Disclaimer: we at Desque try to be as objective as possible and base our articles on facts, trusted sources and personal experiences. While this article focuses on potential downsides of instant messaging for team productivity, like Slack, we also have articles covering other aspects.
For a couple of months now I have been trying to persuade my team to spend less time on Slack. Here's why.
1. Slack elevates your stress levels
There is compelling evidence that frequent interruptions like from Slack, Facebook, mobile phones lead to significantly higher stress levels.  Gloria Mark from the Department of Informatics at University of California and Daniela Gudith & Ulrich Klocke from the Institute of Technology at Humboldt University in Berlin summarise their study results on the effects of interrupted work as follows:
Our results have implications for system design. A certain amount of interruptions may be tolerable because people can compensate with a higher working speed. However, technology could be used to keep track of and control interruptions over a long period of time so as not to overload people (as our mental workload measures suggest). After only 20 minutes of interrupted performance people reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure.
If you have reactive tasks, like first-line support, naturally bring frequent interruptions. Hence, for you support-team it makes complete sense to channel incoming support requests through slack channels or other customer services solutions.
2. Science says interruptions lead to errors
In order to find out the effects of interruptions, we first have to understand what an interruption actually is. Because there are 4 different types of interruptions:
|Total interruption||completely occupies your conscious mind||A co-working is asking you a thought-intensive question via Slack|
|Dominant interruption||largely occupy your mind, but leave some thought about your original task||recreational web browsing|
|Distraction||does not stop you from consciously working on your task||casual messaging with co-workers via Slack|
|Background activities||divert only some portion of your attention away||listening to music, worrying about upcoming events|
It is mostly the total interruptions and the dominant interruptions that we have to worry about. One survey tried to quantify those interruptions in an 18-months-long survey, and the results were staggering: 2.1 hours of productivity were lost per knowledge worker per day to unimportant interruptions and recovery time from interruptions. That's 28% of the typical worker's day.
A study from the Michigan State University found that even brief 3-second interruptions can double the error rate. MSU associate professor of psychology Altmann explains why:
The answer is that the participants had to shift their attention from one task to another. Even momentary interruptions can seem jarring when they occur during a process that takes considerable thought.
Many researchers have studied the effects of interruptions in different workplaces (e.g. in hospitals), and while researchers still debate over individual differences, and while we still struggle to understand many of the psychological processes involved, there a few facts that we have gotten straight:
- Interruptions can take time from which to recover from and can lead to errors
- Resuming a task too quickly can lead to errors being made, which can be explained by an underlying memory retrieval process
- Interruptions in the workplace lead to a decline in performance and emotional distress
By the way - while researching for this article, I was really shocked to learn that NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is using Slack as their primary communication medium.
3. Slack is too tempting
Let's do a small thought experiment. You are a writer for an online magazine and your co-worker gave you the briefing for your next article. But damn it, you can't find it anymore.
So, you go to your mailbox and search your emails. Nothing.
Next, you search your Slack message history with him. Nothing.
What would you do next? After 2 minutes of thinking where you could have gotten that briefing, you decide to ask your co-worker. After all, slacking him and retrieving the answer will be faster than searching your whole computer, right? And it's so tempting, just sending a little message, takes 8 seconds, and it puts an end to your desperation nearly immediately.
Well, you may be right, but after you sent that little message to your colleague, this also affects your colleague. Because your colleague now has to retrieve the information for you. This is, as we learnt earlier, potentially a total interruption that completely occupies the conscious mind of your co-worker.
After he retrieved the information for you and resumes his original task, his stress levels will rise, and he will potentially experience an increase in emotional distress and errors, and a decline in overall work performance.
If only you could have taken the time to properly look at your Slack channels, because one of them is called #briefings.
4. Slack is not a project management software
Unfortunately it's not obvious to many companies, that are using Slack for their project management.
The problem is: a Slack message contains no context.
While in a project management software, you would leave a comment in the specific context of a task, a project, or a client, and this comment will be sent to exactly the relevant people linked to that context, this is simply not possible in Slack. You would have to create a new Slack channel for this specific purpose, invite all the people that you know are involved, and find ALL the existing background information and communications about this task, project or client, and send it into that Slack channel.
If you try to use Slack for project management, you will either create the need for a lot of unnecessary communication or your team will end up very unorganised.
Read more about why Slack is a bad idea for project management in this article.
5. Slack is addictive. Yes. Really.
Image Credit: Unsplash/Mikail Duran
As early as in the 2000s multiple studies have revealed that the internet, your mobile phone and instant messaging can be addictive. The culprit behind is what psychologists call a "dopamine-induced loop" from instant gratification. Susan Weinschenk Ph.D. summarises this phenomenon in Psychology Today:
It's easy to get in a dopamine-induced loop. Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking, which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or a new text.
6. What happened to Slack's mission?
In the context of everything you have read above. Do you think Slack has achieved their mission?
We’re on a mission to make working life simpler, more pleasant and more productive — for everyone.
Well, Slack is definitely simpler than other software solutions that Slack is currently trying to replace, like project management systems.
But more pleasant? Increasing stress levels can hardly feel pleasant for your workers. And about that productivity aspect, check out the next section ...
7. In 2018 Slack was offline for a few hours. See what happened to productivity ...
I think no words necessary to explain this graph. I hope these insights can be of help for you to try to reduce the occurrence of interruptions.
A few more tips about managing your team communications can be found in this guide.
- Mark, Gloria & Gudith, Daniela & Klocke, Ulrich. (2008). The cost of interrupted work: More speed and stress. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - Proceedings. 107-110. 10.1145/1357054.1357072.
- A Baddeley. (1992). Working memory. Medical Research Council, Applied Psychology Unit, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
- Brid O’Conaill and David Frohlich. (1995). Timespace in the workplace: dealing with interruptions. Hewlett Packard Labs.
- Julie Rennecker & Lindsey Godwin. (2005). Theorizing the Unintended Consequences of Instant Messaging for Worker Productivity. Case Western Reserve University.
- Brumby D.P., Janssen C.P., Mark G. (2019) How Do Interruptions Affect Productivity?. In: Sadowski C., Zimmermann T. Rethinking Productivity in Software Engineering. Apress, Berkeley, CA
- Éilish Duke, Christian Montag. (2017). Smartphone addiction, daily interruptions and self-reported productivity. Addictive Behaviors Reports, Volume 6, Pages 90-95, ISSN 2352-8532.
- Jonathan B. Spira & Joshua B. Feintuch. (2005). The Cost of Not Paying Attention: How Interruptions Impact Knowledge Worker Productivity. Basex.
- Graeme E. Field. 1987. EXPERIMENTUS INTERRUPTUS. SIGCHI Bull. 19, 2 (October 1, 1987), 42–46.
- Van Bergen, A. (1968). Task interruption. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company
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