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Slack Is Not Where 'Deep Work' Happens (nuclino.com)
381 points by zzaner 12 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 222 comments

I'll play devils advocate.

I like Slack, and having a group communication tool has only increased my productivity.

How? - Having a place to easily search for issues others have had in the past. Sure, you can search emails or ask the same questions, but it's nice to search and find answers from other peoples conversations. - Integration for production alerting, customer feedback, and deployment pipelines. Instead of manually digging through several different web UIs or using a bunch of different CLIs, I can just take a look at the corresponding channel. - Notifications _can be_ non-distracting. Being the correct channels, snoozing alerts, or just exiting slack when you need the deep focus headspace, is easy.

I specifically don't want to be called/texted/interrupted in person unless it's something severely important. 90% of the time its not. I would much rather ignore a slack notification than answer a meaningless phonecall, or politely tell someone to bug off in person.

I will say, the "always on" culture is hard to face when Slack/group messaging is a companies main point of communication. Luckily, I've only ever been in places where its been understood that you are only expected to be responsive during your work day.

But, I think the negative effects of the cost of distraction by slack are overblown. There are endless ways to be distracted these days, and Slack is not the worst thing out there. You can always just exit the program.

I agree Slack can be used effectively, but I don’t think its design encourages it. It encourages massive distraction — more active user time — by its default client and organization level settings.

Nor do I think this is as simple as “you can simply exit the program.” If the company or team has certain expectations on communication that won’t work if you do it without consulting with your team. A lot of people are not in this sort of position where they can take an action like that and not be ostracized.

Imagine ignoring calls or emails from your boss for a day or two when it’s clear that boss expects responses in a specific time? Exiting Slack can have the same effect at a lot of companies.

I simply think more companies need to take the time to discuss how tools will be used and for what purposes so everyone is on the same page. We have always published an etiquette guide that is open for debate/change. But most places I’ve worked use Slack and most places simply don’t discuss how it’s used so everyone has different expectations. And being the one person trying to fix this problem in a team can make you feel crazy.

If your company wants you to sit on Slack all day and not do "deep work" the that's on then, and if it's a waste of your time then it will be their wasted money. So the companies are just as invested in this as employees are.

It not an even trade. 'The company' is merely wasting (often someone else's) money. You on the other hand are wasting your own life-time.

You also need to make sure you're doing the right "deep work". Sometimes, the problem was already solved by someone else, and there Slack can mean the difference between discovering that in a few minutes vs. a few days.

Whether or not Slack encourages workflows (and I can see how it would), I think in order to be an effective human in the modern era _requires_ thinking critically about technology choices and how to use them. Cal Newport's new book Digital Minimalism was a great read about this - be intentional about your tech choices, and be intentional about when and how you use them. Otherwise it's super easy to just get sucked into spending all day wasting time on the most distracting and addicting sites. Company culture can be shaped (though it's definitely hard when you are on the bottom of the hierachy).

I completely agree, but I don't think that means we should ignore or withhold criticism when a company like Slack has immense power over how other companies operate. We should be scrutinizing the decisions they make because it does affect us.

Many of these decisions you refer to are not made by the individual employee, but by the team lead, PM, or the executives, who are not always very connected to how those decisions affect developer happiness. So getting control of your personal digital life often has no bearing once you enter the workplace with an entirely different set of expectations.

Slack being a public company worries me even more, because there is now an even greater drive for them to make ever-increasing revenue/profits, which usually means keeping people on Slack and active within the client and increasing daily active user / engagement metrics. In many ways there isn't great alignment between a company being productive and Slack's financials; Slack is incentivized to boost revenue even more now, likely at the expense of end-user productivity.

Absolutely, I see two avenues of attack. As an individual, I see that Slack exists and is widely used in tech. I can't really say no to using them, but I can do what I can to protect myself. If a company requires bad online hygiene, that's certainly a difficult problem.

On the broader level, I definitely think the larger the company and the larger influence it has, the more scrutiny it needs. People who are in charge need to recognize the externalities of what they are making, and the potential negative side effects they can have. I have been somewhat encouraged at least in that this conversation seems to be happening lately.

But slack isn't supported by ads is it? Why would investors care about increasing engagement/screen time?

I would think they would care more about adoption of the service across more kinds of companies.

Good point about choices being lead by executives in distance. I once had a client CEO obsessed with slack because he had developed a Pavlovian association between Slack knocks (upon got commits) and product delivery. He wanted to hear more and more knocks and people started to commit more and more often with increasingly trivial deltas.

> Imagine ignoring calls or emails from your boss for a day or two when it’s clear that boss expects responses in a specific time?

Then slack makes no difference then, you might as well blame emails or the phone company.

I would add to this, Slack can be a fantastic tool or it can be the bane of your workday, it all comes down to how your company/team use Slack.

On my team almost everything goes into the main team chat; however, every message is tagged with the person it's aimed at and any team-wide communication is tagged @here. Any sub-conversation about that top-level message happens in the message thread.

With this method, you are only notified if you are tagged in a message or if a message is tagged @here. Outside of that I will check slack about once per hour and can see all top-level issues at a glance that either my team or a specific person has been notified of. If I am interested in whatever the issue is I can dive into the thread and get more information about the issue or contribute my 0.02.

I see many here suggesting other software, at the end of the day that's all it is, software. The productivity drain/boost comes down to how everyone decides to use that software. If you get 100 emails a day with the subject "IMPORTANT: READ IMMEDIATELY", email suddenly becomes just as annoying and as much of a time-suck as Slack, this applies to all communication methods.

I mute at here in all channels. It should be banned.

It's easily the most misused feature of Slack.

Using @here in a channel is the equivalent of standing on your desk and shouting at everyone around you. So what happens is, like you, everyone starts muting it.

And then you just have people shouting into the void.

I think you should rules about it at the workplace. At mine, I can probably count on one hand the amount of times I've seen an @here. And one of them, the person was told he shouldn't have done it since it wasn't important. Really makes everything think before they use it.

We use separate channels for different projects and people join/leave as needed. @here is incredibly useful when you have a general question and not sure who might have insight.

It all boils down to how people use the communications channel. I see @here multiple times a week but do not feel like it is a big distraction. At worst it can create a few minutes of distraction from my current workflow and if I'm truly in the middle of a thought process I ignore the message for a little bit or unless a 2nd notification hits.

Can you explain what you think is correct slack etiquette?

Never @ someone unless you want their immediate attention?

This sounds like it would be a better workflow for a threaded newsgroup style application.

Agreed. Its not just about the tool but how you use it. For us it actually helps to get less distracted. There are very few things that require a sub 3 hour reaction. So we just put a question in Slack even if it's for the person sitting right next to you. Eventually the person will answer when they have some time. Much better than constantly having someone tipping one your shoulder or calling you

Just because you have instant messages doesn't mean you have to respond instantly. Disable notifications and checking every few hours is plenty enough. If a person can't work because of a pending question, it usually means they don't have their work organised sufficiently.

> If a person can't work because of a pending question, it usually means they don't have their work organised sufficiently.

This is an overly harsh assumption. There are plenty of compelling real-world examples of organized, effective people being blocked by some small but urgent thing that's not their fault and requires a few minutes of attention from someone else.

If a dev just started on my project but the DB credentials I gave him aren't working (or whatever), that's on me. If my boss's boss jogs over to our office area asking who here knows Thing_X the best, I'm going to deign to remove my noise-cancelling headphones and accept the deep-work disruption.

True, I'm a bit harsh on this, but I also used the word usually instead of always on purpose. Yes, sometimes someone can really get blocked and not able to work, no problem to ask for help in this case. On the other hand I have seen it enough times that people (especially juniors and bosses) continuously ask question without having bothered to think about it prior. Forcing them to deal with a problem by themselves for a bit and not distract others has resolved many of them.

The key thing is being clear what communication and team culture you want to establish. I'm not just a grumpy guy that ignores messages or avoid helping others. It is something that has been discussed and agreed upon in the company and is expected to be respected by anyone no matter where the person is in the hierarchy.

Fair enough: I agree that plenty of people prematurely ask someone rather than try to figure out a solution by searching, thinking, experimenting, etc., and using Slack as an asynchronous channel will generally encourage people to hack a bit more at their problem before instinctively distracting the person next to them.

Yep, this is exactly how I use it at my office. Slack isn't where 'deep work' happens, it's one of the things that allows me to accomplish 'deep work' by reducing interruption and distraction.

Exactly. Take pride in being that person who is so busy/focused that you can't be bothered to respond instantly to every discussion. Slowly train others to understand this working style.

> You can always just exit the program.

Or never start to use it in the first place.

The fundamental problem with Slack is that its interactions are not structure in the right way to be useful in non-real-time. An email thread has two critical pieces of structure that Slack threads lack: a subject line, and a beginning. With email, it's easy to tell where a particular discussion started, and which messages have to do with that discussion. On Slack, these things are all intertwingled. In order to find the beginning of a discussion you have to scan everything in the channel. That is what makes Slack a distraction. It's much harder (like virtually impossible) to filter content by topic after the fact.

I'd argue that they all have their place. Anything of great length that's related to something product wise that has impact should be discussed in an epic or ticket that links the main point back.

As anyone who's followed a giant email chain, I think that slack is at-least a little bit easier to follow. Albeit I'm working in a company that is just now trying to start to emphasize stories/tickets/chat over email for everything, with tons of pushback.

