Curing Our Slack Addiction

I love Slack. I really really do. So much so I would call it an addiction at this point.

Slowly but surely this addiction has been killing my sanity and sapping our productivity as we simply used Slack for too many things. We decided it was time to try a new approach for communication at AgileBits.

Below is the story of how we started using Slack, the problems that started to crop up, and our plan for moving forward.

How We Got Here

We started as a 2 person company 10 years ago and slowly but surely grew to over 60 people.

As a remote company, group chat felt essential, especially given the flat company we had with no management. It worked quite well at the beginning.

Over the years we’ve tried many chat clients and would switch to a new one every few months. We used IRC, HipChat, FlowDock, Campfire, and test drove many others. And then we found Slack and fell head over heels in love.

Almost everyone loves Slack, and it’s no surprise. It’s incredibly fast, always remembers where you were in every channel, has wonderful integrations, and provides fantastic clients for every platform.

And the notifications are to die for. They are simply amazing and fun to receive. At any moment I can get anyone’s attention and have a quick conversation with them, and everyone can do the same with me.

As a company we’ve never felt more connected.

Channel Inflation

It didn’t take long to realize that having 60 people discussing everything in one channel wasn’t going to work, so we quickly expanded the number of channels.

It started innocently enough: having different channels for Development, Documentation, and Customer Support was an obvious choice and indeed a good start.

In time, each of those channels needed to split into multiple, more focused channels. Development begot iOS, Mac, Windows, and Android channels, and Customer Support spawned new areas for Forums, Twitter, Social, Outreach, and Email.

Then there were all the amazing app and service integrations. We could receive Slack messages whenever an issue was opened, new code committed, or someone said something on Twitter. It was fun and reduced our dependence on email. It felt like we were in heaven.

These integrations added a lot of noise for some of the team, while others felt the notifications were important to their workflows. So we created more channels, allowing people to choose what worked best for them.

In each case we would add more channels in a desperate attempt to allow people to find the important information they needed while avoiding the noise.

Often we would hear jokes about having too many channels, so we created #too-many-channels to help people find the channel that they needed.

You would think adding all these channels would be an administrative burden, but that wasn’t the case. Slack allows anyone in the company to create a new channel so if you need one there’s no need to wait for anyone—simply create it and invite everyone you want. The sky’s the limit!

Our limit ended up being 81 channels. And this did not include private channels nor archived ones.

Using Slack for All The Things!

Slack was simply too good for us to resist and as a result we preferred using it over all the other tools at our disposal.

When you had a question about how 1Password implemented something on Mac, you simply asked. You knew Rick and Kevin did some work related to your question, so you would @ mention them both to make sure they saw it.

If you were on a phone call with a customer and were stymied by a technical issue you weren’t prepared for, you would use use the global @ channel notification to make sure you got an answer in real time.

In the event that you found a bug you would simply mention it in one of the channels and expect that it would be taken care of. After all, there’s tons of people in the channel so surely someone would do something about it.

When you couldn’t remember why 1Password behaves the way it does in a particular situation, your first instinct would be to switch to Slack and ask. And since everyone’s addiction was as strong as yours, you were sure to get someone’s attention.

All of these interactions would happen in Slack, despite there being many other tools that are better suited. Tools like bug trackers and wikis would allow answers to be preserved so future questions wouldn’t even have to be asked but they weren’t as fun.

We all knew how great it would be to have a repository of knowledge for people to find their answers, but Slack was simply too good at providing the quick fix we all needed. Copying these answers from Slack to a permanent location didn’t release the same endorphins provided by Slack, so it seldom happened.

Connectedness vs. Communication

With Slack we were more connected than we ever were before. We had 81 channels where anyone could talk to anybody in the company, and if the person you needed wasn’t in that channel, no worries, you could simply @ mention them and they would be added instantly.

If it sounds like it would be hard to focus, it was. But we were willing to accept this in exchange for better communication.

The thing is, being connected doesn’t magically enable effective communication. If you’ve ever listened to an old married couple fight about how the other one never listens to them, you’ll instinctually know this already. If living together doesn’t help the old couple communicate, how can we expect a group chat tool to do it for us?

But for some reason most of us think that communication is simply a tooling problem and completely ignore the human aspect. In reality people are the most important piece of the puzzle, so we should simply teach them how to communicate better, right? If only it was that easy.

For many months myself and a few others have been trying to make Slack work for us. We would be the bad cops and point out people’s bad behaviour and suggest alternatives.

