When Becky Kane began interning at a productivity software company in 2014, she experienced a rite of passage in the workplace: drowning in Slack messages.
The company, Doist, had always been largely remote, so Slack, the ubiquitous business communications platform, was the primary way to connect with your new colleagues. Ms. Kane lives in Minneapolis, but Doist employees work all over the world.
“I definitely have an addictive personality,” says 29-year-old Kane. Slack, with its signature mix of 24-hour pranks, GIFs, updates on serious work projects, and small talk, took over his life. “It was very tempting to be there all the time,” she says.
She transitioned from an intern to a full-time marketer in 2015, and the messages kept coming, until 2016. That’s when her company left Slack. His workday improved dramatically, he says. These days, you typically log into Doist’s internal message board in the morning to check for project updates, log out, and write and edit until lunch with few distractions.
In the years since Slack made its debut in 2009, it has helped establish instant messaging as an essential part of administrative work. But many troubled workers found that it was replacing email, which was never a beloved technology in itself, with something that was even more distracting.
The use of Slack and other collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Facebook Workplace skyrocketed during the pandemic. From January to April 2020, the average time Slack users were active on the platform increased to roughly 120 minutes a day from roughly 85 minutes, according to their latest earnings report. (The Wall Street Journal is a Slack client.) Microsoft Teams found a 72% increase in instant messages in March 2020, compared to a January-February 2020 baseline.
Still, some companies are rolling back the constant trend of chat by reducing, or even eliminating, the expectation of having live conversations and calls in the average workday. There are simply too many messages.
The buzzword for the new way of communicating in these workplaces is asynchronous. Asynchronous communication refers to chats that do not occur in real time. You can include annotated documents, posts in message threads that don’t send notifications for every update, and yes, good old-fashioned email. Synchronous communication refers to the rest: video calls, phone calls, chat applications and face-to-face conversation.
Doist, where Ms Kane still works, has created an asynchronous first-first culture after leaving Slack, says Gonçalo Silva, its Portugal-based CTO. The company designed its own internal communication platform called Twist, which hosts discussion threads on specific projects or topics rather than creating fast, global channels.
Going one step further, the company also abandoned regular meetings. All company talks are recorded and posted online.
Asynchronous teamwork also requires some individual changes. Ms. Kane has made a habit of communicating deadlines well in advance. You rarely expect your 91 colleagues spread across 35 countries to be online at the same time.
Slack can be used asynchronously, in theory, for example, if the company culture adapts to slow response times, but that rarely happens in practice.
The median response time for Slack users in 2020 was 16.3 minutes, according to productivity analytics firm Time is Ltd., which analyzed an anonymous data set of 5,000 users worldwide for The Wall Street Journal. . For emails, the average response time was 72 minutes.
Slack has a number of features to make notifications more manageable, says Noah Weiss, vice president of product for the San Francisco company. These include the option to be notified only if people tag your name and a do not disturb mode.
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Slack’s key innovation about email, he says, is that users can actively choose the channels most relevant to their work. He views email, on the contrary, as all kinds of information that is sent to workers. It’s hard to choose not to, he says, barring steps like blocking senders.
A Microsoft spokesperson also points to features that promote asynchronous work in Teams, including setting “quiet hours” and “quiet days” and recording and transcribing virtual meetings.
Regarding the informal and social parts of Slack chats, which many users find especially difficult to break away from, Weiss says, “We’ve never [explicitly] focused on trying to enable better social uses of Slack, but we think it’s a good sign that we’ve created a tool for work that people feel makes the workplace more human. ”
Several companies have created their own platforms for asynchronous updates in recent years. Zapier, a company that allows users to sync web applications, has Async. Stripe, the fintech company, has Home. These platforms do not need to completely displace Slack, but they can take on some functions. Posting updates to company policies during the pandemic on a dedicated page, for example, eliminates the need to constantly answer HR questions on a high-traffic chat channel.
Whichever messaging platform you choose, making your workplace asynchronous first involves deliberate choices at every step, says John Meyer, CEO of Lemonly, an infographic design agency in Sioux Falls, SD, with 17 employees in Three US Time Zones When you decided to make your business more asynchronous a year ago, you instructed your team to write things down instead of failing meetings. He also became an acolyte for Loom, a screen recording tool that allows you to record your computer screen or short videos of yourself.
“That was great for the two members of my team who went on maternity leave during the pandemic. They just recorded videos on how to do their job for the workers who took their place, ”he says.
‘Group chat is like a hot tub. You should go in and out, not sit all day.
Last summer even Slack began rolling out an asynchronous video feature, still in pilot mode, Weiss says.
These developments aside, there are still obvious uses for real-time communication, such as personnel disputes, tense work emergencies, and deadlines, not to mention the hilarious observations with a short shelf life. It’s hard to imagine a company eliminating it entirely.
The key is to be thoughtful about the limits of chat, says Nir Eyal, Singapore-based author of “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.”
He doesn’t see communication apps as inherently problematic, but he thinks workers can be more deliberate about incorporating them into their work day. “I encourage putting everything on a calendar, not just meetings, even times of the day when you can check Slack,” he says.
“Group chat is like a hot tub,” he says. “You should go in and out, not sit all day.”
Write to Krithika Varagur at [email protected]
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