Gone are the days of email everything, tons of people are CC'd, email chains are 30-50 responses in. It's absolutely unmanageable. Oh and if you drop chat, let's start logging alerts to email, or bugs to email. It's useless.

Personally I'll use chat for anything relatively quick or unimportant in the grand scheme of things. I'll use email for when it's not something that requires a response right away but generally is also unimportant to the company projects and doesn't involve a ton of collaboration. Anything bigger than that goes in a system that's suitable for tracking projects or complicated topics.

I don't think there's a one size fits all solution for communication.

It's possible to have structured conversations by always using threads.

I've convinced everyone at two companies so far (50 and 20 people) to never reply directly in a channel, and always use threads:


How do I get my coworkers to do that?

One way would be to share the article with them and explain that replies directly in a channel make it harder for you to catch up. Saying that threads make it easier and quicker for you to decide what to read.

I usually start by proposing an idea to a small group of people - e.g. my team or people at the company I think might like the idea. Only after a few people say they like the idea and start using threads, propose the idea to more people and say "look, a few of us are using threads and it works".

> I specifically don't want to be called/texted/interrupted in person unless it's something severely important. 90% of the time its not. I would much rather ignore a slack notification than answer a meaningless phonecall, or politely tell someone to bug off in person.

This a million times

Bonus points, you don't annoy other people in the office with your impromptu meeting next to someone that has nothing to do with it

I agree. As a remote freelancer, I'm currently in (checks the app) 5 Slacks. I have explicitly told everyone in each of those Slacks that I treat it as async only. I sometimes have it up, and sometimes don't when I'm cranking. I definitely don't have push notifications coming into anything.

I've found being in Slack is a great way to feel less isolated, and conversations that might not otherwise happen happen. I also am in very small channels, usually no more than 5 people. This may contribute to why I like it. I can't imagine being in a 50-100 person Slack with everyone messaging everyone. Especially if I'm expected to keep up. The low population count makes it so that I rarely miss anything.

Slack can be a terrible tool if you let it, but it can be wonderful, too, if you tune your notifications, and use DnD when you need it. Also, schedule DnD for non-work hours so you are never bothered outside of work hours, unless there is a true emergency (and if you work at a place with a lot of emergencies, then you have a shitty workplace).

It's a tool. Use the tool, don't let the tool use you.

Slack is hostile to users and panders to management. It's a sound business strategy. I can't trust the platform, I'll always be second class.

What about scheduled DnD for days off? Ability to /ignore annoying bots? Two basic features which should've been added long ago.

Slack is hostile to users and panders to management. It's a sound business strategy. I can't trust the platform, I'll always be second class.

That is very vague. Sounds like you have an axe to grind with your management.

What about scheduled DnD for days off? Ability to /ignore annoying bots? Two basic features which should've been added long ago.

Good feature idea. Have you submitted them?

As for as DnD scheduling for PTO, they have custom which I use on my last day. Works perfectly for me.

As for /ignore for bots, sounds like the people controlling your Slack need a suggestion or two.

DnD scheduling for Sat/Sun.

Those features plus the ability to ignore @here from only certain users would make a huge difference.

> You can always just exit the program.

No, you can't, and that is the problem. If your entire team primarily uses Slack to communicate, you are forced to constantly check it or you are not being a team player.

The article explicitly says they chose asynchronous by default -- which I interpret to mean that you switch off those notifications and make slack poll-only.

You talk about searching the history but to me the search tools are so weak that I figure only the recent slack messages have relevance -- instead slack is as transient as a text message. Mail at least can be searched as a corpus.

Searching for old messages has always worked fine for me

I use Sococo for this. It has an expanded interface to increase awareness of group activity - who's talking with whom, has the meeting started, is anybody still in the office.

For myself, Slack is such a time waster that I'm at the point where I only check on it periodically. I tell coworkers that if there's an emergency that needs to be tended to right away, just text, call, or talk to me in person. If there's something that can wait, email is better. After 2+ years of using Slack on several different teams, I have yet to see any enhanced group communications. I do however see massive amounts of distractions and failed concentration. I'm sure "I'm doing it wrong", but this has been my experience with Slack.

I've found a set of cultural rules for Slack that tends to work well for keeping Slack a high quality communication tool.

1. If it can be an email, put it in an email instead. Email has far better tooling than Slack for automatically filtering and triaging messages so that the recipient can focus on the important ones.

2. The busyness of a channel should be inversely proportional to the number of participants. Channels with >10 participants should be virtual ghost towns.

2a. Except when you are using the channel for crisis management.

2b. Except for channels where people are asking "how to" questions, for those, either have the current on-call people triage it and call in the experts as needed, or set the expectation that people will get answers eventually.

3. If you need a response in under an hour, do a voice call or find them in person.

4. Employees should not be expected to have Slack on their phones, and employees should not be expected to respond outside of work hours.

Edit: also rule #5: Social channels: they are neither forbidden nor discouraged, but for the sake of your own focus, you should keep them muted.

My experience exactly. The most common observation with Slack is how people praise it as the next big thing in productivity. But this is always during the honeymoon phase, after a few months of working with Slack it usually quickly wears off.

I think the worst part of it (as the article mentions) is that it feels like you are doing something productive when you're using Slack, but the majority of time you're actually not. You're generating conversations, notifications, and in general producing tangible output that for me is subconsciously gratifying. That hooks me in to using the service even though consciously I know that I'm not getting real work done.

The benefit I've found is in cross-team communication.

Specifically of the "I need to reach out to this team I don't know about their product" variety.

A) If they interact with Slack, I can search previous answers

B) It promotes a culture of openness. Huge benefit in some orgs! We talk about our projects, warts and all, in public channels. If all your org channels are private, you're definitely Doing It Wrong

C) It's far more scalable than ticketing. Issues can be resolved in three lines of text, rather than ticket creation, queue, assignment, closing, etc.

As an above commenter noted though, you can and should push back on expectations of constant availability. Slack is asynchronous, not for initiating hi-pri issues.

> Slack is asynchronous.

You are describing a proprietary, expensive, intrusive, demanding rewrite of SMTP.

I very much like Zulip, it's open source and much closer to email, even culturally. It encourages long-form replies and messages with subjects, so it requires at least a tiny amount of thought before you start talking to someone. I think it's a great cross between Slack and email.

Just looked at it.

What keeps Zulip threads from exploding in practice? Either on the UI or usage side?

E.g. How to I keep from going from "One channel with a hundred unread messages" to "One channel with twenty unread threads"?

Also, what features exist when a thread diverges from the original topic?

E.g. We were talking about the "afternoon lunch" at the "annual meeting", and then someone mentioned their favorite restaurants in the area, and now people are replying to both?

Organization seems more like a usage problem than a technology problem. Or at least one that I can't see manual categorization solving.

The point is that it's a lot faster to process 20 unread threads with 100 messages than 100 unread messages, because they're nicely grouped. E.g. you can skip reading the 30 messages in the thread about "afternoon lunch", without having to look at those messages (as you would with slack if you wanted to find out that the 'annual meeting' announcement happened).

For diverging topics, you can easily edit the topics of the messages that are a diversion to be a new topic. This helps a huge amount when you have new users who haven't learned the convention of creating a new topic when bringing up something unrelated, since anyone can clean it up in a few seconds.

The protocol isn't the issue.

It's like SMTP, if nearly every conversation went to list-all and our email clients were designed to intelligently allow us to choose what sub-section of the thousands of messages a day are important to us.

Or, like we already knew, it's an expensive, intrusive, proprietary upgrade of IRC.

This is the Slack vs Jabber/XMPP debate. Pro and cons for each side.

But Slack is certainly easier to install and use (by being centralized).

Don't forget mailman + elastic search.

> It's far more scalable than ticketing. Issues can be resolved in three lines of text, rather than ticket creation, queue, assignment, closing, etc.

My experience has been that it goes on for thirty or three hundred lines of problem report -> steps to reproduce -> troubleshooting -> proposed solution -> etc. Two days later someone else gets pulled in so they look at a Jira ticket with an empty description and zero comments...

It's a balance.

At some point, a channel should be created for the issue (if long lived) or Slack conversations transplanted onto a ticket.

On the other hand, I've had an equal number of times where ticket formalism led to a misunderstanding, someone on another team taking an incorrect action, and a couple weeks to get resolved.

Work that could have been saved with 10 minutes of direct communication.

Or the dreaded hot potato ticket that out of misunderstanding / laziness gets reassigned to different teams, until a week passes without any actual work done.

So, I guess the optimal solution is to know what each tool is good and bad at, and let those guide actions and policies.

> it feels like you are doing something productive when you're using Slack, but the majority of time you're actually not

That's been my main complaint about GitHub throughout its meteoric rise. Its public contribution graphs and user profiles littered with hundreds of dead forks certainly encourage this behavior.

And I say this not as a person who has an unreasonable disdain for things like business processes and engineering tools (such as bugtrackers); I tend to favor (good) process more than other people—I've had personal projects where I'm the only contributor and user, and yet if you peek into the bugtracker you'll see hundreds of comments from me explaining exactly what's going on wrt the root cause and any fixes, and all known issues at any given time have an appropriate bug on-file.

