I never cease to be amazed by the chat channels that pop up on my company’s official Slack workspace. From #dogyard to #design, #bikes, #cars, #intramuralsports, #volunteering, and something called #criticalmass (which is about getting a group of coworkers together to do something outside of work), a new thread seems to be started by someone almost every day.
It’s been like this ever since some of our engineers turned to Slack–the intraoffice comms tool that’s pretty ubiquitous in startups these days–for workday chats a couple of years ago. It was originally intended as a way to fuel productivity, by enabling people to share information without disrupting one another. Before we knew it, the whole team was on it discussing and debating all manner of things (and, as a company, we were pretty much forced into formally subscribing to the platform–clever one, Slack).
Of course, constant workplace chat isn’t limited to one application. Whether its old-fashioned SMS, Facebook Messenger, or Google Hangouts, instant messaging and messaging apps have completely infiltrated your average workplace. More than 40% of Americans now use chat apps at work, and that jumps to more than 70% in the tech industry. And with tech companies in an arms race to build the next go-to platform for instant office communication, chances are your employees are now talking with someone almost all the time during their 9 to 5–and I guarantee you it’s not always about work.
All of which raises the question: What kind of impact is all this having on productivity? And, as a leader, just how worried should you be about it?
My answer: not very. This constant communication is evidence of a new work paradigm, one in which the professional and personal are mingling, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It might seem counterintuitive, but I’ve found that as a CEO the best thing I can do to manage the impact of instant chat on my company is to take a relatively hands-off approach. Not only is it futile to completely police how people are using these tools at work, but if you let things evolve organically–and trust your team to strike the right balance–the “Slackification” of work can actually be a good thing.
The profound upside of office chatter
We’ve all been in offices where you don’t know the name of the person who sits 10 feet away from you. Not only does this kind of disconnection make for awkward interactions, it also makes it difficult to wander over and ask for help with a project, check on a deadline, or collaborate on an idea that crosses departmental lines. That’s a big reason why one of the biggest contributors to workplace productivity isn’t time spent, head down, at your desk. It’s social cohesion.
And this is where chat can help. All those seemingly off-topic threads happening through the day actually do help build a rapport that transcends work, sure, but also enhances it. When employees bond over a shared love of trail running or sampling craft beer on a chat thread, they not only learn each other’s names, but what drives each other as human beings. The culture of belonging and collaboration that starts online has measurable impacts offline when it comes to sharing knowledge and offering support for problems and projects that come up at work. In fact, a study by Microsoft even found that productivity at work actually increases with access to social media chat tools.
Not to mention, those personal conversations often overlap with our company mission and vision. For instance, #changeyard started as a Slack thread for people who wanted to volunteer in our community, which aligns perfectly with our corporate social responsibility strategy. Meanwhile #foodyard–for people who want to check out local restaurants, cafes, and bars–brings workers together outside the office and fosters engagement in the community.
Chats function as a “safety valve”
Of course, not everything that comes up on these threads is uniformly positive, and that’s turned out to have its own value. Our office chats have been a place for healthy debate and debriefs about things that otherwise would have flown under my radar and potentially had a big impact on morale.
For example, back in the day, our company mixers often centered around video games and beer. But as our company grew–and became more diverse–people started asking for more family-friendly ways we could come together. Those conversations were an important signal to me that our company culture needed to evolve. And because they were right there in front of me, I could respond immediately, as opposed to being caught unaware by a growing sense of frustration.
And then there’s the importance of the threads I never see. Slack may not be anonymous, but other informal channels, whether Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, or G Hangouts, can function as a key outlet for employees to do something that’s been happening for all of human history: vent.
Whether it’s about a stressful deadline, a family issue, or frustration over an interaction with a colleague, venting has been shown to be important for emotional regulation. Ditto for having a confidante you can express these feelings to at work. Rather than stealing away to the bathroom to gossip, or stewing about a minor problem until the end of the day, employees with access to instant communication have an immediate outlet for tensions as they arise.
Dealing with the downside of chat
Admittedly, this new paradigm does come with challenges. For starters, not everyone is great at curtailing their chat time.
Most people we hire come with a good sense of personal time management. They get that it’s on them to find the right balance between pursuing personal interests and fulfilling professional responsibilities at work. After all, that kind of autonomy is why people are attracted to the startup environment in the first place. But there have been cases where employees haven’t fully grasped that our play-hard culture is a result of the fact that we often work hard, too.
The challenge is that unlike the days when people socialized around the water cooler, it’s challenging now to tell how much work time is spent discussing favorite dog breeds or the strategic plan for the next quarter. Technically, this could be possible: On Slack, in fact, all public channel data can be exported and downloaded. (The tool is actually an acronym for Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge.)
But, to me, that kind of big-brother type surveillance largely defeats the purpose of Slack, as a place for team-building, not merely a productivity tool. Because of this, we really don’t measure productivity by hours logged at a desk, but by progress against clear KPIs– measurable goals set (and checked) each quarter for each employee. And because we have small teams, it’s easy to tell when people aren’t pulling their weight.
Similarly, some of our younger hires have learned the hard way that, when it comes to instant communications, ephemeral does not mean inconsequential. We don’t use filters to monitor content, but we do take employee complaints very seriously and have zero tolerance on the rare occasions offensive, inappropriate, or discriminatory content has been brought to our attention in workplace communications. We’ve had to let individuals go for this very reason.
While we don’t have formal training sessions on Slack, we’ve reminded all employees that this is a workplace tool and that professional standards of decorum apply. Of course, these standards will vary from organization to organization, depending on size, culture, and industry. Memes from Game of Thrones might not raise eyebrows in a tech startup, but could be seen as unacceptable in the context of financial services or governmental organizations. (On our own Slack, we’ve disabled GIFs tagged as not safe for work.) For that reason, policing Slack can represent tricky territory for some companies and, like almost all social channels, norms continue to evolve.
The reality is that instant communications are infiltrating every corner of our lives. Figuring out how to optimize this new paradigm at work is definitely a moving target. But if you can look beyond those in-depth dissections of last night’s Walking Dead or plans for next week’s team dinner, you’ll find that chat can play a critical role in bringing a company closer.