I am sitting in a chair at my job, looking down at the smartphone resting in my hands. There is a lull in work-related activity during this mid-afternoon, and I am left to my own devices; my only duty is to answer the door and assist when packages arrive.
I turn off my phone and redirect my attention upwards to the desk I sit at where a computer monitor is turned on. Its web browser features a few open tabs, and I use a mouse to click on the one housing Slack.
While at my job at the University of Michigan’s Tech Shop in the Michigan Union, I am supposed to use the Slack interface to be alerted of new protocols, communicate progress on daily tasks and find answers to questions or roadblocks I encounter throughout the workday. My digital behavior frequently diverges from these expectations, however, and today is no exception.
A few hours ago, I received an email from one of my editors at The Michigan Daily approving my story idea about Slack and the people and places that use it (I rarely use The Daily’s own Slack workspace, except for instructions on how to enter the Student Publications Building). Now given the go-ahead to conduct interviews, I begin to type a message in ITS’s #social-watercooler channel. Scrolling up in the feed, I see a meme with a Bugs Bunny in formalwear that reads: “i wish all people with cats a very pleasant can i see them.” Under it is a thread of 28 replies, the vast majority containing feline photos. I begin to type my own new message outside the thread:
“hi all! I am writing an article for The Michigan Daily about the use of Slack in U-M workspaces and student orgs. If anyone would like to participate in a short interview on their experiences, react to this message or DM me here on Slack. thank you for considering!”
I click on the green paper plane icon that sends the message, and moments later it appears in the public record. On Slack’s sidebar, where all of the channels I am a part of are listed, I click on the #tech-shop-student-managers channel in order to revive the impression that I am actually doing work for the job I am sitting at, hiding the #social-watercooler feed.
My smartphone buzzes, and I receive a notification from my co-op’s workspace. Linder House uses Slack as the primary mode of electronic communication among the 20 of us that live there. I received said notification because one of my housemates sent “@channel,” thereby notifying all members, in #linderfarts. The purpose of this channel is to alert everyone else when one farts, and it is by far the most active channel in our house’s Slack workspace.
I smirk a little, and then put my phone down in my lap to look at the computer on my desk. Now, in my ITS Ann Arbor workspace, there is a bright red oval hovering over the navigation sidebar, telling me that I have unread messages. I scroll down within the sidebar, and see that I have a direct message from Madi Atkins, a fellow member of ITS Ann Arbor whom I have never met. She expresses interest in sharing her experiences using Slack with me, and after a few messages back and forth we arrange to meet virtually the following afternoon using Slack’s Huddle feature.
Within this 20-minute span of non-urgent virtual chat, five more users have reacted to my additional call for interviews using the :eyes: emoji, and several others have sent me a private message. Overwhelmed with the emoji users, I stick to the direct responses, and arrange virtual meeting times with those people as well.
A few hours later, I clock out and head home for the day. Late that evening, from my bedroom, I open the ITS Ann Arbor Slack once again to paste Zoom virtual meeting links to those that requested. I schedule these messages to go out the next morning rather than the current time of midnight to give the illusion of a healthy sleep schedule.
The next afternoon, I log back into the ITS Slack and find my direct messages with Atkins. I open new tabs in my web browser that contain the other materials needed to conduct and record this interview. At our agreed-upon time, I click on the headphone-icon toggle button that then turns blue, signifying that the Huddle has begun.
I am currently the only one in the Huddle, and my default light blue profile image now has rounded square borders emanating out and fading from it. When Atkins joins a few moments later, her profile picture, still static, has similar lines surrounding it, signifying that she is in fact a real person speaking and that she is alive.
We laugh at the oddness that is meeting someone for the first time using this format, and Atkins, a senior support analyst on ITS’s Collaboration Services Team, shares her initial experience of using Slack with a U-M student org, back in 2016.
“My first impressions were that it felt like (a lot was) happening,” Atkins said. “For someone coming from a more one-to-one … conversation to an area where there are multiple channels, (to a space) where there are group conversations going on, and then also one-to-one direct messages. It was kind of like ‘whoa, pay attention in here.’”
I experienced this firsthand during the interview: as our conversation continued on, visually represented in the lower left corner of the screen, the rest of the Ann Arbor ITS ecosystem was active and buzzing in the background, with red numbers appearing next to channels as new messages and reactions accumulated. There is a certain dazzle within this intense virtual simultaneity, a new dimension of visual interest and layering of communication methods; direct messages and channels with hundreds of users sit in the same column.