But when I use GitHub, it's like every interaction ends up getting sidetracked either due to input from users trying to feel productive by leaving comments that are ultimately value-negative, or some weirdo contributor responding to my bug report as if I'm filing a support request and who then tries to "help" me by explaining how I can work around it (I have no problems working around it—in fact, by the time you're hearing from me, that's old news. But this is a bugtracker! For, you know, tracking bugs!), or the peanut gallery using the bugtracker like it's a phpBB forum dedicated to general chatter and expressions of gratitude related to the project (instead of, you know, tracking bugs!).

The worst is when somebody is showing off a project, I take a look, find something like a simple typo, and let the person know, and then they ask me to file a PR. First, I'm probably not even interested in your project even as a leeching user. Secondly, if you can't be bothered to do anything about this thing in your own project that you already understand that that you probably already have opened in your IDE right now, do you really expect me to clone the repo, poke around until I understand the busted directory structure you're using to organize the code, locate the appropriate source file, commit it, and then use GitHub's needlessly convoluted pull request workflow that involves pushing those changes to a third fork and asking you to review them? Do you understand that all this is happening on top of the assumption that I even have a GitHub account in the first place? Why don't you just Alt-Tab over there and help yourself instead of offloading work onto some random stranger who has no vested interest in your project but who decided to spend a little effort typing out a message that would be of interest to the person currently pimping out their project?

... and then every time I mention this, someone comes around, totally misses the point, and leaves an obnoxious comment that "You don't have to clone the repo! You can make minor fixes like that from the GitHub web UI!"

It's like nobody knows how to distinguish between busy work vs things that are actually necessary to the process and/or indicators of real, forward motion.

People keep wanting to blame Slack for this problem, but it really is the folks you're working with who are the issue.

Slack is getting such a huge valuation so quickly because it is incredibly simple to use and is very user friendly. IM tools like Skype / Sametime / whatever have been around for companies forever, but Slack is much more user friendly and frictionless to use from the ground up, and with plugins even more useful.

I think most of the hate here keeps coming back to issues with peoples coworkers, not whatever IM platform they want to dislike that is currently making tons of cash.

I find it has utility in the fact that it's a searchable record of technical conversations I have had with my colleagues where I can go to recover details I might not remember from a month ago. Then again email also does this just fine, and doesn't cost as much.

Search is one of slacks worst features and I resort to scrolling which is also majorly painful. I can count on one hand the number of times I've found what I needed via slack search in 4 years with it. I've had it be unable to find the exact text of a message on screen in a channel I'm searching in a day later (tested).

Search is one of my favorite parts of Slack.

It assumes that I want to search within a certain channel or messages with a certain person when that's where I'm clicking the search bar from, but I can quickly erase that if desired. Files, messages, and people, are all searchable. It's pretty powerful and extremely user-friendly (most non-techies would have trouble with the syntax for specifying who a message should be from while searching).

Meanwhile, with Gmail, I discovered yesterday that when I'm part of a mailing list attached to an email address (let's say product@startup.com), and I search an email address that was cc'd on the product@startup.com email, nothing comes up. Resulted in a lot of wasted time.

I'm gonna also have to disagree. Slack search works. I can rely on it to save the information needed, and my ability to recover it.

I've got to disagree completely - my search experience with Slack has been really great, even surpassing Gmail, which I also like. There are a lot of tools to dig in to results bit by bit, and they're cached so returning to the search screen is fast after you've investigated a hit.

I will have to agree, the search feature in Slack is nearly useless. Or, perhaps 'I am using it wrong' to join in the chorus.

Email doesn't do this just fine. If a new employee joins your group, how are they going to search your inbox for records of technical discussions that they never were part of?

Email lists and newsgroups have been around for a very long time, and are often archived. My organization still runs a listerv for this very purpose.

Put that stuff in a Wiki. Or pull requests.

By "that stuff", do you mean "technical communications you have had with colleagues", such as what Slack or email might otherwise be used for? That is what the GP was referring to.

It's hard to imagine using a wiki for that, but if that's how you do things I guess it's fine. As long as it doesn't rely on people copying their email discussions to wikis manually. Not sure how you'd be alerted by an important wiki update that you need to respond to, though.

Let's use a concrete example. A new engineer joins your company and needs to set up a dev environment. This environment has changed many times over the years. Do you point them to Slack, Email, a Wiki, or a shared Google doc? In any sane company, it is one of the latter.

Replying a little late, but we are discussing

"technical conversations I have had with my colleagues where I can go to recover details I might not remember from a month ago. Then again email also does this just fine, and doesn't cost as much."

For static instructions like setting up a dev environment? Sure a wiki is perfect. But I don't use a wiki for technical conversations like "Hey icedchai, I'm getting an error message that the COM port is not detected and I remember you said something about solving it in yesterday's standup. Can you point me to where the fix was?"

That message is better suited for slack or email than a wiki. (Your solution might be in the wiki but I'm contacting you because it wasn't easy to find, or searching for the error message didn't turn it up).

But if I use email, then when we hire a new employee a month later who gets the same error, your answer will be in my records but not theirs.

Another poster suggested a mailing list, that is a good option that makes email viable for this.

So search multiple places instead of just the one?

If you use a Wiki for everything, no. However, that is unlikely. You'll have to search more than one place anyway. Making Slack your primary store of institutional knowledge is unwise. Chats are full of garbage, random discussions, old / bad decisions, etc.

And there's no guarantee that slack will exist forever.

No guarantee that Atlassian Wikis will last forever either, but I'm certain that's the wiki 90% will be thinking of when "use a wiki" is suggested.

Backing up your knowledge store is a very separate task from your day-to-day use of it. It's just as possible to back-up your company's slack messages as it is to back-up the company's wiki.

there's a hidden danger of using slack as a record of technical conversations: people start to rely on it, and less formal/rigorous specifications fall by the wayside.

but as i'm starting to learn: nobody really documents things anyways.

Nobody really documents things because that's not "agile." Agile is do it now, break it later, fix it in the next sprint.

Ugh. I have an anecdote in which I was brought in by a great niche technical contracting firm, as a developer who was also supposed to repair a client relationship, after a previous developer quit. I learned that the problem on client site was not quite what was expected (they already knew the client's manager didn't want contractors). It turned out that a significant part the problem on the ground was simply that the contracting company's on-site manager was bombarding the contractors with instant messages they were required to monitor. There were a few other things (including no onboarding/documentation for client's unique SCM and build environment, some strong personal styles, and a factor that was doing the opposite of what it was supposed to do), but the frustrating message interruptions alone might've made the morale difference that led to the person quitting.

In lieu of Slack, one lightweight pattern that often works is something like:

* Email for things you should see, possibly urgently (ideally with simple filters/actions, for when/how to alert/expose different messages, which the individual can tune over time, to their needs).

* Lightweight chat (maybe IRC/XMPP/etc.) for things you don't have to see (such as questions you don't want to interrupt anyone over, but they can answer if they're available enough to look at chat; and perhaps watercooler chatter for personalizing everyone, especially when you have remote workers). Be careful that this doesn't turn into fear-of-missing-out compulsion or an operational must-see -- emphasize that turning it into must-see is counter to the goal of the medium, becoming a burden for people.

* Agreed-upon simple in-repo/wiki/other for capturing information that people need to see in the future. Try to make this lightweight enough that it's not a burden to capture this information in a way that's accessible/usable to people when they need it.

The organization can evolve this over time, but the above is not a bad start.

A possible side benefit of rolling a lightweight solution on your own is that you don't need to trust a third-party with your company-confidential data (nor inside 'analytics' of your people and company), nor deal with possible goal misalignment with the third-party. (Of course, you can decide any third-party is worthwhile, and sys-admin is usually not what you want to be spending time on in most startups, but you have many options.)

So, how did that contracting situation end? Did the manager correct his behaviour?

Most things were improved, and I suspect the remaining things improved over time. Sometime well after I moved on (after talking with the client's manager about what further development work would make them happy before I left, and delivering that), maybe at the end of the year, I got a surprise big check in the mail from the contracting company. There'd never been any talk of bonuses, and I'd declined the "hazard pay" one of the partners had offered when I first identified one of the problems, since I was just doing my job, but surprise money in the mail was nice. :)

> that the contracting company's on-site manager was bombarding the contractors with instant messages they were required to monitor

Pardon the naivete, but couldn't he just stop doing that?

It turned out people hated that, but it was an unusually amiable group of experts who maybe were reluctant to speak candidly with this person (and the reporting lines weren't clear, in a firm of technical experts). Anyway, I only mentioned this anecdote because I was reminded of it, as a concrete example of disruptive notifications you had to be plugged into, for whatever reason.

Seems like you only deal with small teams. Texting, calling, or standing up and talking don't scale well. Talking doesn't work when people aren't sitting next to one another in the same city, state, country, or hemisphere. Calling isn't going to work either, as you are limited to audio only and makes triaging situations more difficult. And texting is clumsy at best, and doesn't assist with triaging. And none of these methods make it easy to integrate tooling. Not to mention any sort of regulations.

As for email, it works for longer form stuff. But not for having a real time conversation that involves multiple people. It's akin to saying Google Docs is useless because you can collaborate on a document in email.

Like any tool, it's how you use it. Slack can be distracting if you let it. It can be useless if you don't use the tools it gives you. Can you do everything slack does with other tools? Sure. But it will require a massive amount of effort to get you up and running again.

Calls are really, really bad for shared knowledge building. Either you require each call to end with a note, discourage one-to-one calls and favor group calls, or accept that the speed of knowledge diffusion in the team will slow down to a crawl. I believe it's easy to see the downsides of all of these possibilities.

