We use Slack.
As a distributed team, it’s a pretty critical piece of our tech stack that helps us stay connected and collaborating on a day-to-day basis.
It pings us when our team members need our assistance and input on tasks and projects. It notifies us when changes happen in the other apps in our tech stack. And it lets us know when our next video call is about to begin. And of course, we’re far from alone on this.
Slack reached over $900M in revenue in 2021 with 156,000 paying customers and more than 750,000 organizations actively using the platform.
But also like a lot of other teams, we’ve been feeling the constant hum of digital distraction. We started questioning whether we’re really using Slack productively as a team and as individuals. Are all those pings and notifications throughout our digital workdays as helpful as we think they are, or are they creating a whole lot of noise and delaying us from doing the real work?
We decided to find out by doing an audit and workshop around our team’s Slack usage—really examine how the app punctuates our digital workdays. And through our research, surveying our team’s sentiment around the platform and actually measuring our usage data, something quickly became clear.
While it’s an important tool for us, Slack can also completely undermine productivity and contribute to feelings of burnout if it's not used intentionally.
Our goal became to find our team’s optimal Slack usage—our sweet spot between quick collaboration and focused productivity so we could work smarter, not harder, to improve output and reduce stress in the process.
So what did we find and what did we do about it?
Our distributed team’s Slack environment
First, I want to lay the groundwork by sharing what our team's Slack environment looked like before we started our audit.
- Our team: about 20 people across our development, product, customer experience, marketing, leadership and HR teams.
- Slack availability: Although we’re located across various time zones—and thus have various start and end times—we’re generally all online and available between the hours of 9am to 12pmPT.
- Slack channels: Somehow in our year-and-a-half of development we’ve accumulated 78(!!!) different Slack channels. Of course, not every team member follows every one of these channels (I follow 25, for example).
- Notifications: We all mostly keep our notifications turned on during our working hours.
Going into this audit, our team had a workshop and survey to openly discuss some of our feelings and observations about our Slack usage. Here’s are a few of the things that came up:
- We tend to get drawn into Slack frequently due to notifications that turn out to be not-all-that-valuable. More than 90% of our team felt Slack causes them to get distracted from their work.
- 55% of our team said they often find themselves searching through Slack without any specific purpose—just to see if they missed anything. The rest said they occasionally do this.
- About 73% of our team confirmed they often get drawn into Slack outside of working hours—only one person said they rarely or never do.
- We spend more time than necessary trying to find stuff in Slack because there’s no great way to prioritize content—18% of the team said they spend 1-2 hours in Slack per day; nearly 73% said they spend 30 minutes to an hour.
- 73% of our team confirmed Slack causes them increased stress and anxiety.
- There was also some confusion around whether Slack is supposed to be a synchronous or asynchronous work tool.
We may or may not be a good representation of other teams, but in the spirit of transparency, that’s where our team started. And from there, we began measuring our Slack usage.
Measuring our team’s baseline Slack usage data
If you’re unfamiliar with Produce8 , it’s a digital work analytics platform that’s core purpose right now is to help teams better understand how they’re using their technology. So we had the perfect use-case to test it out on our own team.
Over a two-week period, we all agreed to remain status-quo when it came to our Slack usage. We did our best to use the platform as we previously had and avoid making any setting changes—we wanted to really capture an accurate representation of our starting point.
Here’s a glimpse at what two weeks of Slack usage data looked like for some of our team members. Each purple dot represents a separate Slack interaction, and we’ve layered them on top of one another to show the highest usage periods throughout the day.
It’s a neat view of our Slack usage patterns. You can clearly see the difference in work start and end times, and it’s interesting to see how some people use Slack in a concentrated way for a shorter period of time while others use it more infrequently but over a longer period of time.
But let’s dig a little deeper.
The results of our team’s Slack audit
Here’s what we found when we measured our team’s Slack usage for a two-week period.