When someone would report an issue in Slack, we’d point out the appropriate JIRA or GitHub project where that should be reported. When someone would get an answer to their question, we’d remind them that they should copy it into our internal knowledgebase so others could find it in the future.

It got to the point where several of us would answer questions with a Let Me Google That For You link. It was insulting and we didn’t feel good doing it, but we were at the end of our rope and desperately trying to point out how ridiculous things had become.

Unfortunately it didn’t work. The allure of the always on nature of Slack and instant gratification was just too strong to resist.

And even if we had been successful in changing people’s behaviour, the lack of threading made it very difficult to have meaningful, deep conversations about complex subjects anyway. Before you could even fully understand the problem being discussed (let alone find a solution), someone would invariably start a new conversation or reply to a previous discussion that happened earlier in the channel.

Effective communication requires a lot more than amazing connectivity. The fact many ‘Bits complained they had no idea what was happening in the company or why certain decisions were made proves this point.

Sanity Check

It took me a while to realize just how bad our patterns of using Slack had become for my sanity and the health of AgileBits.

Slack forced me to evaluate things very fast and respond quickly, otherwise I would miss my opportunity to join a conversation before it moved onto something else.

Then there was the fact that we had so many channels and direct messages and group chats. It multiplexed my brain and left me in a constant state of anxiety, feeling that I needed to always be on guard.

And I had to read everything. I felt that I had no choice as often decisions would be made in Slack that I needed to know. And in other ways it was simply an addiction that needed to be fed.

For me, things came to a head when one of my awesome team mates asked me something I didn’t expect:

Dave, I feel like you’ve been much more angry as of late. Is there something else going on? Some stress that none of us are seeing?

I was surprised by this question because the reality is I’m happier now than I have been in years. And I had just finished sending out (what I thought was) a very positive and uplifting internal newsletter to the entire team. So where was this question coming from?

Then I realized that this individual was raising this question in Slack, after I had a Slack conversation with them complaining about how they were using Slack incorrectly.

This made me realize that our use of Slack was even more destructive than I had realized. The time pressures forced me to be curt and I avoided taking the time to be playful. Worse, since I was in a constant state of heighten anxiety, I often wouldn’t feel like being playful to begin with.

I had always evaluated Slack from the point of view of “Does it make me more productive?” and “Does it help my team ship a better product?”. I had never considered the more important question “Does Slack make me look and feel like a dick?”.

I think the answer to the last question was yes. In fact, some of the most positive and uplifting individuals I know come off as curt and stressed and pissed off in Slack conversations. And given that I believe the answers to the first two questions are NOT a resounding yes, I don’t think the sacrifice is worth it.

Breaking the Addiction

Breaking up with the tool you love the most is not easy to do.

Indeed, it’s so hard that we talked about changing tools and behaviours for over 6 months. The rallying cry of “it’s just a tool, let’s use it properly” was heard so many times that I lost count.

The reality is we could make Slack work for us but it would require constant policing. I simply don’t want to be that bad cop, and I don’t want to hire a police force either. Furthermore, Slack was not designed for the deep, meaningful conversations that are needed to move 1Password forward.

So we made the incredibly hard decision to break up with Slack. We’ll always be grateful to Slack for all the fond memories and I suspect our paths will cross again someday, but for now we need to be apart so we can remember why we fell in love to begin with.

The next stop on our communication journey is Basecamp. In a future post I’ll share more on how we hope Basecamp will help and how we plan on using it alongside our other tools.

69 replies
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  1. chrishoward
    chrishoward says:

    Capterra has a very good review of 13 Slack alternatives. http://blog.capterra.com/the-top-13-slack-alternatives/

    What stands out is that, in this collaborations space, there really, really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. (If there was it would probably be a behemoth, expensive and cumbersome to use.)

    For example, if your need is to develop that internal knowledgebase, maybe Kaleo would be what you need. Or if you want customers to be able to email into the system without needing an account, maybe Fleep.

    It’s well worth a read for anyone looking as it will also help them think about their complete requirements.

    Because, maybe your own problem involves “nails and screws”, not “bolts and nails”.

    Reply
    • Dave Teare
      Dave Teare says:

      Thanks for sharing, Chris!

      That was a good article, but I think our issues go deeper than tooling. In my next post I hope to elaborate on that and discuss how we’re restructuring things to reduce the noise and increase the good communication.

      ++dave;

    • Dave Teare
      Dave Teare says:

      That was a great post, Jon. Thanks for sharing!

      Time really is precious. I find myself most happy and effective when I guard mine closely.

