select all

What Happens When Work Becomes a Nonstop Chat Room

Laura works in ad sales at a well-known tech company. Her office uses Slack, which is likely either as integral to your workday as email or you have never heard of it before. In which case, some explanation: Slack is a workplace messaging app that lets co-workers easily carry on an assortment of group and individual conversations, some private and some public, all organized in a simple user interface; it’s chattier than sending an email, less of a hassle than scheduling a meeting. It’s also easy to use on your phone — not so different from sending a text — and perhaps because of that ease, or because of the bright Silicon Valley affect it shares with services like Facebook and Instagram (Slack’s headquarters are in San Francisco), it tends to foster a dashed-off, emoji-laced vernacular. It does well with millennial workers.

Such was the case in Laura’s office, where the salespeople, who are generally more senior, use Slack less than the account managers, who are generally more junior. One day last summer, a saleswoman was looking for a conversation she’d had with an account manager, so she typed her own name in Slack’s search bar. She found a public Slack channel, says Laura (not her real name). “It was eight account managers, and it was pretty much dedicated to just bashing everybody in sales, from the top, top people, all the way down.” Within two hours, word had spread to the entire sales team, which spent a Friday afternoon reading the channel’s history start to finish. “There was some borderline racist stuff,” she remembers. And, “people were getting called ‘dumb sluts’ left and right.” At first, as salespeople started reading, the talk continued, but then the account managers noticed who was joining and began to flee. The fight-or-flight impulse was not particularly useful here: They could make the channel disappear from their own view of Slack, but running away did nothing to delete its history. The last thing to see in the chat record was the account managers’ boss entering the room. “As far as I know, nobody lost their job over it,” Laura says. “But I think people were pretty embarrassed.”

Office gossip is as old as the office. But the medium made that gossip searchable and public to anyone who knew where to look. It was a very, very stupid way to air grievances. And yet, at the same time, Slack was also the obvious place to do it.

Slack, first released in 2013, has essentially ushered employer-sanctioned social media into the workplace. At some point over the last year, it started to feel, at least in a certain kind of office, as ubiquitous as those other social-media giants. Like Facebook or Twitter, Slack induces the same anxious, attention-hungry rhythm in its users, the same need to endlessly refresh, and gives off the same illusion of intimacy in an ultimately public space. It also makes the line between work and not-work blurrier than ever — the constant scroll of maybe-relevant chatter in your chosen Slack channels registers at times like the background noise of any other newsfeed. For better or worse, it makes work life more like digital life, albeit a digital life where you can also smell what everyone else is eating for lunch. The question is, what does this intrusion do to the delicate diplomacy of office life? What happens when we bring our digital selves to work?

Slack was not the first company to offer workplace chat and instant messaging: Before Slack, there was Campfire; there was HipChat. Slack, though, was the one that became a verb. What do you do at work? I Slack. Did they get that taken care of? Yeah, we Slacked. Are you busy? No, just Slacking. The irony — Slacking at work! — is too obvious to be actually funny, but it still suggests an appealing baseline attitude. Slacking might feel stressful sometimes, but it never sounds that way.

Valued at $3.8 billion last year, Slack claims 5 million daily active users across workplaces that include 21st Century Fox, Dow Jones, and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Slack comes in a free version with limited storage and features but also offers several tiers of expanded plans, priced per active user. Open Slack, and it greets you with a friendly message as it loads: “Be cool. But also be warm.” Or: “You’re here! The day just got better.” Or: “Always get plenty of sleep, if you can.” (They’re all signed from “your friends at Slack.”) The left side of the screen lists your contacts and group “channels,” with green lights to indicate whether users are active and pink badges to mark unread messages. Star the people you talk to most and they’ll stay at the top of your list, or search for any other employee by name and start a new conversation. You can drop in and out of chat channels as the day goes on, or, if you’re a member of a particularly active channel, you might spend all day there, reading through the scroll. Channels are sometimes devoted to hobbies or snacks, but the overall idea is to improve workplace collaboration and communication.

The Slack sell to employers is that it decreases the burden of email, because nobody likes email. (Whether infinite chatty one-line messages are preferable to an overflowing inbox is debatable; for now, though, Slack retains the advantage of novelty.) It integrates the tools you already use, like Google Drive, so you can easily centralize everything. These functions aren’t so different from those of previous chat apps, but Slack makes them look good (a friendly interface) and run better (speedy, reliable, with a strong search function).