Mailing lists, Usenet, IRC, Slack, bulletin board, wiki, GitHub issues - doesn't matter which, use whatever works for you and is most convenient, but, whatever you do, please communicate in text. Bonus points for storing all that text in a searchable place.

Well, once the speech to text is sufficiently accurate, this may change (although there's always that chilling feeling of having so many of your voice samples sent to Google) - but until then, communicate in text as much as possible. Both deaf people, social phobiacs, and new hires will thank you for that.

I disagree with your "text is superior" stance. You assume that the point of a phone call is to enhance "shared knowledge building", but that's often not the case. A phone call is meant to communicate something directly, and that "something" may or may not be knowledge that should be spread through the team. Phone calls have disadvantages, but so does text. There is information that gets lost when we reduce our communications to text. I find it to be much easier to infer someone's mood and intent when I talk to them vs. reading chat messages. There is no universally better communications mode.

> I find it to be much easier to infer someone's mood and intent when I talk to them vs. reading chat messages.

All the deaf programmers of the world would like to have - haha - a chat with you. You'd surely quickly recognize their mood :P

I'm being sarcastic, but the accessibility angle is a serious one.

> and that "something" may or may not be knowledge that should be spread through the team

Whatever you talked about, either resulted in a decision (which should be documented anyway, because you never know who and when may be affected by it) or it didn't, in which case it could have been an email to one person or a group of people.

> I find it to be much easier to infer someone's mood and intent when I talk to them

That's a problem with the literacy of that person. All the words needed to express various moods and intents are there in the dictionaries; this is a battle-tested, mature technology (I mean, written English) which only got so much better since we're able to attach funny cat pictures to each sentence now.

> There is no universally better communications mode.

Of course, as it depends on what you consider "better". What I'm saying is that text is better for accessibility, transparency, scalability and searchability. Speech, on the other hand, makes expressing one's emotions easier. Such an advantage.

Probably the only good use for a call is to notify all the right people when some disaster happens (and really quick - seconds to minutes - decisions are required) or in case a CEO prepared a New Year's speech (at least if they honestly worked on their public speaking skill). Everything else is unnecessarily disruptive, favors quick responses when thoughtfulness is often more important, and gets incredibly messy quickly when you start adding more people.

Reminds me of this Knuth quote, "Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things."

Source: https://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~knuth/email.html

To me, this can be taken as an argument against the post's premise. Could there be any e-communication tool more asynchronous than email? (Except for notifications, which you can turn off). I am not blaming Knuth, he must really dislike distraction of any sort.

However, having lived pre- and post-Slack period, I can't say that Slack has worsened the situation. When there wasn't Slack, I had people coming to my desk to ask the question (vastly more distracting). We had meetings for tiny questions and they stretched far too long. The culture of company that is far more responsible than any single tool.

There are a variety of communication methods:

- Face to face

- Phone call

- Text message

- Slack

- Email

- Publication/memo

The rank corresponds to distraction, synchronicity, time to compose/respond, latency, and importance. Done well, Slack is a nice layer between a 10-minute email that might be forwarded on to some customer, and an "OK for demo Monday?" text message. You can include screenshots, links, spreadsheets, etc.

The problem seems to come up when it's assumed to be lower-latency and higher-priority than it is. I can take a 30-minute break every couple hours and answer a couple emails and a half dozen Slack pings, or you can interrupt me with a phone call or text that I can ignore or take and subsequently answer a quick Slack query, or you can come to my desk and bring something to my attention right now. If you think Slack is like talking to me or calling to me (or treat it like it has that real-time priority) you're going to have a significant new distraction.

> However, having lived pre- and post-Slack period ...

Perhaps I am (really) old, but pre slack is a blink of an eye ago.

Also we are, sadly, not yet post-Slack.

> ... I can't say that Slack has worsened the situation. When there wasn't Slack, I had people coming to my desk to ask the question (vastly more distracting). We had meetings for tiny questions and they stretched far too long. The culture of company that is far more responsible than any single tool.

You're describing a work environment that bewildering appears to exclude email, or the option to explain to people how and when to use email.

I have been at several places that treat email as a formal record / promise / contract. It’s “in writing.” I have never encountered people who use chat that way, even though people will sometimes search the record to refresh their memory.

First job I got out of school was with a large DoD contractor. You have very likely heard of them. I was in the enhanced engineering department, up there with the rest of the smarties, not really knowing what they saw in me.

There was one guy, Bill, who was an 'engineer emeritus' and an old Cold Warrior. The guy, no joke, was a genius. He was the only person in The West that knew about ablative nose-cone chemistry for ICBMs and the like. He's tell us junior engineers great stories. There was the one period of time where he'd get briefcases filled with empty steel bottles and was asked to analyze what was in them. No telling where they were from or if any of the stuff was radioactive or anything.

He taught me a great lesson in engineering management. He technically had an email address, but it just auto responded that he never checked it, call him [0] or walk on over for a chat. I remember thinking: "What a proud, old, stupid man. How regressive!". How dare he say these things! You have to respond to emails.

Well, just that little bit of friction was enough to stop all the nonsense in his product group. Just the act of having to dial in the numbers and wait, just the act of having to get up out of the seat and then go actually talk to Bill, it was enough to have most people sit and think about what they were going to ask him. Most of the time, they really didn't need to say anything at him. If it was actually important, then yes, you'd get up and talk to him or give him the files he needed or whatever.

When it came to our DoD work, friction ended up being a good thing actually. It made you think just a half-step more about what you were doing, if it really was anything.

[0] The phone number was for the bar down the street, where Bill spent many of his days. Honest to God. You'd call, a barback would answer, and then he'd yell at Bill to amble over and take the phone.

For a bit of context for the following, I've been working remote for years, five years in my previous company and one in the current one.

The previous company did not use Slack. We used XMPP for one-on-one IMing (we did have chat rooms but nobody used them), physical desk phones for meetings or high-bandwidth chats, and email for everything else. The current company uses Slack and Zoom for meetings.

There's a big difference between the two companies in socialization and how they feel, and I put it down to Slack. The old company mainly had one-on-one chats with anything involving more people being done through well-thought-out emails, whereas this one is pretty much exclusively chat rooms.

This has the effect that you talk about work and only work, as you don't have that dead time after you're finished talking about the thing you need to say "what's new with you?". Instead of privately talking to your coworker and being able to be sincere, you're yelling your conversation all around the room so the interaction is pretty much going to be confined to work stuff.

If you're starting now, I would wholeheartedly recommend getting your communications mostly one-on-one, and using something like Zulip for company communications, which has the feel of email but with a better UI. I also cannot recommend getting physical phones enough, they worked so much better than mobile phones or Zoom that they crossed the barrier of inconvenience, which meant we talked to each other much more often.

It's not a huge hassle to get a Zoom going, but it is some hassle, and headphones/etc are enough to dissuade us from just picking up the phone and calling each other. Desk phones (connected to our PBX) were so seamless that you pressed a button and were connected to your coworker instantly, with amazing sound quality, a microphone that picked your voice up perfectly from anywhere in the room and a physical mute button.

I should write an article about this, actually.

What stops you from using Slack for one-on-one conversations? I am remote and I would say at least 80% of my time in Slack is spent in conversations with one, maybe two, people.

Not the parent commentator but I've been in both situations described above too. If I understand what's was written, it's that if you don't have the option of group/team chat rooms in the software you're using then, it forces 1:1 chat conversations instead. I believe GP is then describing how the dynamics are different in a group-level broadcast of information, versus a one on one chat.

Nothing stops me, but affordances matter. Slack encourages group chats, so that's what keeps happening.

I've found that a good way to lower the hassle on starting a zoom is to create a permanently open meeting with your phone number as the meeting ID. Then it is as simple as pasting/typing a link into an IM conversation and clicking it, and if you aren't at your own machine, it's easy to just type it. My only complaint with zoom is the lack of a prompt before launching video. I, and most of my coworkers, have uninstalled and taped over our webcams because of it.

I had the video issue, but I disabled by selecting this option: Settings ~> Video ~> Turn off my video when joining meeting. I can still manually enable video if it's needed.

> I've found that a good way to lower the hassle on starting a zoom is to create a permanently open meeting with your phone number as the meeting ID

But in zoom you do have a personal meeting ID, isn't what your describing just replacing that?

> My only complaint with zoom is the lack of a prompt before launching video.

As another commenter said, you can disable auto joining video and audio in the settings.

I do think it should be turned off by default though.

You do get a personal meeting ID, but most people already have their phone number memorized. Being able to just instantly start a meeting from anywhere comes in handy.

Agreed on the default video thing. I'm in no rush to reactivate my camera though, and "Surprise! You are on camera!" isn't something I give software a do-over on.

Yeah I completely agree.

That's a good workaround, but Polycoms are still much better than mobiles/computers (a bit obviously, since they're purpose-built for speaking). I'll definitely try your advice now that we use Zoom, though, thank you!

I use Zoom for a project, I don't start calls myself but there seems to be an option to have video disabled by default.

Even though I know I'm only addressing part of the issue you describe, we've been using Donut (https://www.donut.com/) and it has had a very positive effect on enabling non-work-based communication amongst (some) team members.

That's an interesting idea, thank you!

Deep work? We live in a world of open offices, daily standups, max-four-hour JIRA tickets and pair/mob programming. The people in charge don't believe that "deep work" even means anything.

