Email killer? For all its qualities, Slack will never replace ubiquitous email

International | Reports | Start-up | Technology

Written by Dr Emma Russell, senior lecturer in human resources management at the University of Sussex

Tech start-up Slack made quite a splash with its $20 billion debut on the US stock market this month.

The valuation of the messaging app company, which is yet to turn a profit, is based in part on the radical impact it has had on works communications for many workers and businesses since it was launched in 2014 and partly on the huge potential market it could come to dominate.

Slack has been dubbed the email killer in some corners, viewed as a cooler, more user-friendly and more efficient upstart.

But while many workers might welcome the arrival of alternative to take away the stress of email, Slack has got its work cut out if it’s to become the kingslayer.

Email is now so embedded in our work culture, 86% of professionals stated it was their preferred mode of work communication in a 2017 survey while The Radicati Group estimated the number of work emails sent per day in 2018 was more than 281 billion and predicted that would grow to more than 333 billion by 2022.

Clearly email will not be easily replaced – no matter how capable an alternative exists

Slack does has have its advantages over email in its function.

As a shared platform, the emphasis on an individual to respond quickly to a question or issue is reduced.

Many employees will welcome this as research has shown that the pressure to respond quickly to new notifications is a major stressor for people at work.

Also if a work colleague is away, there are others in the project group who can pick up the slack – again countering an issue with email where a build-up of messages creates stress and overload for workers. Slack effectively eliminates this problem.

However, whilst there are some notable beneficial features of Slack, it may not yet be a panacea for all.

Slack has had excellent take-up by the creative industries but it hasn’t infiltrated other sectors to the same extent.
One of the possible reasons for this is that not all workers like the fully integrated nature of the package.

In the working environment, there are two distinctive approaches to managing work-life balance into which people tend to fall somewhere on a continuum between the two extremes.

Integrators like to blend work and home life and segmenters like to keep work and home domains separate.

Tools that provide (albeit implicitly) an assumption that tasks and projects should be dealt with anywhere, anytime, anyplace, as Slack allows, are unlikely to appeal to segmenters who want to switch off and get away from work outside of office hours.

Slack is used in a highly synchronous manner. This can be great for resolving issues quickly, and sparking creativity.

However, it does mean that people may tend to respond to issues in a more reactive way.

Research in the field of constant connectivity finds that people need breathing space and periods of reflection to operate strategically and thoughtfully.

Whizzing off a ping-pong of quick responses means that workers may fail to see the bigger picture and fail to address the more nuanced, and potentially more complex implications of project work.

Finally, keeping notifications switched on causes productivity and well-being problems for people.

Not being able to switch off, and being constantly distracted by new, incoming information, has a negative impact on our cognitive resources.

Over time other tasks will suffer, workers take longer to recover from each interruption, and don’t allow time for energy levels and resources to be adequately replenished.

Users of Slack should therefore be wary of keeping their notifications ‘always on’.

That’s not to say that this is a flaw in the Slack toolkit, just something that users need to bear in mind.

In adapting to any new communication technology, workers should avoid mindlessly succumbing to all of the possible features of the tool, and instead think more purposefully about how the tool can be used to help them address both their work and well-being goals.

As the old adage goes – a bad workman always blames his tools.

In conclusion, Slack is not set to become the default digital communication for all anytime soon.

However it has the potential to become a very valuable compliment to email for many and the default option for a few – largely in the hi-tech and creative sectors.

That potential alone should keep its shareholders happy for the time being.

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