How Slack communication affects workplace productivity

Marlo Oster
August 3, 2021
5
Minutes

If you work in tech or your office has adopted a remote or hybrid way of working, there’s a good chance you’ve used Slack before and understand the benefits as well as the pitfalls, such as Slack holes and ‘always-on’ communication. Slack was originally sold to millions of users as the email killer—the solution to our in-office communication woes (remember the days of 80% less email with Slack?) But with more and more offices transitioning to a hybrid structure, Slack has now positioned itself as the solution to the wealth of problems that come with not sharing the same physical space as our coworkers. 


Unfortunately, Slack’s main selling point is also its greatest flaw. Slack is so easy to use that it causes us to overuse it, and what started as a time saver has now become a major drain on our time and energy. No matter where we are or what we’re doing, Slack means we’re always on call. If you spend the day responding to each notification you receive, answering every question asked, or just expecting to be interrupted at any minute, when are you supposed to get your actual work done? 


First off… What is a Slack hole?

A Slack hole occurs when a great idea is lost amidst a sea of other messages and notifications without any follow through or planned action. It’s simply lost within Slack, never to be seen again. Or, maybe someone does think about it again, but they have no idea how to find it or what to search for.


Slack holes can happen when an employee has an idea they don’t want to lose but also don’t have anywhere to put it. Do they draft a formal email to their superior? Or do they pop it into Slack and hope someone sees it? If an employee goes the formal route, there’s a strong possibility they’ll need to stand by it and be held accountable for the follow through. It’s not that the employee is lazy, but it’s a lot easier to suggest an idea than it is to make that idea a reality. 


Dropping the idea in a Slack channel is easy, but there isn’t any accountability. And it’s not only ideas that get lost in Slack. Even with a search function, it can be tough to remember what channel conversations happened in or how to search for what you’re looking for. Plus, only the first 10,000 messages can be viewed or searched when using the free version of Slack.


We’re not here to dunk on Slack. Our team uses Slack, and we love it. We even built a WorkPatterns app for Slack. That said, we leverage Slack for team building and communication that absolutely needs to be real-time. We believe in employees having time for deep focus, and that is what companies lose when they let Slack proliferate in their organization as the main method of communication that’s always on. 


80% less email, 100% more distractions

Slack was designed to improve communication across teams, and in many ways, it has accomplished that. The problem is that Slack was designed for a specific type of communication. It’s ideal for messaging and real-time conversations that are difficult to keep track of and organize through email alone.


The downside to all of this is that even though we may have 80% less email, we have way more real-time distractions. Quick communication can be a life saver, and it’s certainly a huge asset to distributed teams, but it’s also a time drain.

 

Distractions, no matter how small, kill momentum, focus, and productivity. It may seem harmless, but just one message can completely throw off your groove and prevent you from reaching a state of deep work.


A study at the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine found that “it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task” after you are interrupted. 20 minutes really eats into a workday, and what happens to the day when one interruption becomes 15 because of the constant ping of Slack messages?


Slack issues and the problems with Slack communication

Faster communication is not always better communication

Slack facilitates rapid fire, instant messages, which are perfect for getting an answer fast or continuing a conversation, but that speed isn’t always ideal. Faster communication isn’t necessarily better.


Unfortunately, the rapid pace and shallow communication we are accustomed to on social media often replicates itself in Slack. Sometimes it’s better to take the time to think through your answer before responding right away. And for the person asking a question, sometimes just by waiting, you can solve your own problem without needing to interrupt your teammate.

Always on = rarely working 

The ever-presence of Slack makes users feel like we have to respond in real-time. This can lead to getting stuck reading and participating in threads that don’t actually result in any real work getting done. It can also make off-time more difficult to find since Slack conversations happen constantly. 

Prioritization and organization are afterthoughts

Having a series of simultaneous conversations inevitably leads to details falling between the cracks. Slack’s search feature is useful, but it doesn’t do you much good if you don’t know what to search for. This can happen if you can’t remember the exact feature being discussed, the decision that was made, or who had that great idea.


Prioritization also becomes a problem in Slack since you’re always seeing the most recent information, not necessarily the most important. Which threads, conversations, pings, or to-dos deserve your attention most at any given moment? Slack continues to add features that allow users to set reminders, but that often only delays the problem.


Slack alternatives: A better way to work together

Asynchronous communication

Asynchronous, thoughtful, and organized communication is important to any team, but it’s especially critical for remote teams. Asynchronous communication is any communication that doesn’t happen in real-time. Sending back and forth Slack messages is synchronous, whereas an email that your coworker can respond to on their own time is asynchronous. 


Not all communication needs to happen in real-time. Save those interruptions for true emergencies or planned meetings. Consider the cost of the interruption every time you send a Slack message. Could it wait until your next one on one meeting? Are you able to solve the problem yourself with a quick Google search?


💡 WorkPatterns keeps teams aligned and on track no matter where they work from. It minimizes the thoughtlessness of instant messaging while allowing for efficient and flexible workflows. 

The information you need, when you need it

When so many conversations are going at once, it’s easy to lose something important. A great idea is meaningless without follow through. Discussion topic ideas for your next meeting will only happen if they are documented and added to your meeting agenda.


💡WorkPatterns surfaces action items, discussion topics, and goals without anyone having to dig for them. Everything you need to have great meetings, manage team goals, and keep track of action items is in one convenient place.

A culture shift

The problem with Slack extends well beyond the communication platform itself. There’s also a communication problem within many workplaces. Businesses are not putting enough time and energy put into building a company culture that promotes transparency, open dialogue, and productive collaboration. 


In a workplace with constant interruptions and communication demands, it’s tough to get anything done, which is a major drain on team morale. Team members feel like they are always working, but the actual work never seems to get done, leaving them feeling unaccomplished, behind, and at risk of burnout. Businesses need to make a culture shift away from the ‘always-on’ approach to communication to give employees the time and focus they need to be truly productive.


💡With WorkPatterns’ FeedbackAI and Meeting Mode features, you can promote focused communication and build a workplace culture of continuous improvement. Feedback is incredibly important for team growth and morale, but it needs to be continuous and taken seriously, with clear action items and follow up.


Automating Best Practices

WorkPatterns provides One on Ones, Team Collaboration, Feedback, Recognition & Goals — all in one place. With WorkPatterns, you can communicate asynchronously to optimize your team's organization, efficiency, and wellbeing.


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