You really can get deep work done in pair and mob programming, especially when trained in it.

Consider https://cycle-gap.blogspot.com/2007/09/extreme-pair-programm... as an example of how it can look. Mind you, I don't recommend 10 hour sessions ever, much less to begin.

I find it odd to believe that intense, deep work can only happen in solo.

This is true, but most if not all of these tasks don't require Deep Work. Cal Newport is an academic. It takes a lot of thought and a distraction free environment to write papers about CS Theory.

Most people in these environments usually know how to write software. Most of the software written isn't too complicated and doesn't require Deep Work. The design of these systems requires more thought, but the implementation should be fairly straightforward once you have a plan.

> Most of the software written isn't too complicated and doesn't require Deep Work

There's a self-fulfilling prophecy for you. We assume a priori that developing software doesn't require much thought, so we'll skimp on environmental factors that contribute to actual thought and see what programming we can get out of it. And lo and behold, if you ignore the usability problems, security problems, out-of-control memory problems and the necessity of an army of testers to make up for the fact that nobody actually understands the code, the resulting software kind-of sort-of meets the requirements so we were right, software CAN be reliably produced with zero concentration in an all-interruptions, all-the-time environment!

i love you

“Group chat is like being in an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.”

That. So true.

Try Zulip. All meetings have an agenda!


Long Version: In Zulip, each and every conversation in a channel has a topic. So for catching up one don't have to go through all messages in a channel. Instead just go through the topic names and open the topics only you are interested in catching up. Since each conversation can have a topic you can reply back to conversations even after days as well as can have multiple productive conversations in one channel at same time!


Or continue using slack, but correctly.

We dont have offtopic in ours. We do have a #random chat, but its very infrequently used. Instead of zulips revolutionary tags, just use the slack threads.

Zulip wont save you if you're drowning in Slack messages.

We use Slack in a similar manner and the signal to noise ratio is extremely high. Some of our channels are key components of workflows. It's extremely easy to seek help or share information like links or code snippets. We're also very responsive, since it's always running on our workstations, laptops and phones. We'd probably frown on anyone treating it like a social media platform, though we do use it to let off steam once in a while.

Zulip does save you from drowning in messages! Instead of going through all the messages, one just have to go through Topics and consume messages only from topics they are interested in. This is so much efficient compared to a chat system without topics :)

Slack also has channels.

Topics are not the same as channels. In Zulip each conversation in a channel would have a topic. A channel would be a collection of topics. You can ignore the topics you are not interested in and focus on topics that are relevant. So for catching up all you need to do is go through the topics in a channel instead of going through all the messages.


Just the same as I can ignore threads in Slack which I have no interest in.

Its not the tool which break communication, its people not following rules. If people follow the "Use threads at all times" rule, slack is totally working fine. If people dont use it as their social media platform or keep their random thoughts to #random, there's no problem. It feels a bit tone-deaf to promote your tool in a thread about unproductivity caused by chat tools.

> It feels a bit tone-deaf to promote your tool in a thread about unproductivity caused by chat tools.

The entire article was written to promote their tool Nuclino.

>> All of our team's work (including the writing of this article) happens in Nuclino, and even though it's a real-time collaboration tool, most of it happens asynchronously. Without the expectations of an immediate response, our team is free to focus on our work, reconnecting later to respond.

I don't see any reason why one can't suggest an alternative product that solves the issues of synchronous chat apps just like the one mentioned in the Article. Zulip is an asynchronous tool just like Nuclino.

> Its not the tool which break communication, its people not following rules. If people follow the "Use threads at all times" rule, slack is totally working fine.

Eaxctly! People don't follow rules. Thats why Slack threads are hardly useful. On the other hand in Zulip people always create a new topic for a new conversation since that's how the tool is designed!

In my experience, Slack threads are absolutely horrible. I tend to miss that there's discussion on a thread for hours because it's almost "out of band" to the rest of the communication.

What's the difference between a Zulip topic and a Slack channel? Are topics inside a channel?

Yup. Zulip has channels just like Slack. A channel is comprised of topics. When someone want to start a conversation they create a new topic. If they want to just join an existing conversation they reply back to the existing topic.

You can see a live demo by visiting our community server at https://chat.zulip.org/

Thanks! I guess I should have bothered to read your other reply but didn't notice it :)

I don't get it. Do people open up slack, and then sit there, staring at Slack? Sitting in a group chat, looking at everything that happens, reading everything that happens? I'm honestly curious. Do you watch other people get work done? Maybe in yours, people just chat about weird things all the time?

I just don't get it. Slack just sits there in the dock, and I don't need to keep the window open to have it remain useful. Maybe someone can shed some light on how "Group chat is like being in an all-day meeting?" I honestly don't get it.

I think it's a voyeuristic tendency of some people to watch other people work. You can join a few dozen Slack channels, and peek in on them constantly, similar to twitter or reddit.

Maybe a desire to find drama? Vs focus on your own "boring" problem. The funny thing is, it can make you feel productive!

If that's true, then it's in no way Slack that is the problem. I can't help but think there has to be something more.

Slack is an enabler, making it easier. Same as any social media.

This is exactly why I don't use it. It's pretty much treated as synchronous communication. Sure, you can step away and ignore dialog for awhile to concentrate and do work, but people expect you to read back through what you missed and don't want to repeat discussions.

A few people tried to push it on my team when it started growing in popularity and immediately I noticed how much of a time sink it was. No thank you, I have enough hurdles to delivery, I don't need additional artificial hurdles I have some say in.

Yup, I just don't participate. I miss out on some things but it's worth it for avoiding the distraction IMO. If anyone needs me they can email, Skype or god forbid speak to me in person.

Except for the fact that you don't have to be there.

Yeah, and if someone really does need your input on something they'll pull you in for a few minutes. Or many minutes.

But this isn't a bad thing.

I don't understand. Why do you allow Slack to interrupt you? Turn off all notifications except the unread messages count badge and check it when it overflows.

Easy as ABC.

I run like 6 different messaging platforms, but none is allowed to interrupt me. If you can't restrain yourself from checking messages constantly, you have a problem not the medium.

I think there's a legitimate FOMO involved with not quickly reading messages. I say legitimate because it's not just missing out on inconsequential chatter. Slack is a business tool and business decisions get make over slack. The folks that read every messages and respond quickly are therefore the ones that get to contribute the most to decisions.

When waiting too long to respond, the conversation has already changed and it's too late to contribute. And Slack's threads don't solve that problem IMHO.

>I think there's a legitimate FOMO involved with not quickly reading messages.

Call me rigid, but isn't the ability to overcome this kind of silly stuff exactly what separates well-adjusted adults from everyone else?

When you catch yourself doing things out of FOMO, take your dispositions and fix it. In this case: close the app, or configure the alerts.

I'm sometimes alarmed by how people seem to have zero self-knowledge and appear to run on auto-pilot, guided by base impulses.

You're missing the key modifier: legitimate. It's not an irrational fear of missing out; it is a very real concern about a culture where being less responsive on Slack reduces your influence on key business decisions. "Close the app" is only good advice if you both want to and can afford to opt-out of any involvement in those decisions.

Agreed. There are times I only join conference calls to ensure that no work gets assigned to me without me hearing about it first, or that I have the ability to chime in as work is being assigned. I implemented this policy when it became clear that work was being assigned to me (imo incorrectly) because I wasn't there to say no.

If decisions are being made over Slack, I have to be involved or suddenly I may find myself responsible for something I have no control over. Simply because I was not there to let people know who actually is responsible.

That's a good point. I guess I'm luckier than many in this respect.

I can't even imagine working in such an organization and staying sane.

That’s by design. We live in a culture that treats everyone like children because adults are too difficult to manage and manipulate.

You are absolutely correct. The real issue is a cultural one not one based on tools. At some companies, employees expect 10 second response times to all questions. This is so that they can be more efficient. But that efficiency comes at the cost of the answerer's efficiency. If all people just have Slack "off" all day, doesn't that largely defeat the purpose? Why not just use something else? (Not making a judgment on whether Slack is good or bad, it is what it is)

It’s not that easy. Nobody is talking about app settings here. It’s about how companies essentially delegate communication preferences and etiquette to Slack without much discussion.

> Turn off all notifications except the unread messages count badge and check it when it overflows.

...then keep a straight face while your super Agile manager berates you in front of the entire team because you're hard to communicate with, we have Slack for a reason.

Not everyone has the choice to not allow Slack to interrupt you. Some organizations mandate this sort of communication, disruptive though it may be.

Edit: just to clarify, I'm not in this situation :-D. But I've seen it happening.

If your nature of work is such that you need to be available then I get that your manager would berate you. It might not be what someone likes to do but for some it is better to be available to the team than to isolate themselves and work.

Then turn on notifications for when you are @mentioned, or specific important channels. If someone really wants to get your attention, they can. The noise is filtered out and doesn't reach you unless you reach for it.

I understand the expectation of having the application open on your workstation while you're at the office, but having notifications enables on your personal phone is not sane.

> Slack Is Not Where 'Deep Work' Happens

Sure, but that's not the point, it is not even where "work" happens. Slack can be useful as a communication tool. There is a time for work and a time for communication. Just as you don't answer the phone when you want to do serious work. Likewise, meetings are a waste of time, except when meeting face to face is useful. Communication is super important. After all, without communication, there is no work. Tools designed to enhance communication impede it when used as surrogate management. If Slack must be open at all times, it turns into a distraction.

