October 3, 2022

The curse of pseudo-asynchronous communications

The most terrifying sound in the world isn’t the roar of some ferocious predator or the crash of a thunderous wave. It’s a “knock brush.”

What the hell is a knock brush? If you’ve worked on any team in the past five years, it will likely send a shiver up your spine. The dreaded knock brush is the default notification sound on Slack.

Bum bum tsk.

As soon as you hear it, you know somebody wants something from you, something precious: your attention. Somebody somewhere wants you to do something, know something, or answer something. In a Pavlovian response, we immediately drop what we’re doing and swipe over to the chat. Let’s see what that little red icon is all about.

Slack and other work chat platforms, from Microsoft Teams to Discord, have rapidly transformed the way we work, organizing our companies and groups into a series of neat little chatrooms and instant messages. When my old agency got on the bandwagon in 2015, it was by far the fastest and smoothest adoption of new productivity software we ever had. Switching task management software was like pulling teeth, but we completely moved from Gchat to Slack before lunch (and with enough time to plan that lunch on it).

You can talk to everybody on the team, no matter where they were physically, in a series of convenient, topic-based rooms. You can respond with emojis and GIFs. You can install a bunch of apps, from quick polls to automated birthday shoutouts. Everybody and everything are just a few breezy keystrokes away. Was this going to finally be the long-foretold death of email?

Slack bills itself as empowering asynchronous communication, that is communication that doesn’t happen in real-time. And to be fair, that’s how the software is built: message don’t expire, notifications can be silenced after hours, files and threads can be referenced later on, and handy little indicators can signal on or offline status.

But the problem is, that’s not how we use it. Instead, Slack is an example of pseudo-asynchronous communication. The promise of blissful asynchronous work is a false one.

When we send a message to a colleague on chat, we don’t want an answer tomorrow. We want one in about 30 seconds. Texting works the same way: we send a text not as a letter, but as a ping to get an answer within the next couple minutes.

Asynchronous work allows us to more frequently get into a flow state, a state of effortless production. Sending aside our messages for later allows us to do what author Cal Newport calls “deep work,” uninterrupted stretches where we can get big, tough things done. Conversely, the constant buzzing of notifications breaks up those productive chunks of time into largely useless “crumbs” – five minutes here, ten minutes there.

To its great credit, and despite having the entire weight of the entrepreneurial world thrown against it over and over, email has stood the test of time. More than fifty years after engineer Ray Tomlinson send the very first email, it’s still an open standard that behaves at just the right speed for humans: you get to some things right now, most things soonish, and a few things much later. Email, as imperfect as it is, doesn’t default us to a stressful state of high alert the same way instant messages do.

Slack, texting, and messaging are great tools, and they are incredibly useful in many, many circumstances. But like most things, they are also ripe for misuse (which can grow into abuse). It comes down to the "maker vs. manager" work style divide:

  • Makers: Programmers, writers, designers, etc.
  • Managers: Sales, management, operations, etc.

Makers prefer long, uninterrupted stretches of time to do their best work, often in chunks of a half day, full day, or more. Managers have schedules often divided into one-hour slots of meetings. As investor and Y Combinator founder Paul Graham puts it:

When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster.  A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in.  Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting.  That's no problem for someone on the manager's schedule.  There's always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what.  But when someone on the maker's schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

Pseudo-asynchronous communication works great for managers, but it is like throwing a grenade of meeting shrapnel into the schedules of makers. When those two groups meet in a chatroom, friction and frustration result.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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