The Rise of Work Chat Anti-Hype

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Jason Fried

Jason Fried of Basecamp is only the most recent to come out stronglycondemning the hype around work chat, and perhaps, the leading protagonist in the market: Slack. He enumerates a short list of positives (4), and then a staggeringly long list of negatives (17). I will synthesize his points down to these: work chat is good for quick-and-dirty, once-in-awhile discussions, and for team building, but the costs are considerable, since work chat is tiring, obsessive, interruptive, and leads to focusing people’s attention on the near-term, while fracturing our concentration on what’s really important.

Fried’s mantra is ‘real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time’, which I completely buy. I am also a big fan of his recommendation that people should break out of unproductive chat mazes, and ‘write it up’ instead. Long form writing can break the chain of opinionated chatifying, and lead to a basis for deliberative reasoning.

Go read it. I’ll wait.


Many of the problems that beset work chat in business contexts arise from social crowding, when the dynamics of small groups are constrained or sidetracked because too many people move into groups to participate, when they aren’t actually members of the set of people doing the work.


But, as in other recent pieces about Slack (see Samuel Hulick’s Why I’m breaking up with Slack), Fried never explicitly discusses the sizes of the groups using work chat, and how group size may factor into the negatives these authors describe.

My thesis is that work chat works best in the context of small teams, which I call sets, groups of less than 10 or 12. Many of the problems that beset work chat in business contexts arise from social crowding, when the dynamics of small groups are constrained or sidetracked because too many people move into groups to participate, when they aren’t actually members of the set of people doing the work.

Sets are characterized by small group social dynamics. There is frequent and reciprocal communication, so a member can post a request for help and get a response quickly, for example. There is a greater degree of trust than larger groups, in general. There is a greater likelihood of strong interpersonal connection — strong ties — than out-of-set relationships.


There are few who would advocate a massive chat room of 100,000 employees palavering with each other to steer a company, but we are making more of less the same mistake — social crowding — when we allow 25 people to argue product strategy in a Slack channel. It’s a difference only of scale, and the same error: applying a communication tool that does not work well at the scale of the social group.


But if a set of nine marketing folks is joined by (invaded by?) a dozen out-of-set members in a Slack channel where the marketers are trying to get their work done, the dynamics can go sideways. There is greater noise in the channel as the interlopers raise questions, throw their opinions around, and take sides in discussions. This crowding is worse that the noise, since the ‘tourists’ can lead to a decrease in the benefits of tight, in-group dynamics, and a hollowing out of purpose and shared goals.

So there are several threads that follow from social crowding:

  • Social norms have to be expressly promoted to keep chat channel populations low, if they are going to be the site of effective team work. (Note: I mean the work done by teams, not the somewhat nebulous, rah-rah term on the posters in the lunchroom.)
  • Chat is not the only sort of social mechanism that we should apply to work communications, and specifically, when we look at larger-then-set social groups there are better ways to communicate. We do much of our work as soloists and set members, but we are also members of larger scenes — groups of up to 150 more or less, made up of networks of sets. Effective communications at that level require more than — or other than — chat. Consider Fried’s suggestion toward a synchronous long-form ‘writing it down’ as just one example.
  • This is a specific instance of the general issue of ‘work as a commons’. The folks that naturally most closely tied to some definable work activities — like our marketing team, above — should have the largest say in how their work is performed, and the decision-making about their work practices. That’s what they share in common. While those farther from that work — the freeloaders that are crowding the chat with their noise, interruptions, and influence — should be kept from the set’s workings if that interaction is negative.

In the long run, vendors like Slack and its competitors will need to create a multi-scale suite of communications approaches that align with social groupings. Work chat may be best suited for much of what sets need, and other approaches — like we see in enterprise social networks (work media), work management tools, and workforce communications solutions — are likely to be better suited to work at the scene level, or the enterprise scale, the scale of networks of scenes, or spheres.

There are few who would advocate a massive chat room of 100,000 employees palavering with each other to steer a company, but we are making more of less the same mistake — social crowding — when we allow 25 people to argue product strategy in a Slack channel. It’s a difference only of scale, and the same error: applying a communication tool that does not work well at the scale of the social group.


Originally published at stoweboyd.com and workfutures.io on 8 March 2016.

4 Comments

Eli Cummings

” It’s a difference only of scale, and the same error: applying a communication tool that does not work well at the scale of the social group.”

It is an old maxim that changes in quantity result in changes in quality (quality here is not about being better but about the characteristics and essence of something).

This is often the reason we are faced with unintended consequences. Changes in quality are unpredictable.

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