We love the fast, the immediate, the now.
Live-streams of the NBA finals between the Raptors and the Warriors let Torontonians scream and boo in unison. Amazon Prime’s same-day delivery service encourages more frequent and spontaneous purchases. Real-time messaging in particular, has transformed how we connect with one another. However, the spillover of this appetite for realizing our needs and desires the same instant they enter our thoughts, is particularly dangerous for the workplace.
Instant messaging popularized in the 1990s, but dates back decades earlier to 1961 when multi-user operating systems like MIT’s Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) enabled up to 30 users to chat in real-time. The first SMS message was “Merry Christmas”, sent over the Vodafone GSM network, in December of 1992. Moving to the late-90’s, ICQ, AIM, MSN, and Yahoo duked it out for market share in the instant messaging space. As the years went on, those behemoths got replaced by the likes of Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, and Snapchat. Now, messaging supported not just text, but photo, video, voice, gaming, and e-commerce. More recently, instant messaging became widespread in the workplace with the introduction of workplace collaboration software like Slack—the fastest company to achieve “unicorn” status.
No doubt, real-time messaging brings tremendous benefits to both our personal and work lives. In the case of Slack, employees can hash problems and ideas out quickly, share inside jokes that strengthen culture, and feel a sense of belonging. But, consider that most messaging apps are designed to maximize users’ time spent. The concerns surrounding distracted kids, and silent dinner tables raises an equally relevant question about the place of instant messaging in the workplace.
The article, “Focus, and Deep Work in the Digital Age,” covers how apps like Slack might hinder people’s ability to perform deep work. A study by Microsoft showed that a typical knowledge worker nowadays switches windows on average 373 times a day or roughly every 40 seconds and is only able to spend three minutes on a single task uninterrupted. The constant context-switching wreaks havoc on workplace productivity. Worse, the one-line-style of real-time communication can also produce bad habits and a stressful work culture.
Instant messaging favors knee-jerk responses over thoughtful input. There’s plenty of repetition and filler, particularly in a large chat, and conversations quickly devolve. Even if someone wanted to focus for a block of time, there’s a pressure to stay online for fear of missing out or appearing distracted (ironically). What if a topic is brought up and that person missed out on providing their input? What if other team members get annoyed because there’s an expectation for quick replies? Or what if there’s just hundreds of messages to overwhelm the person upon return?
Companies ought to be aware of these possible effects from instant messaging and consider policies that ease the harm while maintaining the benefits from tools like Slack. While it’s fun to connect apps to Slack and receive notifications for every new sale, perhaps those dozen notifications should best be summed up in one message at the end of the day. Certainly, when it comes to decisions that require more careful thought and discussion, companies like Basecamp and Gitlab are vocal about moving those to an asynchronous form of communication. This would give everyone the time to provide more thoughtful responses while maintaining greater freedom to protect times of their day to dive deep on hard problems.
While tools like Slack are useful, it should be used sparingly. Instant messaging’s takeover of workplace communication is simply unsustainable, distracting, and too much of a good thing.