All of this has earned Slack word-of-mouth enthusiasm, not something generally associated with workplace software. It’s “cool office culture, available for instant download,” Slate declared two years ago, as the phenomenon was taking hold. Or, as Ali Rayl, Slack’s director of customer experience, puts it (in faintly depressing terms), Slack allows users to “create the human connection without the human overhead.” Slack’s work chat is the consummation of the open-plan-office dream — an unstructured space where you can share, collaborate, and see what everyone else is working on.

Originally, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield set out to design games. In 2002, he began work on Game Neverending, an online fantasy video game in which it was impossible for players to win or lose — that project failed, but some of its code gave rise to Flickr. His efforts toward a second endless game, this time called Glitch, yielded Slack; it grew out of the chat application the Glitch team used internally. On Slack, work presents as a quasi-social game that you want to keep playing. Its default color scheme is that of a ’90s mall or movie theater (purple, pink, teal), and if you announce that you’ve completed a task, colleagues can respond with a chorus of custom emoji. A widely beloved Giphy integration allows users to express themselves via gif. Recently, Slack added an emoji “status” feature that results in evermore tiny cartoons sprinkled through your chat history like confetti.

Rayl acknowledges that what happens on Slack doesn’t always look like work. The company sometimes hears from upper management “frustrated at how many Giphys are being sent.” She and her colleagues encourage them to focus on the long game: “When people have lots of incentives to put all of their conversation out in the open, all of that conversation becomes visible,” Rayl says. “The corpus of whatever the company does — not just the company’s product, but the process of building and maintaining the company itself — it is instantly recorded and available to everyone in the company.” GIFS and emoji are the incentive for employees to use Slack; greater oversight is the incentive for employers to tolerate GIFS and emoji. A company-operated social network might not be something most of us would seek out — but years of experience have primed us to accept a certain loss of privacy as the price paid for online entertainment or, in this case, entertaining work.

Tech and media companies have been perhaps the fastest and most ardent in their embrace, which also means their employees are furthest along the path to Slack-jadedness. Slack came into my life in 2014. Previously we’d used an inferior chat app; with Slack, it was a relief not to constantly expect that my instant messages would crash or freeze, or worry that I was chatting into the void as my colleagues’ instant messages crashed or froze. We reorganized our workflow through Slack’s convenient channels. We checked in on plans from our phones mid-commute. It made us forget what we’d ever done without Slack. It also made us spend more time chatting than we ever had before.

It’s definitely possible to get work done on Slack; it’s also possible to make yourself feel like you’re working without actually accomplishing anything. To be a given company’s most active Slack user — a ranking anyone can view, just go to your team’s page of all-time statistics — is an ambiguous honor.

Slack’s own employees reportedly adhere to the principle “Work hard, then go home.” They have nonetheless created a product that encourages the opposite: “Work half-distractedly, then keep doing that no matter where you go.” Slack has made work, like the rest of the internet, a passive addiction. “I struggle with it,” says Ainsley, a user-experience designer in San Francisco. “Because I get really addicted to notifications, so I see that badge, I want to clear it.” David Phelps lives in New York and runs two small businesses, a tutoring agency and an auto-pay app for freelancers. The app’s developers work remotely, so Slack has become not just an efficient communication tool but a surrogate office — one that can be carried in a pocket or left on a nightstand.

“I used to wake up and turn off the alarm and check Tinder,” Phelps tells me. “Now I wake up and check Slack.”

Slack is a very human experience,” says Christina Janzer, who runs Slack’s UX research team. “It makes the workplace much more personal, which is maybe why people have such an emotional tie to it.” That’s also why Slack can reshape office relationships: It takes the group dynamics already present between co-workers and douses them in digital accelerant. Experiences familiar from other forms of social media — the avalanche of group consensus, the fear of missing out, the publicly performed friendships, the sudden exposure — become, with Slack, part of the work world.

Slack encourages co-workers to see themselves as a team and presents plenty of means to assert group identity. For example, an efficient way to summarize the differing editorial sensibilities of Gawker and BuzzFeed might be this: BuzzFeed had a Slack channel for being excited about Hamilton; Gawker had a Slack channel for compiling bad tweets. Co-workers can personalize emoji, devise elaborate Slack bot pranks, cultivate inside jokes.