Damian Jankowski, a recent LSA graduate and Tech Shop student manager, spoke over a Zoom call about his first time using the platform about a year ago. “When I first joined, I was pretty amazed by all the features Slack had,” Jankowski said. “It’s kind of a mixture between social media and group messaging.”
Despite its intense multifacetedness, Slack’s amenities have been repeatedly described as simple to catch onto, and although the company has an entire help center to help new and curious users learn about the platform to the fullest extent, no one I interviewed ever mentioned using it or needing it in their day-to-day practice.
Ravi Pendse, the University’s vice president for information technology and chief information officer, summarized this simplicity by comparing Slack to technological phenomena of previous decades:
“Many people use (the) iPhone,” Pendse said. “It’s very intuitive. You push a button on an app and the app opens and no matter what happens they all work the same way … and that’s why the iPhone essentially revolutionized touchscreens in terms of how people connect … That intuitiveness, that ease of use, is what I was impressed with when I first started to use Slack.”
Looking down at my own iPhone I was using to call Pendse, I thought about the way the device and its ancestors quickly weaved their way into the lives of mine and others, the way my 2-year-old cousin effortlessly scrolls and swipes through a dense camera roll in an eerie sort of digital instinct. Perhaps Slack is on the verge of something similar.
Even before the pandemic, Kate Barker was used to being online. She previously worked remotely for a software company, and the internet glue that held their disparate teams together back in 2012 was none other than Slack.
“I recall it being very easy to use and a great way to communicate because my job was mostly virtual,” Barker said. “It just seemed like a natural fit for communications in a virtual environment.”
Now, working as the customer and staff experience manager at the University’s Shared Services Center, she and her team are seeking to return some humanity to the sterile scroll of the virtual office.
“Most people on campus interact with (the Shared Services Center) in some way, shape, or form,” Barker said. “So we created a channel to share best practices, tips and tricks, (and) news updates. Our intern, (Greg Hughes), (is) figuring out the frequently asked questions … how can we engage the campus community to better understand what we do, how they can best interact with us?”
Hughes and Barker are doing this by creating and scheduling a year’s worth of Slack messages to be regularly posted in the umichWORKS Slack workspace as part of their informative marketing effort.
“(Hughes) is also working on creating some staff profiles and some fun posts and information so that our customers can get to know us a little better and we’re humanized a little more,” Barker said.
These efforts are very much in line with many of Slack’s features and affordances, particularly in the ability to deeply personalize one’s profile. In addition to the common profile photo, one can add other contact information, pronouns, working location, and even include oddities like one’s favorite amino acid.
Co-workers’ faces have even escaped outside of the traditional virtual profile, much to the joy of Jankowski.
“I love the emojis,” Jankowski affirmed when asked about his favorite features of the app. “I like making emojis of my coworkers so that we share an emoji bond.”
In our Tech Shop Slack channels, the :sideeye: emoji is a cropped photo of a suspicious stare from one of our managers. Animal photos and GIFs also make their way into the mix, with normally mundane messages amplified by a fiercely bobbing :catjam: emoji.
Atkins also appreciates the photo emotes, naming Slack’s compatibility with GIPHY, an animated-photo search website, as one of her favorite features.
“You can search based on whatever statement or term that you want to use and find a GIF for a moment,” Atkins said. “Being fully remote, (this) has been a great feature to utilize because it adds that additional emotional context that straight text can’t necessarily give.”
This added social dimension rivals in-person collaboration opportunities at the office, at least in Atkins’s view.
“I think for me it almost replaces that feeling of needing to get up and walk into someone’s office to ask a question, because here (on Slack), I (just ask) the question, and I don’t have to worry about the person (and think) ‘Oh, are they in their office right now?’” Atkins said.
More social channels being added to workspaces have perhaps aided in transforming the virtual office into a more lively space than its physical predecessor. Every Friday afternoon in the ITS Ann Arbor Slack, employees congregate for the virtual trivia that takes place in #social-watercooler via the Polly app. At the end of the event, alongside the winners list, a GIF of someone moving and celebrating is automatically uploaded into the channel, while those actually celebrating are likely sitting down, watching their computer screen.
