Why a Slack Backlash Is Inevitable
Slack and its counterparts ‘create problems, high-school-type problems,’ one CEO said
Big Technology is a weekly newsletter dedicated to covering the tech world with honest, nuanced reporting. Join the 10,000+ subscribers who tune into Big Technology for tech news without the spin. Here’s an easy way to subscribe:
Sitting among peers at a gathering a few years ago, an exasperated Silicon Valley CEO seemed ready to get rid of Slack. “It’s one of my biggest regrets,” he said.
The app was fueling drama inside his company, and he wondered aloud whether it was worth the trouble. From a few feet away, I was surprised to overhear anything other than the often-repeated mantra that Slack would replace email. Yet since then, more executives have privately confessed concerns about how workplace chat apps were upending their cultures.
“They create problems, high-school-type problems,” one CEO of a midsized firm told me. “People are making fun of co-workers, they’re acting unprofessionally, and it’s technically a company system.”
A reckoning for workplace chat apps like Slack and Microsoft Teams is coming; just ask the people who pay for them. As companies deploy these systems en masse — and rely on them to work from home — executives are starting to confront a set of issues that early adopters know well. Workplace chat can amplify corporate infighting, help divide companies like social media divides countries, and facilitate employee organizing. Top executives, not employees, sign the checks for these services. And though they’re unlikely to get rid of them, many will inevitably crack down on their freewheeling nature.
“A lot of my CEO and founder friends talk about this,” one venture capitalist, who asked to remain anonymous because being bearish on Slack would harm his brand, told me. “The problematic employee, the employee who would sit around at the lunchroom and tell people how bad this place is — that’s just happening on Slack, and it’s amplifying.”
Workplace chat alters conversations at work similar to how social media alters the public discourse. Apps like Slack remove friction from communication and turn people into avatars, enabling rapid collaboration but also leading people to say things they wouldn’t in person. Much like social media, information travels fast on these platforms, but their features can also lead to infighting, sniping, and group harassment. And as the backlashes to Facebook and Twitter demonstrate, any rapidly adopted communication technology will eventually face scrutiny.
The Slack backlash won’t involve full abandonment (mea culpa on this prediction), especially as companies rely on services like it to work from home, but CEOs will put on restraints. Some are already auditing all private channels in an attempt to limit shit talking. Others are spending more time setting boundaries for how conversations should play out on these services.
“It will have to evolve, especially in the U.S., the more that we are operating remote,” Joel Flory, CEO of camera app VSCO, told me. “It cannot be used the way it was, as almost like the watercooler chat. It has to be more thoughtful.”
Beyond internal politics, executives are also paying attention to how employees use tools like Slack to organize. Workers at companies like Away, Andela, and the New York Times have recently used Slack to put leadership on blast and leaked those conversations to advance their interests. As Slack spreads, this type of action will spread with it. And even the most open companies are unlikely to tolerate it for very long, as was the case with Google.
The way Google reacted to its employee rebellions could preview what other companies might do as they face their own. Over the past few years, Google employees organized protests on its custom-built communications tools, believing the company’s pledge to let its people speak their minds. Google did listen to its employee concerns. But after the protests, it also cut down its internal communication network: It reduced its employee town halls from weekly to monthly, banned political discussions on its internal mailing lists, and retaliated against organizers of internal protests, according to those organizers.
“Overall, a culture of openness and feedback and employee engagement is tied up with the innovation we create,” Google chief legal officer Kent Walker told me at the time. “We value that; we need to find a way to make it work at scale.” Then Google made its choices.
(You can find the full conversation with Walker, and much more, in my book, Always Day One.)
Now, as companies find themselves in similar positions, some may react in the same way. “Will companies hammer down? I’m sure some will,” Margaret O'Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington who studies the tech industry, told me.
Aaron Skonnard, CEO of Pluralsight, a tech skills training company, considered what his reaction would be if his employees organized a union push using internal chat. “I do see how if that were happening to me it would cause me to think twice,” he said. Enough to remove the app? “I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in transparency and freedom of speech.”
Slack declined an interview request, but its VP of communications and policy Jonathan Prince shared a statement. “We believe that transparency and open communication are more important and valuable today than ever before,” he said. “Slack provides a great way to establish a consistent dialogue with your most critical resource — your team — to demonstrate commitment to listening to employees and to foster alignment, motivation, and engagement.”
Ultimately, many CEOs and analysts I spoke with said it’s up to company leaders to create a healthy culture and make sure it’s lived out in its communication tools. “The onus is on the CEO,” Flory said. “Our focus has been on the values,” Skonnard said. These tools have been a godsend for many seeking to maintain company cohesion as they go remote. But with that said, an adjustment period is on the way.