- Each team member had an average of 86 interactions with Slack per day.
- They spent an average of 53 minutes per day in Slack.
- The average interaction duration was 58 seconds per session.
We also made a couple other observations we think are important.
- On average, our team members didn’t go more than 15 minutes in a day without checking Slack. And statistically, we know every time someone context switches, it takes them 15 to 23 minutes to refocus.
- Almost all of our team members logged some level of after-hours Slack usage. Seeing as we have a distributed team of people across multiple time zones, this wasn’t all that surprising. But it did confirm the average workday stretches longer than we think it does for our team members.
It’s also very worth noting this audit was based on our team’s Slack web-app usage only—we didn’t include mobile app usage this time around. Average interactions, average daily usage and the frequency of after-hours usage would only increase if we were to include that in future measurements.
Once we had the data, it was time to have some conversations about what it all meant.
“We started this audit to look at productivity and well-being in our teams," said our Director of Engineering, Geoff Affleck.
"The data we found was very helpful in evaluating our teams’ ability to focus and disconnect, which are critical to having productive working hours and relaxing non-working hours. I really look forward to testing out some Slack usage changes next and seeing what results we can measure with Produce8.”
Changing the ways our team uses Slack
Based on the data, we knew we had a distraction problem that was spanning our entire workday, every day. We also knew no one on the team was getting enough time for undisrupted focus work. And from our initial survey, we knew our team members were finding it difficult to know which Slack messages and notifications were worth taking a pause for and which weren’t.
When should synchronous work take priority over asynchronous?
Our team collectively decided to make the following changes:
1. We established synchronous and asynchronous work times.
- We’d have synchronous work hours Monday to Friday between 9am-12pmPT. During that time, we’d use and check Slack as normal and have unlimited (but intentional) collaboration and communication.
- During the rest of the asynchronous workweek, we’d mute all our notifications and minimize our Slack windows.
- We agreed if anyone felt blocked or had an urgent communication need, they should feel empowered to push a message to the team and the response would be people’s best effort.
- Finally, any collaboration during asynch hours would have to be very intentional. NOTE: team phone numbers were also made available for emergency situations.
2. We adjusted our standard operating procedures for Slack response times.
- During synchronous work hours, we agreed to respond to one another when it was convenient for us.
- @mentions would be used in channel messages intentionally when a timely response was required and responses would be people’s best effort.
- There would also be no expectations for team members to check or catch up with unspecified channel chatter, unless team members happened to be working collaboratively on a task or project.
- During asynchronous work hours, there’d be no response expectations. Slack would only be used or checked when necessary for intentional conversation that drives work forward. And again, messages could be pushed manually if they required an urgent response.
- Outside of work hours, Slack would be 100% asynchronous. There’d be zero expectations for team members to check or respond. And any real emergencies could be addressed by a phone call.
With our new Slack usage changes and setting agreements in place, our team forged on.
What happened when we changed our team’s Slack usage rules and settings?
I really want to tell you the changes we made had an immediate and dramatic positive impact. But the truth is, they didn’t. Not to our Slack usage patterns, anyways.
When we compared our Slack-usage heat maps from the first audit and the second audit, they looked pretty darn similar. You could even argue the second audit looked busier—and you might be right. Overall, we didn’t see any noticeable changes to our usage patterns.
While these results were a little frustrating, there were some very real explanations.
- We compared data from two separate two-week periods. It’s reasonable to assume we had more communication and collaboration requirements in the second period. We’re a startup tech company. No two weeks are ever alike.
- We also had team members express some new concerns during the second audit period because they had muted their notifications. Some said they were worried about missing notifications and ended up checking in on Slack more than before.
The survey we ran after our second audit also gave us some interesting feedback that showed, while our usage patterns remained fairly consistent, our new usage changes and agreements made us feel less distracted and better able to get focus time.
- Nearly 78% of our team thought they were checking Slack less than before and nearly 90% thought they were spending less time in the app.