      ++dave;

  2. Jerry Sun
    Jerry Sun says:

    Can’t agree that. When I am using the Slack I won’t keep my eyes on it every time. I will check my slack only when I need to or I think I should. What’s more, I am sure that Slack is necessary for the remote group. Cause we can’t separate the work or the life if we are using the same IM tool.

    Reply
    • Dave Teare
      Dave Teare says:

      Sorry Jerry, I don’t understand the “that” in your opening statement. Which part is it specifically that you disagree with?

      Sure if you have an isolated task, closing everything and focusing works well. But closing the tool you use to coordinate is not an option when you’re tackling complex tasks that span teams.

      Indeed, I had Slackless Tuesday’s and Thursday’s for a while. It worked quite well as long as my tasks for that day were mostly independent.

      ++dave;

    • Dave Teare
      Dave Teare says:

      Thanks Steven, that was a good read, but that’s a pretty old post. Basecamp 3 is quite a bit different, and given we’re not doing client work, I don’t expect to get to 300 projects any time soon.

      Anyway, time will tell. Discovery is the fun part about any journey :)

      ++dave;

  3. John Hascall
    John Hascall says:

    Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon, but it seems rather sad to me that we continually forget and re-learn the same lessons with every new piece of “oooh shiny”. I think I’d be hard pressed to name a communication tool as useful as MIT’s Zephyr, and it dates from the 80’s!

    Reply
    • Dave Teare
      Dave Teare says:

      Where can I get a copy of Zephyr, John? :)

      I agree with the general thought that we should all build on our knowledge and not throw it all away when trying a new system. But the converse is also true: many times we hold on to old habits that simply aren’t useful anymore.

      We all need to find the best balance between the old and the new, and never be afraid to try new things.

      ++dave;

  4. Scott Price
    Scott Price says:

    Thank you for this article, Dave. We’ve faced many of the issues you raise, in a company about the size of AgileBits. I think you’ve got the solutions, too, and it remains to be seen whether we’ll work that self-discipline into our culture or need to quit. So far we’ve been pretty good/lucky about reinforcing which tools to use for which functions within the community, and it seems to have stuck. We’ve used “Slack is like a conversation in a meeting” a lot to make sure that people don’t expect to lob tasks into a channel and hope someone picks it up, or to try to use it for documentation/archival. So far, so good.

    I look forward to your article on Basecamp, as I enjoyed reading your thoughts about company culture and its interaction with the tool. Also, I really really love 1Password, and am glad to see such thoughtfulness at its helm.

    Reply
    • Dave Teare
      Dave Teare says:

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Scott. They mean a lot to me and the team. We really really love 1Password, too! :)

      I wish you and your team the best of luck keeping that discipline. As long as you keep reminding yourself and your team about this daily, I think you’ll be fine. Just don’t take any long vacations ;)

      ++dave;

    • Dave Teare
      Dave Teare says:

      30 minutes? Wow, that’s asking a lot :)

      I’m going to have to pass as I have too much on my plate already.

      ++dave;

    • Dave Teare
      Dave Teare says:

      I enjoyed page 6 of your presentation the most. It shows how easy it is to get to 81 channels :)

      ++dave;

  5. anndiab
    anndiab says:

    I absolutely love this heartfelt post. I have worked with many teams that use Slack or other chat tools, and it takes a lot of attention from the start to be diligent about not going off the rails and into “always-on” mode.

    I wrote this post because of all the misuse of communication I saw: http://blog.workingon.co/workplace-chat-tools-team-communication/

    —But! I totally acknowledge that writing this is pretty much the same as saying “it’s just a tool, let’s use it properly”. But maybe it will help some folks. I believe that adopting a tool should be treated with the same care as hiring a new team member: actively protect and nourish the culture from day one with all you say and do and with everything you add to the mix.

    Reply
  6. Daniel Jomphe
    Daniel Jomphe says:

    Hi Dave, would you and your team care to share how things evolved for you without Slack, now that it’s been almost 6 months since your changes? Thank you so much for the initial write-ups, by the way.

    Reply
    • Dave Teare
      Dave Teare says:

      Hi Daniel,

      This is a great question! Thank you for asking ?

      I would love to share more and in fact I started a post detailing our adventure a few months that I think you would enjoy. Alas I just haven’t had the freedom to make this a priority as of late so it’s just been sitting in my drafts folder.

      I’ll try to dust it off and get it published once I finish all the other exciting things I’m working on. That could be a while! ?

      Cheers!

      ++dave;

  7. Michaelcolin
    Michaelcolin says:

    I’m going to try to quit using Slack for anything more than one-to-one communication. It’s a time drain and can be toxic. Going back to email for group stuff.

    Reply
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