In addition to these more general social channels, which often serve as a catch-all for memes, advice and sharing of live events, niche ones relating to specific topics have also emerged, motivated by the same goal of workplace camaraderie.
“I think the one thing that has changed is (Slack) has allowed people that don’t normally talk to each other to join those channels of shared interests … (like) the gardening and the music channels,” Barker said. “It’s allowed us to kind of chat about interests and to people that we wouldn’t necessarily interact with.”
With all of the not-quite-work that happens on this workplace-centered communication platform, does Slack tip our work-life balances to favoring one side, or does it simply merge these traditionally divided categories into one busy software?
Pendse compares the allure of joining new, niche, Slack channels, to that of choosing a campus club at Festifall. “I still remember my first year of college,” Pendse said. “I wanted to join every club that was available … I really wanted to be part of everything because I wanted to be accepted. Finally, my advisor sat me down, saying, ‘You realize you’re not going to be able to do any of these right?’ (On) Slack I always advise people that while you may have many diverse interests, start with some obviously work-related things (that) one cannot ignore. But with the other social things you want to do, choose wisely and have some boundaries.”
However, not all have the privilege of boundaries between work and the rest of their lives. As food steward for her co-op, Engineering junior Arianna Marquis frequently patrols her house’s virtual channels for incoming grocery requests.
“I feel like Slack contributes to me overworking myself a little bit,” Marquis said. “I definitely feel like I radically check Slack to (make) sure the house is in order. I think that’s just part of my job: knowing the house really well.”
Jankowski shares a similar, although more positively framed sentiment relating to his work at the Tech Shop. “I just like the Slack culture, to be honest,” Jankowski said. “The idea of just constantly checking messages. You kind of get addicted to the Slack notification sound. Whenever I hear that I will check my phone instinctively.”
Slack notifications are often accompanied by a sound reminiscent of an urgent woodpecker, though these can be silenced or delivered quietly based on user preferences. For Barker, keeping up on Slack isn’t anything out of the ordinary, but also doesn’t consume her day, either.
“I think Slack is just easy to use and doesn’t ask a lot of us,” Barker said. “Just keep it open and pay attention … I check it when I want to check it.”
Although the always-on approach isn’t for everyone, many praise it for the efficiency it allows in the workplace. As Pendse notes, “it provides a kind of transparency where you know that the person is available. So (you know) you’re not just bothering a person just out of the blue. This way you’re able to connect (right away).”
Atkins praises her improved workflow. “Now I’m able to get answers to questions that are urgent a lot faster, (and) I am able to connect with the people that I need to connect with a lot more efficiently,” Atkins said.
The click of a mouse is much quicker than a stroll down the hall, but not all appreciate the ease of virtual connection. Jankowski notes that without Slack, he likely would have fewer tasks to do at his in-person work location on North Campus, where he is buildings away from any physical supervisor.
“Slack is my boss,” Jankowski said. “You at least know that your manager is not going to appear in front of you in your bedroom before you get to work. But with Slack, that’s a possibility.”
So where do the lines get drawn? And in this virtual battle between work and life, can we trust ourselves to clear one through the blur?
Atkins says that with the presence of Slack’s channels “(you) assume that there’s more work (now) even though that work has kind of just always been there — you just may not have been aware of it.”
As Slack props the door open to the virtual office, we confront whether its crossing of a threshold is welcome news. Even without working in person, we bond over common interests, smirk at memes and GIFs, and create empathy and humanity through virtual initiatives and conversations.
In our Linder House Slack, members have created individual blog-like channels while away on trips or vacations to keep the rest of us updated, with names like #joesbrain or #kaiaonline. I scroll through them, seeing photos of airplane window seats, ancient temples and Midwestern convenience stores. The most recent post in #kaiaonline, by the channel’s namesake, reads “we are listening to pitbull and going to tim hortons.” One person has reacted with the :sparkling_heart:emoji, and a reply confirms “all is right in the world.”
These channels featuring individual commentary are much more intimate than a traditional social media feed; the number of members in each is usually within the single digits. While staring at these channels’ content through a screen, I mentally arrange my housemate’s profile pictures as if they are sitting on furniture in a small room with me, relaying their tales of adventure outside the house. When I look up from my screen, the mirage disappears, revealing my social situation to be only myself and my laptop.
But does the mode of it all matter? If we can laugh on Slack and love on Slack, is there any harm in living there?
Statement Correspondent Oscar Nollette-Patulski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.