Last week a friend on Facebook wrote about a personal quandary: She had posted a link to something about the recent killings of black men by police in an internal chat platform (like Slack) and was met with some resistance from others—not because of the subject matter, but because the content was violent. The fact that someone was sharing something personal and political was not the issue; people felt the safe space had been threatened by the post’s inherent grisliness.
This led me to think about the role of sharing at work and how the lines of what’s considered “appropriate” have shifted and blurred. No doubt technology has a lot to do with it. Products like Slack make it easy to say anything and everything at work, and it’s interesting how people have taken to the product to do just that. I’ve participated in Slack channels for at least three companies, and all of them had private and public offshoots about topics other than work. People could riff about random things, express feelings, even dish gossip (if the Slack was perceived as truly private). This kind of communication has happened forever, but not so unmitigated, and when it had to take place out loud over a watercooler, it definitely wasn’t so brazen.
Some research from Deloitte helps shed a bit of light on this phenomenon. In 2012, the firm looked into the needs for businesses to offer digital workplace solutions and found them to be imperative. Companies, the report said, are devoting bigger budgets to make it easier for employees to work digitally. This trend would allow employees to collaborate in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise have, forging “business relationships beyond natural work groups.”
The idea behind this was to galvanize a workplace around digital solutions that would make communication and collaboration frictionless. A natural side effect of that is more ways to share. And indeed, that’s what happened. A follow-up Deloitte post from this year found that the new “digital workplaces” meant that people were sharing more than ever before, which led to some new issues:
All of this sharing can be a boon or detriment to companies. Today’s organizations live in an era where every corporate decision is immediately publicly exposed and debated, thanks to sites like Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Twitter, and others. Once-private issues are now posted online for every employee—and every potential employee—to read. Given the harsh spotlight of this new transparency, an organization’s culture can become a key competitive advantage—or its weakness.
This sharing isn’t just in public but in private, too. This information makes the Slack rounds just as quickly as it does Twitter. But is this a new phenomenon? Not exactly.
An NPR piece from last month looked into the ramping up of personal communication on workplace platforms. “This has spawned a new kind of workplace community,” NPR’s Anne Li writes, “sometimes used as something of a digital ‘safe place.’” The article goes on to quote sociologist Vincent Roscigno, who explained, “It is inevitable that when you spend 40 hours a week (at work) that it’s inherent in human nature to look for connections with people.”
Josh Denton, an organizational consultant whose background is in organizational psychology and mental health, who echoed this. “It comes back to people just wanting to connect,” he said. “They want that personal touch.”
But that still doesn’t quite answer why people seem to share a bit more online than they do in person. University of North Carolina professor Brian Southwell, whose research includes interpersonal communication, technology, and social networks, had some thought on the phenomenon. “There are reasons to believe that technology has encouraged more commentary on emotionally charged topics than might occur face-to-face over the watercooler,” he explained. Here’s why:
1. “Interpersonal cues like body language are filtered out, which means you can quickly type and click without getting a disapproving look from someone.”
2. “We often cultivate networks of like-minded people online, and we know what they post, and so it can seem safer to post a comment that will be read by known friends and family than to say something in person to someone whom you don’t know that well.”
3. “It is easier to include a link to content in a social media post than in a face-to-face conversation, and including links can make you feel confident and credible, which encourages people to speak up.”
In short, it’s just easier to share using digital networks because it’s more frictionless.
Research psychologist Dr. Larry Rosen had similar thoughts. When I asked him why people feel more comfortable sharing online he said, “It’s really simple: If you pick up your phone, what you see is a reflection of your face.” That is, you don’t see the other people on the other side. “You’re the only person you’re talking to,” he added.
When connecting this with workplace discourse, Slack channels aren’t terribly different from Facebook groups. They are ways for people to share information, and more often than not, are self selecting for who participates and shares content. The fact that people are using workplace technology to share personal information further proves Deloitte’s findings that work time and not-work time are becoming more converged.
The creation of the digital workplace safe spaces, then, is a place for that kind of convergence. But as the example with my friend showcases, it’s not always in perfect harmony. More importantly, even if it feels private to you, it’s likely an employer can see exactly what you’re writing on Slack, even if it’s labeled “private.”
I asked Southwell if he thought it was alarming that people feel so comfortable sharing personal things on these digital work communications. “I think people have basic urges to share,” he said, adding that communication technologies have made it easier to share at work. “We tend to forget we are being watched,” he said. “Like focus-group participants who quickly forget about one-way mirrors and revert to normal conversation.”