By Peter Hall, senior consultant for WM Reply, a tech firm specialising in enhancing collaborative tools and business systems for large organisations.
Every couple of years or so, it seems, rumbles of discontent begin to crop up about issues with collaboration tools like Slack. Namely, that it’s an attention sapper at best, and downright pain in the backside at worst, something that hasn’t been helped by Slack’s recent double-posting glitch.
If this is news to you, then a Google search of ‘Slacklash’ will prove this is a recurring theme dating back to 2016. Even then, just a few years after its founding, there was talk of the always-on nature of collaboration apps negging people out, with Vice’s Motherboard going so far as to take a break from Slack entirely, saying it was baseline distracting.
These are complaints that don’t seem to go away, so it’s also never long before another article highlights how Slack and its competitors have ended up negatively impacting productivity, despite their claims and aims to do the opposite.
Let’s be clear, Slack is not the only perpetrator here. Workplace by Facebook, Microsoft Teams and even work email are all designed to compete for, grab and demand your attention throughout the working day (and increasingly commonly outside working hours, too). And as these apps have become more widely adopted by everyone from freelancers through SMEs right up to the world’s biggest organisations, gripes about the problems inherent in them aren’t going anywhere.
But what can we do about them? There have been examples of competitors creating alternatives, such as Todoist launching their own collaboration toolminus the constant notifications. But aside from a few tips from the likes of Slack to reduce noise, leading providers really just keep banging the ‘collaboration drum’, with a single line approach of focussing on the plus sides.
And aside from the Slacklash cycle of public griping, their approach seems to be working, with the apparent benefits of these software dominating the majority of the discourse.
Don’t get me wrong, collaboration tools and enterprise social networks can genuinely be an amazing force for good, both in business and human terms. But despite these benefits, the rumble of discontent in the background continues to surface from time to time, never quite going away.
But is this a real problem, or as pointed out in one online publicationback in 2017 is it just people being people? The argument being there will always be a percentage of people who dislike any tool, system or way of working, because everyone is different.
Realistically, it’s most probably a combination of the two. And seeing as we’re hardly in the nascent stages of development for this kind of software, it’s unlikely their approach to collaboration is going to change in any drastic way. So really the question we should be asking is: how can you make collaboration tools work for you?
Clarity is key
Put simply, you have to manage how you use collaboration tools if you want to avoid stress and be realistic about getting anything done. This is true for work in traditional contexts – you can’t realistically expect to get anything done if you spend your whole day chatting with colleagues around the water cooler – so why shouldn’t it also be true for workplace communication in the digital age?
A good friend of mine always used to say you don’t want to be too good at anything, because then people will always expect that level of performance, come rain or shine. While I think it’s always a good idea to give your best (whatever that might look like from day to day), there is wisdom in this sort of pragmatic approach in the context of collaboration tools. Always responding to messages or posts immediately is only going to cause you problems in the long run.
One of the best examples I’ve seen of how this can work is from Matt Collins, the Director of Platypus Digital. With every email (including his out of office) Matt attaches his ‘How I do email’ rules, so everyone knows what to expect from their interactions. Rules include ‘I don’t always reply straight away’ and ‘I don’t answer emails on evenings or weekends.’ While the software in question may be different, it’s not difficult to see how this approach could be transferred to collaboration tools. It’s a great way to set the ground rules which can help avoid misunderstandings or more difficult discussions at a later date.
If you’ve provided the clarity to your colleagues / employer about how you are going to work, you should (in theory) feel less pressure to always be ‘on’. This is made even easier if you clearly communicate what you are working on. If you are planning to have a deep dive into work which requires your full attention, create an agenda for the day and share that with relevant people. Perhaps factor in 15-minute online check-ins at intervals throughout the day to monitor and respond to posts and messages as needed. Beyond that your time should be your own, so own it.After all, we all have times when we actually need to zero-in and give a task our total focus, so set your limits, communicate what you’re doing, resist the urge to respond straight away and – crucially – don’t feel bad about it. Ultimately, you’re paid to work, not to justify yourself by constantly proving you’re at your ‘desk’.