Talking About Slack, to Talk Less With It

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Recently, comparing notes about our respective telecommuting gigs with my sister-in-law made me very glad that I use Slack exactly zero percent of the time. It also reminded me of an article I encountered about the stress caused by telecommuting, much of which comes from the way many, if not most telecommuters end up feeling pressured to misuse it:

Ideas? She won't have too many working in an open office -- or its online equivalent. (Photo by on Unsplash.)
When working remotely as a developer, the chat (usually Slack or Hipchat) quickly becomes your lifeline to the company: that is the way most people will try to contact you. And to me, being responsive on the chat accomplishes the same as being on time at work in an office: it gives an image of reliability. It also implies that if you do not really want to give the impression that you are taking a lot of breaks, you might finding yourself checking your notifications a lot while taking lunch for example, while if people had seen you working the whole morning, or if I was just talking with colleagues at that point, you would not feel the need to be so responsive. I actually often realized that other colleagues working remotely were criticized because they were not answering very quickly on the chat.

A part of the problem is that on a chat, people do not see you physically, so they cannot really estimate if you are at a good moment to be interrupted. So, you are interrupted a lot, and if you are a bit like me, you feel forced to answer quickly. So, you interrupt your work a lot. And in case you do not know it: interruptions are loathed by programmers, since it is really bad for their productivity as it breaks their focus. [bold added]
I am not a software developer, but I don't see how I could be very effective if I had to try to work this way.

Fortunately, Cal Newport, author of Deep Work offers a way out of this practice, namely by bringing it up with one's boss:
  1. Explain the concepts of deep and shallow work, noting, of course, that both are important.
  2. Ask what ratio of deep to shallow work hours you should be aiming for in your job.
  3. Then promise to measure and report back regularly. (Most bosses will be interested to gain these extra data points.)
Newport reports that the person he advised to do this very quickly got his boss on board with the idea of letting him concentrate for a decent amount of time twice a day. "Just ask Tom. But not between 9 to 11 or 2 to 4, because he'll be too busy creating valuable things to answer." Incidentally, Newport also indicates that this strategy is useful for other workplace practices that evolve more out of thoughtlessness and inertia than active hostility to the ability to concentrate.

-- CAV


RT said...

With Slack, people send messages for which they'd like s "quick and easy" response, and also those for which they can wait weeks or months. This is because Slack's channels are nice and easy to use a but like forums.
Slack gives you some ability on being notified differently for different channels, it also allows you to mark a message for future response... specifying time. But it takes some doing
1. Learning the tool
2. Discussion with team about response expectations
3. Self discipline
It ain't great, and the product definitely needs to add features to support the above better

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for the clarification. It's good to know that the tool itself is more amenable to asynchronous communication than I thought it was.

Nevertheless, and as you also say, setting expectations and using discipline remain important aspects of its use.