I keep slack open for 20 minutes a day max, mostly in breaks between real work. I don't feel like I miss much.

I'm not a fan of Slack in particular just because it's a closed-source, proprietary, walled-garden. But that aside, while it is true that "Chat / IM apps are not where 'deep work' happens", that doesn't mean that chat / IM isn't valuable. You just have to recognize it for what it is, and figure out how to tap into the value that it represents.

If that means turning it all off at certain times to support "deep work" then so be it. The question, in my mind, is how to find the optimal balance between synchronous, interrupt-driven communication and asynchronous communication. I'm not sure anybody has figured out the perfect answer for that yet.

The problem is, people take offense at others turning it off. How do you deal with the social pressure to be instantly available and interruptable at all times?

The problem is, people take offense at others turning it off. How do you deal with the social pressure to be instantly available and interruptable at all times?

Hand them a copy of Deep Work?

Also, don't just turn it off... announce to the group "Hey guys, I'm going offline to do deep work for the next 3 hours. Only interrupt me if the building is on fire, OK?" or something like that. Set a status or "away message" that says "offline for focused deep work right now. Interrupt only for absolute emergencies." or something similar.

Sure, technically it can be done. Socially, though... we have a hard time saying no to people. That's a lot to overcome. We have tools for interruption and social inhibitions against not using them.

Agreed. That's why I find it easier if you announce ahead of time, "hey guys, I'm going offline for a while to focus on $SOME_SPECIFIC_THING". At least with the places I've worked, and the cultures I've worked in, I've found that people (usually) respect that.

That's a culture problem, not a Slack problem. I've interacted with people who expect me to read E-Mails within 30 minutes during off-work hours too. That doesn't mean E-Mails are inherently distracting.

It's not just Slack. It's our phones! Notifications are distraction engines.

At the beginning of March, I went cold turkey on most social media (I still allow myself HN and a guitar player's forum), and completely cold turkey on using my phone for these things - I have to use an actual computer. I put Kindle where Facebook used to be on my phone, and always have a book on it that can be read in small bites for those "OMG I AM BORED FOR TWO MINUTES" moments, and I carry a Kindle Paperwhite with longer-form reading for lunchtime and such.

My brain feels amazingly different. I'm more aware and happier. I'm getting more work done. My stress levels are way down. My book-reading rate has at least tripled.

This article refers a lot to Cal Newport's excellent Deep Work, but I wish it also referred to his more recent Digital Minimalism, which is full of useful advice for limiting the ways social media and instant messaging undermine our productivity and happiness.

The thing that I really miss about old Windows Phone is the lack of notifications. They're almost never that time critical. Having the same info on a live tile was so much better. The info streams were properly segregated and I had control over their prioritization through tile layout: important stuff at near the top, shown in a wide tile; stupid stuff near the bottom, in a small tile.

I've done the same - replace social media with Kindle. It's so good.

And lock screen notifications are off for all apps. I only see a notification badge when I decide to pick up and unlock my phone.

We have a remote team and have recently implemented a rule/trial of no slack after 10am until 4pm - so everyone can organise, everyone has enough work to do during their 6 hrs to continue if the need to ask a question then have the afternoon to answer questions/move forward on any blockers from their ‘time out’

Early days but seems to be improving ‘distractability’

Now to contend with "well, can't get an answer so I'm blocked until 4pm!" In the corporate environment I'm in, this is a fabulous excuse used by many teams from around the world. Works for email as well.

If hard blockages are legitimately happening on a regular basis, being able to ping other people is not a solution to the actual organizational problem, it's just a band-aid.

Then work on something else.

Well we’re a small team so that’s easier, and like I said it’s a trial. So we shall see!

I worked at a startup where we were always having a hard time finding documents and conversations. Almost every other week we would try or consider adding another place to store documents as a solution for this problem.

I saw from the beginning that this made no sense at all, that adding a new sharing service could only make the problem worse but I could only slow this trend down.

A real solution would involve an intelligent aggregator that sucks it down from those sources and imposes some structure on it together with you.

For instance the python docs have everything you need to know about Python, Google and stack overflow are wrong at least half the time. So I build trails over the documents that get me to reference materials i need in 1 or 2 clicks.

Control of document sharing is also a big thing in Biz.

The star salesperson was trained as a lawyer. Ask him how to share a document and he will tell you to do it the same way my accountant does it. He doesn't mind it when I show him something in Github because he knows familiarity with Github gets him far in credibility with everybody.

Elsewhere in the business people use Google Docs and also collaborate with the hugest businesses on Earth. People at those businesses might not believe Google Docs is secure and it is not good for the relationship when somebody shares a Google Doc in Google.

I always had the feeling there are two ways to solve this: either you go full centralized and have ONE hub were everything important is stored and archived, or you store it right with the work (e.g. github issues, per project wiki, or in a folder directly in the project).

What doesn't work is a in-between-solution where you have >5 places each with its own outdated fragments of nothingness. This means whenever you decide on something you just will have to bite the bullet and use a meaningful amount of time to get everything into the new system. When the new system works, it people are more likely to honor it than contributing into something they feel is broken and somehow meaningless.

Slack/Teams/etc. are the bane of my work existence. I will only open them when I absolutely need to. The distraction is too high and the utility is too low for it to be worth using.

When I read these kind of pieces I wonder if people know that just because your company has Slack, that doesn't mean they expect you to read everything in it.

Company wide/support channels, your basically at liberty to completely ignore these. Some people crack the odd joke in here, camaraderie in a team is nice, but don't feel its compulsory. I mute them, though they're are great places to be able to search!

The channel for your immediate team/specific projects, your not obliged to monitor this but it'd probably be helpful for the team if you checked in twice a day or so, you might be able to guide or unblock a teammate with knowledge they don't know you have.

And direct messages. Again, its up to your to triage these, if its unimportant just mark unread and come back later.

The important point of slack is that communication is open, which brings network effects, I cant count the number of times I've stumbled on information that's been directly helpful to me. However, just like any other open information portal, most of it isn't directed at you, so don't worry about it.

But, the whole "checking in on a channel" thing is exactly the problem. It creates a nonsense or a "missing out" feeling for the team. It is too synchronous.

So, I think the crux here, is that the below, in my opinion, is a purely perceived pressure. You shoulden't feel pressured to read everything in Slack.

> Reduced pressure to read everything. Let’s face it, it’s not practical or necessary to keep up with every conversation. The aggregated timeline in Level lets you subscribe to channels and sip from the firehose of conversations without pressuring you to “catch up” on all unreads.

The fear of missing something is real. I have seen decisions taken in Slack by two or three of the four or five people who should have been involved. I'm not saying this is caused by Slack -- the problem is absolutely with the people who thought it was okay to act on such a decision. But I do think it's facilitated; the people involved seem to subconsciously think that because they're discussing in a public channel where the other people are "present" -- even though they're not active -- that everyone's informed. Whereas if they'd just had a hallway face-to-face, someone would have said, "Hey, we really need to check with Laura and Ed about this too".

They should cc you so you get a notification. Or talk to you on person.

They shouldn't assume everyone will read every message. If it's important, they should make sure you definitely saw it.

If you ever feel like you missed and important decision, go and politely tell them to always get you involved.

I'm wondering if team size is what makes slack such a pain for many posters. Slack is great for my 8 person remote company. I keep notifications off for channels that aren't directly related to my development responsibilities, but I value having access to them for review at the end of the day so I'm aware of what is happening elsewhere. If I need a long stretch of uninterrupted development time, I turn on Do Not Disturb and everyone knows not to override this unless there is an emergency.

"Deep Work" as outlined by Cal Newport was not collaborative at all. It was an individual deep dive on a specific topic, with deep thinking and a lot of time.

Of course Slack is not where Deep Work happens, more than the telephone is where Deep Work happens.

Now, is [Insert persistent group chat software] where meaningful work can happen as a team? Absolutely. Lots of things have gotten resolved, rubber ducked, fixed, etc in those channels especially for my remote teams.

But nobody expects to get "Deep Work" done there.

When I joined the startup I work at currently I had one key criteria: no Slack. We first tried Zulip, but the interface is a mess and everyone hated it. We've since switched to Twist and it is brilliant. The threaded model is genuinely useful for ongoing discussions, and then group chat for small messages. But the key effect is this: by being simple and utilitarian, people only use it for utility. No endless gif streams, no all day shit chat. It's great.

Messaging is genuinely useful for a productive org, Slack doesn't event come close to providing this. As far as a better interface for IRC goes, it's good for that, the various industry groups I'm in are good, but for work? It's a tire fire.

Slack only works for companies where the nature of their employees' work actually requires team communication that will benefit the organizations.

Like everything in life, it's always a trade off. You may gain scores for team work but will sacrifice individual creativity. Deep creative tasks always require a full strength of focus and that state is only attainable once we allow our mind some time to completely "dial in". You simply cannot switch from 0 to 100 and be in the zone within the span of just a few minutes.

When you are using Slack or any social media communication platforms, your brain must allocate cognitive resource to manage your ego because you do care about what other people think of your opinions. Since the pool of our cognitive resource is limited, we will have less remaining that can be dedicated to other real creative tasks.

On top of that, you now have a distraction source where you constantly have to switch attention to. This may condition your brain over time and cause it to lose the ability to "dial in".

