Slackers

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I've been digging deeper into the Slack-doubter camp, hoping to convince one of my company's executives to temper her enthusiasm for constant chatting as some sort of productivity panacea. Samuel Hulick's piece "Slack, I'm Breaking Up with You" makes the all-too-common plea that Slack is "asking for A LOT of my time," and "it has been absolutely brutal on my productivity:"

I may have been fooling myself when we were still in the honeymoon phase, but when there was all the talk of you killing email, I have to admit I thought it was the email problem you were attacking, not just the email platform.

Which is to say, I thought you were providing some relief from the torrential influx of messages, alerts, and notifications I was receiving on a daily basis. "Me + Slack = Fewer distractions and more productivity," I thought at the time. I have to say, though, that I've since found it to be the opposite.

Like, WAY the opposite.

With you in my life, I've received exponentially more messages than I ever have before.

"While it's true that email was (and, despite your valiant efforts, still very much is) a barely-manageable firehose of to-do list items controlled by strangers," he continues, "one of the few things that it did have going for it was that at least everything was in one place:"

Trying to keep up with the manifold follow-up tasks from the manifold conversations in your manifold teams and channels requires a Skynet-like metapresence that is simply beyond me.

With you, the firehose problem has become a hydra-headed monster.

Everything is scattered, and the mental load that comes with it is real. Linda Stone calls this perpetual, shallow quasi-presence "continuous partial attention" [see below], and this makes each conversational thread, almost by definition, a loose one.

Responding to a description of Slack as "an all-day meeting with unknown participants and no agenda," Hulick notes:

Will they respond in 5 seconds or 5 hours? Who knows! It's like getting caught in one of those support chats from hell with a Comcast rep who's clearly trying to simultaneously jockey a dozen text conversations like some kind of bargain basement Bobby Fischer, except that it's all day long and with everyone I know. [...]

I wonder if conducting business in an asynchronish environment simply turns every minute into an opportunity for conversation, essentially "meeting-izing" the entire workday.

"All-day meetings every day of the week are substantially more 'meetings' than the ones you're saving me from," he observes:

This is awesome for speeding up the tempo of company directives, but it also places a ton of pressure on everyone involved to maintain even MORE Slack omnipresence; if any discussion might lead to a decision being made, that provides a whole lot of incentive to be available for as many discussions as possible.

Even worse, those with the least on their plates can maintain the most Slack presence, which leads to the most gregariously unengaged representing the majority of the discussion base while penalizing those who are fully engaged in their "real" work.

Christopher Batts, who titled his piece "Actually, Slack really sucks" comments that "my life isn't any easier now that everyone insists on using Slack. I've actually noticed its far more complex and distracting:"

Zero time saved, but lots of time newly wasted by the workflow Slack provides. It just doesn't cater for tasks that aren't immediate, and it doesn't cater for teams that work on different timezones.

In the "Managing Notifications" section of his article, Batts notes that "Notifications come from everywhere and couldn't be less ordered if they tried," and his section on "Productivity" simply states, "I get so much more done when Slack is closed:"

I can integrate Slack with everything from Skype to CircleCI. Great if I stare at Slack all day, checking a feed for a response from the latest set of integration tests running. Not so great if I have things that need doing.

Ann Diab's look at workplace chat asks a similar question: "If I'm always available, when can I get any work done?"

Whether it's HipChat, Slack, G-Chat, or any other form of IRC and instant messaging, workplace chat tools facilitate quick answers and instant gratification. But it's possible that getting instant input like this is doing more harm than good to the morale of your teammates and to overall company culture. [emphasis added]

Michael Muse's quantified look at Slack mentions that "Slack makes their users feel 32% more effective" but then asks, what's the downside? "Sometimes, Slack (or your favorite chat app, this topic applies equally to any of them) is the best tool for the job, but I'd like to delve into cases where it isn't." He observes that "nearly two-thirds of Slack messages at our company aren't in channels at all! They're in Direct Messages (DM)," and notes that "This poses a problem:

While a DM may sound like less of a concern for interruption than a public channel, they have a very different social contract:
- Unlike channels, you are assumed to always be listening. The sender knows you received a notification about their message, much like SMS.

- Unlike channels, you are the only person who can weigh in on the matter, so the message cannot be answered by someone else. It is awaiting your response.

This means that DMs feel much more urgent and important. Ever interrupted an in-person conversation because you noticed something in a Slack channel? Me neither. But you better believe I've cut off a verbal conversation midstream to answer a DM.

[He discusses this further in Footnote 4: "When a DM requires you to do some work to resolve it - the assignment of work happens at the requester's discretion, not the work-doer, which is TOTALLY backwards. On a team of work-doers, proper assignment of the work considers bandwidth, compatibility with other similar work, even learning opportunity" as opposed to some sort of LIFO prioritization.] He then considers "the aggregate listening cost" of the ten thousand direct messages his company deals with daily--as he writes, "14 is a data-confirmed, low-end-average for the number of high urgency, high importance interruptions each person at our company gets over DM every day:"

"So," you say, "what's the big deal with 14 interruptions per day? Had they been emails, I still would have dealt with them eventually." But you didn't deal with them eventually. You dealt with them immediately. [...]