Caitlin Hales, who works in tech, says that the job she left recently had an especially robust Slack culture. It was the kind of place where someone programmed a Slack bot to share photos whenever anyone took selfies with the wall-mounted iPad in the kitchen. (It was the kind of place with a wall-mounted iPad in the kitchen.) “If you weren’t contributing to Slack, you weren’t contributing to the culture as a whole,” she says. “So there was a little bit of pressure, almost, to be involved.” She likes Slack, but she sees how it can get to be too much. “Sometimes I felt that I needed to mute every single channel in order to get stuff done. It was like, people are expecting you to reply to them and contribute to the conversation happening about, you know, freaking Pepe.”

While your colleagues chat in the well-appointed break room of Slack’s public channels, you can always peel off with a chosen few and start whispering about what’s really going on. Slack might present itself as a beacon of transparency — a bright, door-free office with a bot taking lunch orders — but it’s also the post-meeting smoke break, offering easy access to the conspiratorial intimacy on which co-worker friendship thrives (especially coveted in the open-plan realm, where privacy can be hard to come by).

Nonthreatening, low-stakes, it’s an easy medium for social overtures, one that lacks the vestigial formality of email and the challenges of speaking face-to-face. When, last month, the dating app Feeld launched a Slack integration that would allow co-workers to privately declare interest in each other, the widespread reaction was hilarity regarding potential HR complaints. (Slack declined to list the Feeld bot in its directory.) But more fundamentally absurd was the integration’s redundancy: If you can’t manage on your own to flirt over chat, there may be no hope for you — Slack is already perfect for this purpose. This is especially true if you began adolescence on AOL, close-reading crushes’ away messages and claiming to be 18 — then chat will always be a little linked to sex. I know at least one woman whose office romance was fueled by Slack repartee. The relationship has since ended; she says she’s saving their chat transcripts so that she can write a screenplay someday.

Slack is also perfect for conspiring and bitching. Group DMs, and even more so, private invite-only Slack channels, allow you to codify social factions with an ease rarely seen beyond middle school. You can start a fun channel and give it a fun name, like you’re a seventh-grade girl with a cool clique. Or you can give it a sneaky name — “research-help” — to avoid detection when you’ve got it pulled up on your screen. A private chat can become the venue for office play-by-play in real time: the co-worker who always comes by to mooch snacks (Here she is again!) or the one trailing a miasma of cologne. Private channels provide a place to commiserate; DMs provide a sympathetic ear.

Naturally, it stings to discover when you’ve been left in the cold, to hear an outbreak of laughter across the office when nothing’s happening on your Slack. (I’ve been told that in one of the private channels at my office, members hoping to avoid discovery regularly remind each other not to laugh — but I’m not really in a position to confirm.) Annie Buller, who works at a start-up in New York, recalls the bittersweet moment when she was invited to join her office’s Pizza Day channel: “I was like, Why was I never on here before?

Buller started a “ladies only” channel at her mostly male workplace. At first she just wanted to be able to alert fellow women when she’d stashed extra tampons in her drawer, but it became a place for longer conversations: exchanging advice on IUDs, tipping each other off to women-in-tech events and sales at Sephora. The channel was public — anyone could search for it and join — and inspired great interest among male colleagues. “They’d drop in — maybe not even say something, maybe drop in the emoji of the eyes — and then leave,” Buller says. Finally the women, exasperated, decided to make the channel private. “Now all the dudes are even more intrigued,” she says. “There’s one guy who will go on other people’s computers just to sneak a peek.”

Women-only channels are common, as are ones delineating office hierarchy — managers without employees, employees without managers. Before Gawker unionized in 2015, Slack was the space where employees debated the value of organizing. There was a channel with everyone except management, where people laid out thoughtful arguments for and against, which came to serve as a DIY voter’s guide. Then there were the conversations (more heated) that took place in more select private channels and the one-on-one DM analysis. A former staffer I spoke to remembers the discussion as startlingly blunt. “There were people we were very surprised by who came out as, like, Republicans,” she says. “I still remember who was anti-union, and I still remember the things that they said.” On Slack, it became easy for debate to turn “divisive and intense”: “What you wouldn’t say in person, you can say on Slack.”