Some companies were eager to force employees into using these tools while it didn't really provide any real tangible benefits, and may in fact even be destructive. Within a company only some departments should use it but some definitely shouldn't. It's the same reason why open office concept may work for certain organizations but not for all.

I think the Slack default of "Notify me on every new message" is the absolute worst thing. Change it to "Notify me on direct messages and mentions only". I'm not sure why anyone thinks this is a reasonable default, but I've seen it with other chat applications too -- Hipchat was the same, IIRC.

I don't monitor Slack (though everything I say here applies to any 'chat' app). It can interrupt me, but only when people @-mention me, and then at least there's a reason. Sometimes I even ignore those for a while until I'm able to shift focus, but that takes some discipline. If you don't have the discipline, close Slack (or set to DND) for a few hours while you work on something.

What's the alternative to Slack -- Email? That's a million times worse, in every way. It's a necessary email when talking externally, but would ban it in a heartbeat for internal comms, if I had my way. In my view, every every email breaks down into three categories that are better served by another means of communication:

* A task that needs to be completed == A ticket

* Information to be shared to a group of people == Internal CMS posting (eg, wiki)

* A discussion about something (which will usually lead to one of the above) == A conversation in Slack (asynchronous, equivalent to email) or a meeting (synchronous, if decision needs to be made quickly, and/or everyone is discussing in real-time anyway)

The only thing e-mail is actually useful for is notifications from systems you don't monitor/use frequently and that can't notify via Slack, and communicating with people externally.

Likely the people interrupted by Slack messages (assuming they don't use the brain-dead default of 'notify on all messages') are also currently interrupted by every e-mail or phone call that comes in, so I'm not really sure you can blame a lack of focus on Slack.

It is a truth universally acknowledged among managerial types, that given enough collaboration, all work becomes shallow. To that end, the business will increase the number of collaborative tools and the expectation of their use, because deep work presents a problem. It is a risk incurred by the business. Creative effort by an individual is not auditable, there's no paper trail. No actionable data -- data that would allow the business to verify each step of the process and estimate time and cost to completion -- is produced other than the creative output itself. The only person qualified to assess whether deep creative work by an individual is on track, on time, and under budget is the individual themself and they cannot be trusted! "Beware the guy in a room."

So the deep parts of the work are now the responsibility of the team, and in order to do that, the team needs to stay in constant communication. Yes, it's slower and less efficient, but the business values reliability and accountability at the expense of some efficiency.

This is why you don't get an office or even a desk -- you get about one linear meter of bench on which to set up your MacBook. This is why availability on Slack is paramount. This is why you're responsible for attending standup, planning, retro, grooming, Three Amigos, and whatever parking-lot meetings your PM has called throughout the week in addition to all the work you've committed to this sprint. This is why "sprints" in the first place.

If you work for corporate, odds are you've signed up to join a hivemind, with all that entails.

I've worked at a company that did the sprints, planning, retro, Three Amigos etc.

So glad we don't do any of that at my new company! And it turns out we ship stuff much faster.

Coincidentally, I was just listening a podcast episode with the creator of Level (https://level.app/), which was built to fix exactly all these issues mentioned in the article. I agree 100% with this - the culture of ASAP and the FOMO that's created if you're not always on Slack, prevents one from doing deep, meaningful work. I'm really looking forward to trying out Level.

We're currently using Level now and it's definitely different from Slack. I think the biggest issue we have with it at this point is that it's still in active development.

It's also missing a lot of things that you take for granted with Slack. Things like auto-link expansion and third-party integrations of any kind.

Guess I get downvoted to hell but I won't care and share my thoughts:

Slack is for most employees a way to socialize, to get connected, to be not alone because employees are actual lonesome creatures looking for community, looking for something to belong to. Heck, companies are for employees the same. They want to to find friends, to get laid, to network because they can't outside of their free-lunch-corp. If they had to work in the basement in a shitty 3-people-firm, alone, they would have run away the first day.

I haven't been employed for a long, long time, so my view on employees is quite negative and opinionated: employees except the sales ones are in terms of social interactions, networking, finding friends compared to non-employees way underdeveloped (to use a polite term). Don't confuse hanging around with peers in a company being social. Most wouldn't be able to find close peers outside of their company and comfort zone.

Hence, they need Slack so urgently, so they can chat, plan boring get-togethers and like each others messages with crappy emojis.

Interesting take on it. For me Slack always felt like something for people who, well, are kinda bored.. just like it was made to slack around – you get the idea.

I always found emails more productive for exactly that reason – you don't get so many pointless jokes and people have to set priorities whom to write what thing.

And if you really wanna have human interaction, just go there, make a 5 minute coffee break with them, have a little chat and be on your way. Or well, call, write them on the messenger of your choice, something like that.

I have to minimize Slack throughout the day in order to get work done, and I try to only pay attention to it when I hear the alert noise when someone @'s me, which unfortunately I mis-hear all the time.

My brain thinks it hears that alert noise beneath the music I have playing, or if I go to the other room it thinks it hears it from afar, so I run back to my desk to see if someone is messaging me.

I hate that I have been conditioned this way, but I don't foresee it changing in my workplace any time soon. Some people I work with are on Slack all day chatting, and I really question if they are ever doing anything else.

Can't you disable the sound, so that you know that when you think you hear it, it's not meant for you?

Is it feasible for you to disable notifications?

"you could try the monastic approach, ditching the city for a gig as a caretaker at an isolated hotel" - you can read "The Shining" to see how that may turn out...

Slack makes me miss Discord. Slack has taken a hard stance on how company culture should dictate it's use and doesn't give you the options to customize it away from their own viewpoint at all. I use Slack on a massive 40k person server (and probably 10 other servers) and it's absolutely terrible in this environment, as a non-admin you have no self support mechanisms (blocking DMs, muting users, etc). I really wish FOSS projects would stop using Slack, if the community grows to be large it's untenable and requires a ton of moderation time. I don't really want to go back to IRC but Slack isn't a good solution for them. There are so many options and features they could add that could be controlled by admins but they refuse to add them.


* You can sort channels and even put them into folders (Engineering, HR) * You can choose who to accept DMs from * You can block/mute users

There's probably a ton of other things I'm not aware of. I rarely use Discord, but every time that I do I leave wishing companies I worked at used that instead.

It's weird how Discord is better at being Slack than Slack is, in addition to everything else Discord does.

I wonder if Discord could make a business-oriented fork without the integrated game store and so forth.

This article seems to be unaware that there are many jobs which exist solely for doing shallow work. I'd say for most "knowledge work" or "white collar" jobs shallow work is the point. A job that demands deep work consistently is pretty rare (see: Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber). In that respect, Slack is a perfect fit for most employees.

The tragedy of slack is that it was supposed to save us from email. The irony is that email itself was never the problem, as always it was people & culture.

I will go further. None of the most popular top tools are promoting the best mode of whatever they are doing. And most of it has to do with realtime and notifications being abused in the interest of profit by centralized corporations that want to lock people into their platform and get them to "engage" with it.

Slack for work - not the best for actually writing useful messages, more like <blah><return> <blah><return> and working people see ping ping ping, go back in and respond, and on it goes.

Twitter for news - not the best for actually having productive discussions, more like <shout><announce><snipe><war> and most people see ping ping ping, and go back in and like/retweet to their 5 followers.

Facebook for social - not the best for actually getting together (i.e. social life), more like <post cat video><post wedding photo><post political meme><post outrage> and lonely people sit at home and see ping ping ping, and go back in and respond, and on it goes.

By now many of you know that I have spent the last 7 years working on a solution. The problem is that in order to build anything people will want to use, you need to spend at least half a million dollars on a realtime platform that can do stuff. If you want to see the problems and solutions, check out the videos on these pages:



https://qbix.com/blog (latest post)

The mental and logistical acrobatics being proposed by users on this comment section only shows one thing about Slack (and any other app that is built on the optimization of an "engagement" metric): If you have to go that far to prevent something from easily taking all your attention and time, wouldn't you argue that it is, in fact, its design which is flawed, and not its users?

This is a big reason behind why I created https://ourtimetothink.com - a tool for teams on Slack to manage their DND status for scheduled blocks of time each day so they can get some deep work done

I like email more than Slack for asynchrounous communication, Signal more than Slack for one-on-one or small group and IRC better than Slack for bigger groups or topic based conversations.

I tried to like it. I am a young person for whom IRC and Email seem very oldfashioned. But hey, it works and doesn't get me distracted.

The only thing that's made large discussion platforms useful to me is ruthless blocking of noise. As one of my more popular G+ posts[1] said; "This One Trick Will Revolutionize Your Use of Social Media: Block fuckwits."[2]

The problem with entepriise tools, both technical capabilities and organisational contexts, is that this is often neither supported nor acceptable.

Everyone does not have to have full interrupt access to everyone else.




1. Thank you, Internet Archive.

2. Based on my Google Data Takeout, about 3,000 blocked profiles. I'll miss those.

The only time I ever see positive views on Slack here is when Microsoft Teams is brought up :D

It's because HN is a stereotypical echo chamber where the correct opinion right now that fits the stereotype is to hate Slack.

That added nothing to the conversation. HN may have a uniformity of opinion, because a large fraction of effective people in Software don't like something. That would be worth talking about. Ad Hominem attacks are pointless.

While his/her comment may have been narrowly directed and could even be bordering trolling/flame-baiting, it made me think about how the structure of discussion groups in general could encourage echo chambers. His/her comment is a case-in-point as it's being downvoted.

