spotlight on an empty mike
PHOTO: Oscar Keys

The saying goes, a bad workman blames his tools. But a more fitting alternative is we get the technology we deserve. 

The articles continue to roll out about how messaging tools like Slack, Yammer, WhatsApp — not to mention the granddaddy of them all, email — are to blame for ruining our work.

Wired UK published one of the more recent variations on the theme, "How Slack Ruined Work." The author, Sean Hargrave digs into the impact Slack has in the workplace: it's disruptive, lowers productivity, well-being and our powers of concentration. He cites Lucas Miller, lecturer at Haas School of Business at Berkeley University, who pushes it one step further, arguing social messaging tools — and Slack in particular — keep us hooked by tapping into our reward systems, releasing a "hit of dopamine" with every message received or responded to.

It's Not an Employee Issue, It's a Management Issue

The problem with this trope is it paints an unhelpful picture of people as helpless. Especially in the face of an all-encompassing technology, that supposedly sucks the life out of our every moment. It’s a common sentiment which fits into a widespread view that "big tech" is a malevolent force.

More so, it suggests the real problem at work is primarily a personal one. It’s an individual's innate behavior that is at fault. Are we equipped to cope with the blizzard of unwanted chat messages and everything else that comes our way? Do we have the intelligence to filter out what’s important, what can be ignored and what can be binned?

Yes, it does take a somewhat brazen individual to turn it all off. Setting status to "away," muting the constant stream of conversation, choosing to come back to it when they are ready. Such arrogance! In some eyes, this is tantamount to being anti-social, or, even worse, having an un-collaborative attitude.

But social networking tech like Slack, and so many other variants, are both simple and brilliant at what they do. On any device, from anywhere, you can share ideas, content, documents, opinions, in real-time. In theory, that should make us more productive and competent at what we do.

How we use these technologies certainly deserves more criticism. But putting the onus on individual behavior misunderstands the problem entirely. Company management often turn to tools like Slack in the hopes that by encouraging open, transparent collaboration and engagement, they will increase employee engagement and feelings of support.

Yet when the tech becomes the main driving force to solve the problem, things can unravel. If decisiveness and leadership are traded in favor of encouraging myriad participating voices — all vying for attention — will anything be achieved beyond having a never-ending conversation? Indeed, the effect of such transparency and openness can end up causing bad habits.

Related Article: Avoiding Employee Burnout in the Always-On Workplace

Always-On Denigrates Behind the Scenes Work

A common jibe against Slack and other such tools is they are a huge drain on time. But it’s an inescapable consequence once the proverbial floodgates have been opened. 

But there are other, more subtle effects too. One is that using a tool like Slack in such an environment can cause incessant neediness. For example, creating an expectation for real-time responses, for reciprocation and encouraging the tendency towards endless deliberation — all of which happens in full-view of your entire team of colleagues — unlike email which can be less immediate.

Another insidious effect is the erosion of expertise, which can rarely develop in an always-on culture. It’s the culmination of hard-won knowledge and reputation but can just as easily become eroded when wedded to a metric of participation.

As such, building credibility and expertise (once the product of private contemplation and deliberation) becomes an ongoing public — even narcissistic — performance; a perpetual state of having to remain in the spotlight. Cease to do so, and your profile quickly gets diminished as someone else’s shines brighter.

Finally, as Hargrave reminds, using a tool like Slack carries with it an altogether omnipotent — some might say sinister — risk. One paradox of working in an always-on, open culture is you can end up being continuously observed — not just by your peers — but by your managers, who monitor and manage your performance.

It’s no coincidence that many social tools include sophisticated behind-the-scenes analytics, designed to measure the number of contributions and so on that individuals make, or even to point out those who say little, who it’s assumed contribute nothing.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with encouraging an internal competitive dynamic. It pushes everyone further: to contribute with better ideas, with an ensuing debate that, while critical, elevates raw ideas into something better. There should be every expectation that it will bring about excellence. It will mean better-understood problems and correspondingly smarter solutions. It can even help break down internal silos.

But is this about a genuine search for novel, innovative ideas, or rather about competing to be seen as more engaged than anyone else?

This is the reason why Slack is blamed for ruining work: because work is being devalued through the endless pursuit of participation.

Work, in all of its guises — from performing simple tasks to complex research or analysis — is often achieved with time and space to think objectively, and with a degree of autonomy too. Work can be a private, solitary activity. Creativity demands concentration, not constant chatter or a never-ending continuous public display. Excellence cannot happen in an always-on culture, where time to think is replaced with a need for constant affirmation and public praise.

Related Article: Is the Solution to Information Overload More Technology?

Always-On Works for No One, Neither Businesses nor Employees

Workplace collaboration tools can be a brilliant timesaving technology. They can undoubtedly help circumvent time-wasting bureaucracy. For finding answers, finding expertise, for quickly resolving issues, they are second-to-one.

Let’s not fall into the trap of blaming the technology. Rather we should be critical of a workplace culture that places participation above everything else. Indeed, it’s poor management that fails to recognize why workers need more — not less — space to be more productive. 

By all means, use social networking tools. But at the same time, argue for more privacy and autonomy too. Because in a workplace full of distractions, they are more necessary than ever to perform even better work.

Let’s all be brave and turn it off if you’re too busy.