In other words, people didn’t act like they were in the office. They acted like they were on the internet. Slack is sometimes described as a digital watercooler, but watercoolers are often places for dutiful small talk — the exact kind of workplace nicety with which Slack dispenses. Losing that veneer of fake office politeness means seeing things (and revealing things) that you might have preferred to ignore. And Slack does not merely provide a means of talking about one another; Slack also provides more material. You pivot from a group conversation to a back-channel rehash of the conversation — it’s a move that makes you feel slightly craven (why can’t you stop yourself?) and also, because it could so easily go awry (and because you know this!), sort of dumb. Wait wtf was that? is he pissed?, you type and send, probably but not definitely to the correct recipient.

Slack can lull you into a sense of privacy that it would be unwise to trust. Office chats seem both intimate and disposable, but the half-grammatical missives you’ve long since forgotten can endure in the fossil record. When Hulk Hogan first took Gawker to court, editors found themselves confronted with jokes they’d made on Campfire in 2012. Employers cannot read private-channel Slack messages and DMs — unless they subscribe to a pricing tier intended for clients in fields like finance, who are required to maintain full communication records. In that case, management can request a compliance export of all Slack messages sent. (Employees receive a notification from Slack when this happens.) Otherwise, your messages live in the Amazon cloud, for whatever time period your employer chooses: a day, a week, forever.

Major Slack leaks are chilling possibilities. Really, though, Slack exposure doesn’t require anything so complex. It could be as simple as a screenshot — perhaps something saved by a disgruntled ex-employee or a DM forwarded by its intended recipient. Earlier this month, Anthime Gionet — the former BuzzFeed employee turned pro-Trump troll known online as “Baked Alaska”released screenshots that appeared to show his former co-workers casually chatting about whether Trump would be assassinated. He offered up their Slack history as evidence of liberal bias, but it was also a cautionary tale about office messaging.

One of the pleasures of life on Slack, as on the internet in general, is the opportunity to eavesdrop and observe. Quiet presence in a group chat can pass unnoticed indefinitely, unless you decide to say something or leave. (“When in human history,” asks David Phelps, “have we been able to watch other people’s conversations without feeling awkward?”) Sometimes, though, the quiet presence is your boss.

Some in Silicon Valley avoid these intrusions (and other oversight) by maintaining shadow Slacks — not the official work “team,” administered by an employer, but a separate one that happens to be all co-workers. “It’s like a full-time daytime happy hour,” one tech employee tells me. Any group can register at families, neighbors, friends. Buller has purely social Slack teams that started out as Facebook group messages. If you’re all going to be on Slack anyway, she explains, “it’s a little more innocuous” — instead of looking like you’re checking Facebook all the time, “you can low-key drift over” during the workday.

Were it possible or desirable to effectively police Slack’s social use, conversations would likely migrate elsewhere. But the fact of its being work-sanctioned alters the decision-making psychology in play. Your job is to use this tool; you’re supposed to be talking to your co-workers, even when you’re talking to them in GIFS.

Here’s my confession: At times, what I do at work seems to be “be on Slack,” and there have been times when I have loved it. This has less to do with Slack’s intrusive robot chumminess (my Wi-Fi stops working: “Hmm,” says a Slack bot, “your computer seems to be offline, so sending messages won’t work at the moment”) than with the sensation that I am literally getting paid to talk to smart people about things that interest us. Is there a luckier way to feel at work?

Still, when one of my co-workers went on maternity leave, she posted a screenshot on Instagram of her phone asking if she was sure she wanted to delete Slack, and I had never felt more envious of any piece of lifestyle content on that platform. Deleting Slack — that was freedom.

Slack is a compulsion, a distraction. A burden. Often, though, our complaints about it carry a note of aggrieved resignation. They’re delivered in the same tone used for laments regarding air travel, Facebook, or Time Warner. Slack has become another utility we both rely on and resent.

“I HATE Slack,” moans a friend, not without pleasure. “She hates Slack now,” another reports of a mutual friend. “I have Opinions,” a third texts darkly.

Of course she does. We all do. Slack’s creator keeps trying to invent endless, unwinnable games. For now, he has succeeded.

*This article appears in the May 1, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

What Happens When Work Becomes a Nonstop Chat Room