I tend to believe discussion groups with comment voting systems (e.g., Reddit, Digg years ago) tend to further or more quickly close communication feedback loops that help lead to echo chambers: "what we like, what don't we like." People who want to actively engage will be more quickly discouraged if their perspectives differ and are quickly shunned, even if they're potentially valid. Those who remain will be conditioned with positive reinforcement when they repeat the status quo ("rewarded" with up-votes from peers).

Comment voting systems tend to suppress perspectives that challenge the status quo in general (they can also promote challenges, though anecdotally, I observe this far less). Even without voting systems though, peer pressure in discussions shapes the discussions in a feedback loop that, in my opinion, leads to echo chambers of perspectives.

Obviously the tradeoff is: what's the alternative? True garbage is posted that should be removed (spam, direct personal attacks, etc.). Moderator and editor systems shape discussions to their bias vs. a more distributed voting approach biases towards the status quo. Another option is to allow any perspective a perpetual voice (false negative spam and uncivil discussion emerges) which requires filtering/ignoring on a per participant/client basis (not good at promoting return visitors who want quality discussions), but this does allow exposure to new and differing perspectives.

I'm not sure what the best solution is. As you pointed out, and I agree entirely with you, his/her comment certainly could have been presented better and didn't need to attack HN directly. At the very least, for me, it illustrates frustration as a symptom of a potentially systematic problem.

Sometimes, I do wonder if "trolling" and "flamebaiting" often regarded as negative behaviors, are in reality healthy for discussion groups. They encourage a never ending revaluation (QA/QC, CD even) of ideologies adopted by the status quo and foster a competitive behavior of ideas using emotion for drive and momentum. I've read some of the best in-depth and even enlightening discussions spun out from such comments, once you get past initially emotionally fueled personal attacks. To be fair, I've also observed some of the most worthless volleyball of personal attacks. I suggest those disagreements and the emotional fuel help us push away complacency and strive for improvement instead of avoiding challenges. Without any emotion, few have desire to bpther exploring some ideas. Emotion isn't required to have a progressive discussion, but it seems to me to help light fires and engage more ideas, especially if done tastefully.

Slack's design encourages water-cooler back and forth ad nauseam. One of my clients uses it, and because I now track nearly all my working time, I know exactly how much money they waste because I'm on slack. In fact they waste even more than I charge them, because there are usually at least 2 more people bullshitting on slack pretty much continuously. Something that would be solved in 5 minutes through email or chat turns into a 30-40 minute clusterfuck and nothing gets solved.

Fascinating article and discussion.

I'm not sure I completely agree with the article's premise, but what's important here is the debate, rather than the article's premise or conclusions.

This discussion would be broadened by the question: "With respect to the tools that a company mandates you use (and this includes software, like Slack) -- do those tools control you, or do you control them, and do they make you more productive or less productive, and in what scenarios?"

Maybe that's a separate discussion however...

This is exactly why we switched to Twist. Slack is fun but toxic. Working in an open office is bad enough but at least you can use noise canceling headphones. No such remedy for Slack.

This is a cultural problem. You can close Slack. You can check it every couple hours and catch up. You can turn off notifications. If your management has problems with this, that is a problem with their culture, not the tool.

We have channels where discussions will spread over multiple days because there simply is no expectation that Slack is real-time.

Indeed. There are 80+ channels in my workplace of 20 people. Most people are subscribed to just a few relevant to their current projects and there is zero expectation that a non direct message will be read by subscribers until they are next focused on the project. It serves a semi public record of what’s going on and a place for questions, notifications of important updates. It makes it easier for me to focus on work not harder since I can drop out for hours or days and trust that I can come back and be well informed.

We have around 6k channels for our 1500 employees. I have around 60 I'm in that I need to pay some level of attention to or that I'll get Facebook defriend shamed for leaving. Conversations happen instantly and at odd hours and decisions are made and then scrolled past. Each team I work with has at least 3 channels, public, private, oncall/cr. Often an additional one per micro service. It's a mess.

Nah, it's just a bad product that demands too much attention by design.

What do you mean by "demands"? You can react to a notification or not. You can reduce the notifications. Slack itself doesn't force you to do anything.

I think the equivalent is snoozing notifications. If it is important people can "notify anyway" -- however, your world culture needs to be OK with that.

Wish we could as well, but I don't see our management giving up Slack any time soon. "So connected! So collaborative!" Ugh.

I’d rather close Slack, or snooze notifications, than wear headphones all day.

Isn't Twist just threaded email?

Experiment for slack lovers: Start talking about something in a channel with ~20 people. Have another use try to start another conversation in the same channel. This is a common occurrence. The other users either have to spam the channel or wait until your topic is complete, which could never be!

What happens? Garbage. Chat is not how work gets done. Or how knowledge is transferred and, most importantly, retained.

There are a few ways of dealing with this that I've seen. On IRC, when a direct back-and-forth starts, etiquette is to name the other party specifically at the start of each line. Every client I've used will highlight those lines where your name is mentioned, making it easier to pick out your thread of conversation. The text is typically packed in pretty tight as well, which makes this more feasible in busy channels since you're not likely to have to scroll. Some clients also have a separate UI section for messages that target you, making it even easier to follow.

In Slack, the chat contents are shown in a less dense way (more whitespace & separation, big user icons,) but they found a solution that seems to work pretty well, which is the 'thread' feature. (This is pretty recent AFAIK.) Threads stay collapsed for people who aren't participating and pop out for people who want to.

While they are pretty much inevitable, multiple orthogonal conversations happening in a channel might also sometimes be a call for reorganization or sidebar channels/group chats.

As an aside, one of my favorite experiences relating to chat is having multiple concurrent conversations with the same person or people, on different topics, in their respective channels. It highlights how bizarre the rapid context-switching pattern you fall into with chat applications is.

I close Slack and focus on coding. I take short breaks from coding every 1-2 hours, and check Slack.

Replying to someone 2 hours later has never been an issue.

If it's urgent, people drop by my desk.

Definitely don't have slack on my phone, and when Slack is closed, I don't get any kind of notifications.

Being able to focus is important. In the end it matters I deliver on the project, not that I reply to every question immediately.

I like Nuclino slot but I don't think it replaces Slack very well. At the end of the day you need a synchronous ping.

I went on to favorite this one and saw that my last time favorite was this:https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12419649

I think it tells me something about a persistent problem, curiosity or struggle.

how about no notifications for messages unless the sender specifically says "send notification"?

Slack is not a good product fit for every company . To be honest I think it can work for organizations under 20 people because startups were targeted first . If you want something that can scale then use discord or email/IM etc..

How about permanent "Do not disturb"?

People can still override it if they have to and you can catch up with all the static whenever it suits you.

I love it when people use that terrible "backtrack" comic.

Neither is Hacker News.

I'm not required to use HN by my job. I am required to be available on slack.

Slack is fine if you turn off essentially all notifications. The same is true of email.

Any sort of notification / alert is disruptive to deep (real) work. If it's urgent, send me a text. Or, god forbid, a phone call.

I leave notifications on. But for christ sakes -- logout of the Slack app when you want to focus. I logout for long periods and then open it back up when I want to see what the rest of the team has going on.

Disclaimer: I work for Webex Teams, another collab tool.

I think a lot of this depends a lot more on the expectations of the whole group. This needs to be defined at an org level and well understood by everyone. It's not so much the tool as how it's used.

There is now a continuum of interactions:

- FYIs that are put out in a topical chat. You get to those when you have a moment, when you go through your unread rooms to catch up. Same for topics that you are only peripherally following. Time is not of the essence there. Zero interruption here and no expectation for you to be always listening.

- Topical chats where you are @-mentionned. This is where a conversation that you're not actively following suddenly took a turn where your input is sollicited. But since you see the topic of the room, you are in control about whether it's worth an interruption. The group's expectation is that the person that was mentionned will join the conversation IF they are not in the middle of something (assuming the topic is not alarmist).

- New rooms that got created around a topic or you getting added to an existing room. Basically it's similar to the above, where you're getting dragged into a conversation.

- 1:1 chats with specific requests. Again, it depends who it's from, you triage based on origin. But the expectation is already managed at our group level.

In all these modes, you can chose to accept the interruption or defer it. The deeper your work, the more likely you can defer it. We can operate like this because we have the nuclear option we can always use when it's actually needed: PagerDuty. This brings a few benefits: the person paging a team or another individual is aware that they are putting a burden of urgency and there's a recorded audit log of that page. So it's not used lightly.

Once you've accepted the interruption though, you still get to control its modality.

- Very often, a "hey, quick question" can turn into something WAY larger than the requester could imagine. That's when we point them to creating a Jira ticket, effectively punting a synchronous interruption into an asynchronous unit of work. Or you can tell the requester to schedule a meeting to work more deeply on that. (Related topic: ALWAYS have at least one day where it is forbidden to schedule meetings, accros the whole org.)

- If the request is about an urgent matter, we just do an instant video meeting within Webex Teams. That converts long drawn out chats into quick visual meetings where the nuances are better expressed. Because in a long chat, the mind is already interrupted, so having to wait for typing and confirming nuance ends up taking a lot of time.

"captain obvious called"

the name gives you a clue...

... although i have to wonder about the sanity of companies willing to pay for viewing their own messages past 10k on a threaded messaging app, one level above to-dos-mvp and 2 above hello world... the css is nice, i guess....

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