There is a popular word for what's happening -- someone else puts some work into the very top of your queue, interrupting what you are doing and obligating you (socially or implicitly) to work on it now. The workplace slang is to call it a firedrill.

He writes that "DMing someone might as well be called firedrilling them," and pithily summarizes:

I like to call this unmeasured, unpredictable interruption phenomenon Slack-a-Mole. Don't play Slack-a-Mole. You're never gonna win the oversized teddy bear.

His footnotes link to an older piece from Trello co-founder Joel Spolsky that examines the harm of task-switching, and makes two main observations about workflow:

a) sequential processing gets you results faster on average, and

b) the longer it takes to task switch, the bigger the penalty you pay for multitasking.

This is because "programming is the kind of task where you have to keep a lot of things in your head at once:"

The more things you remember at once, the more productive you are at programming. A programmer coding at full throttle is keeping zillions of things in their head at once: everything from names of variables, data structures, important APIs, the names of utility functions that they wrote and call a lot, even the name of the subdirectory where they store their source code. If you send that programmer to Crete for a three week vacation, they will forget it all. The human brain seems to move it out of short-term RAM and swaps it out onto a backup tape where it takes forever to retrieve.

"As it turns out," he continues, "if you give somebody two things to work on, you should be grateful if they 'starve' one task and only work on one, because they're going to get more stuff done and finish the average task sooner:"

In fact, the real lesson from all this is that you should never let people work on more than one thing at once. Make sure they know what it is. Good managers see their responsibility as removing obstacles so that people can focus on one thing and really get it done. When emergencies come up, think about whether you can handle it yourself before you delegate it to a programmer who is deeply submersed in a project.

Also worth reading is this APA summary on the switching costs of multitasking, which observes that "Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity:"

Psychologists who study what happens to cognition (mental processes) when people try to perform more than one task at a time have found that the mind and brain were not designed for heavy-duty multitasking. Psychologists tend to liken the job to choreography or air-traffic control, noting that in these operations, as in others, mental overload can result in catastrophe.

The piece includes synopses of several relevant studies; here is a particularly relevant snippet:

Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer [see "A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance" Parts 1 and 2] has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time.

Linda Stone's description, metioned above by Hulick, of "continuous partial attention" points out that it is "different from multi-tasking." As she observes, "To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention -- CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network:"

We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention.

This has negative effects beyond impeding task completion, because "in large doses, it [continuous partial attention] contributes to a stressful lifestyle, to operating in crisis management mode, and to a compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively:"

In a 24/7, always-on world, continuous partial attention used as our dominant attention mode contributes to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and to a sense of being unfulfilled. We are so accessible, we're inaccessible. The latest, greatest powerful technologies have contributed to our feeling increasingly powerless.

"We have focused on managing our time," she observes, where we should instead "focus on how we manage our attention:"

We are evolving beyond an always-on lifestyle. As we make choices to turn the technology OFF, to give full attention to others in interactions, to block out interruption-free time, and to use the full range of communication tools more appropriately, we will re-orient our trek toward a path of more engaged attention, more fulfulling relationships, and opportunities for the type of reflection that fuels innovation.

Executives whose simplistic bottom-line mentality that sees only short-term costs may treat cloud services as a panacea to onsite IT costs, but that's only because they're ignoring (or discounting) issues of availability and security. Quinn Norton's "the problem with Slack" at Medium mentioned the problem of security:

General computer and network security in the early 21st century simply isn't good enough, categorically, to trust logged, unencrypted communication touching the net to remain safe over time. Slack will get hacked, over and over. (I know Slack uses encryption at rest, but if Slack can access your data, so can a sufficiently motivated actor)... [...]

As Slack continues, likely years into the future, it will be hacked by people engaging in corporate espionage, governmental actors, and talented amateurs. Some of these will be discovered quickly, others will never be discovered at all. Like every other computer system, Slack's employees, no matter how diligent, will never have an easy way to ensure that they aren't compromised. Given enough time, everyone is compromised. Given enough interest, it doesn't take much time.

Considering the variety of problematic issues at hand with all these aspect of Slack, it's hard to see how its use makes anything better. It should go without saying--should, that is--but Slack and the other exemplars of our constant-interruption business culture are completely antithetical to accomplishing anything of depth and complexity. The do, however, serve to make workers stressed enough so that we tolerate employers' further encroachments into our personal lives, as they demand more "availability" for no additional compensation. Perhaps that's the point?

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on May 26, 2017 9:32 PM.

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