How Slack Harms Projects

Presently, real-time communication tools such as Slack are very popular in business environments. However, use of these tools creates a culture that harms projects. It negatively impacts planning accuracy, implementation quality, product refinements, and design quality. I will tell you about the many issues created by real-time messaging in workplaces, and how to remedy your work culture.

A group of people, surrounded by tons of messages.

Where do real-time communication tools make sense?

  • For social groups
  • For entertainment
  • For people providing real-time support to customers

Where are real-time communication tools harmful?

  • For information workers
  • For business executives
  • For project workers

What harm is caused by real-time chat tools?

They promote a false sense of urgency

The cultural expectation for real-time messages is that recipients need to respond to them in a timely fashion. Not responding to a message quickly is considered a major failing. Not responding to a message directed at you in a group channel immediately is considered to be a grave sin.

The net impact of this is that it creates unhealthy psychological stress. Every worker who might receive a message must ensure that they are watching their messaging application continually, even when at lunch, or away with the family. Every issue or question, no matter how trivial, is effectively as critical as a house on fire. Not being responsive can be disastrous for one’s career, and so being responsive on Slack is more essential to your career than meeting deadlines, delivering quality work, or generating revenue for the company.

A high-urgency environment is a high-stress environment. Being in a high-stress working environment is extremely harmful to peoples physical and mental health. This is wasteful for the business, as well as being unhealthy for workers!

They destroy focus

There are two ways that focus is destroyed by real-time messaging apps.

First problem is the paranoid checking due to the false sense of urgency. You must stop to check your messages at least twice an hour, even if you are deep in debugging a production issue, or evolving an algorithm, or brainstorming solutions to business problems. This prevents ever focusing on a task for more than 40 minutes, no matter how valuable the task.

Second issue is when a message is directed at you. This again destroys focus, since you must stop thinking about the piece of valuable work you are tackling, and adapt yourself to a new context in order to address the issues of the inquirer.

Real-time communication and deep focus are diametrically opposed.

An unfocused workforce will create flawed, incomplete, and late creations, consistently.

They allow for bypassing project prioritization

When approaching their roles professionally, both a Product Owner and Project Manager (this should always be the same person) serve the critical role of creating a solid delivery plan, focusing the efforts of the team, and protecting the team from outside interference.

Real-time communication tools, in practice, bypass this entire process. Developers, wanting to be helpful, will stop working on the project tickets in order to help answer questions and troubleshoot problems. While the work might be fine in some cases (usually it isn’t), it undermines the entire project team by skipping the priorization process.

How much value is generated by answering a single public question versus delivering the project one day sooner?

ALL WORK, including troubleshooting issues, fixing bugs, and answered questions should go through the Product Owner. Real-time communication tools obliterate this process entirely.

They strip away essential business context

Real-time communication apps provide one-message-at-a-time interfaces. This is fantastic for quickly resolving emergency scenarios. It is awful for meaningful, contextualized design discussions. It is even worse for cross-conversations.

A good communication medium is one that contains the core business context, such as a GitHub issue, or a design document. That way, all comments and discussions are limited to the scope of that particular ISSUE, rather than being talked about in the scope of a group of PEOPLE.

Real-time tools are typically used with fixed groups of people. The relevance of each message varies for each person in the group. For those to whom the message isn’t relevant, it’s pure noise, It also puts an undue focus on the most recent thoughts expressed, rather than on the core issue. This is precisely backwards.

Quality work requires proper contextualization, which is something that real-time tools consistenty do not perform.

They encourage poorly thought-out communication

Because of the ability to quickly follow up messages with other messages, and the natural disposition towards short messages, the natural tendency of most information works is to message first, think later.

  • Got a half-formulated question? Send a group message.
  • Don’t want to Google something? Send a group message.
  • Unsure if the software is working correctly? Send a group message with a bunch of @ tags.
  • Want to ask someone specific about something? Say “Hello” and wait for a bit before stating the real purpose of a message.

Real-time messaging encourages little thinking, and brings many people to waste time while staring at the “XYZ is typing a message…” indicator in the bottom-corner.

Both Emails and Tickets are a much more professional business communication medium, since they encourage providing all the information BEFORE clicking send rather than after.

How can we fix this?

The short answer is to establish a culture which does the following:

  1. PROHIBIT digital real-time communication tools for actively engaged project workers.
  2. Use a clean a simple TICKET SYSTEM for all works requests, including hot issues.
  3. Product Owners/Project Managers must provide a COMPLETE protective barrier.
  4. All bugs reports and question should result in a DOCUMENT ARTIFACT.

A young architect, quietly reflecting on his nearly completed model-house project.

What are the direct benefits of abandoning real-time communication tools for project workers?

  1. Well-thought out communications
  2. Peaceful, healthy, happy workers
  3. Deep focus
  4. Meaningful prioritization
  5. Centralized business context

Change your work culture today!

Help your teammates achieve deep focus.

Encourage everyone to communicate in ways that value the time and effort of others.

Minimize the amount of re-expression needed for shared ideas.

Cultivate thoughtfulness.