- Almost 56% of our team felt the changes we implemented to Slack made them a little or a lot more productive, and the rest saw no changes to their productivity.
- 89% of the team also felt the changes made Slack a little or a lot less distracting, and 33% said they felt less stressed since the changes were implemented—although one individual felt more stressed.
These survey findings led us to conclude we're on to something with team agreements for Slack to reduce distraction and stress, but we didn't quite nail it.
Here’s what some of our team members had to say:
“I enjoy the lack of distraction and getting drawn into Slack for notifications that weren't important. However, I often feel slow to reply to important messages and worry I'm slowing people down.”
“It's more difficult to get a hold of people now, but I'm getting more focus time and less distraction from Slack.”
And another team member said:
“Overall, I like the changes. But I've noticed it's been really hard to break the habit of checking frequently. I'm not convinced I've really realized the potential improvements to focus because it's been so hard to kick the habit of checking 'just because'.”
Clearly there was some contradiction between the measured data and how people said they felt about the changes we made to our Slack usage. So we were getting somewhere. Just not where we wanted to be—yet.
Making more adjustments to our team’s Slack usage
At this point, we still felt the goal was to land on some clear, team-wide agreements for Slack usage to remove any uncertainty, stress and distraction.
But, we also agreed we couldn’t go so heavy on rules around usage. This seems to undermine our ability to use our individual best judgement to ask for help when needed—and receive it.
Taking what we learned from our first two audits, our team made some new changes to how we use Slack:
1. Our synchronous and asynchronous work times have become less rigid.
- Although we decided to continue with our 9am til’ noon synchronous work hours, this time period now refers to a period when the team is expected to be online and available for collaboration.
- We’ve agreed to book all meetings and collaboration time during this time, whenever possible.
- People may be less available for quick responses outside of the synchronous work period, but we also maintain posted work hours and availability for all to see.
2. We’re no longer muting all notifications outside of synchronous work hours.
- Team members were concerned about missing each other's messages and missing notifications about meetings and other important items. So instead, we’ve decided to focus on more granular notification management: Departments can decide which (general) channels should be muted and which (project) channels should remain unmuted; and, direct messages don’t need to be muted.
3. We’re encouraging scheduled focus time.
- Team members are encouraged to schedule individual focus time into their calendars—during asynchronous work hours when possible.
- Individual Slack status should be set to “heads down” with muted notifications for the duration of focus time.
- Team members are also encouraged to force-through notifications for important/urgent messages using their best judgment.
We’re currently working using the parameters above. Stay tuned to find out whether we’re heading in the right direction!
3 Important lessons our distributed team learned auditing our Slack usage
While we haven’t quite cracked the nut on our team’s optional Slack productivity just yet, our team of distributed digital workers is getting closer. We’ve also been learning a lot from the two Slack usage audits we've run so far.
- The reality is, two weeks likely isn’t enough time to change our habits and see positive results. Measuring data over a longer timeframe will likely yield more accurate findings and perhaps lead to more impactful results.
- Failing to leave enough space for personal judgement when it comes to Slack usage can have unintended consequences. The first set of changes we made were meant to reduce/remove notifications from most of the day. However, that started to undermine our ability to collaborate and stay unblocked on tasks and deliverables. The second set of changes we’ve made aren't meant to reduce notifications in the same way, but instead are meant to promote focus time and collaboration on core deliverables.
- The fact that we’re all listening to one another and trying to make positive changes collectively feels good and is good. Maybe it’s just a placebo effect, but according to our surveys, the vast majority of our team members seem to feel better about the levels of distraction and stress in their workdays. And that’s something.
We’re also learning a ton about our product and the various features and functionality that will be useful for helping teams perform their own audits—be it Slack, another communications or collaboration platform, or even their entire technology stack.
We want to make it as easy as possible for teams to spot trends in their work data so that changes can be made, impact can be measured and verified, and teams can start working better together.