Guest Post: How Slack’s Company Culture Destroyed Distraction by Nir Eyal
By Nir Eyal
Editors Note: Helping customers stay focused on what moves their business forward is central to our mission at Align. We’ve been particularly inspired by the insights of ‘Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life’ by Nir Eyal. The follow up to his first bestseller, ‘Hooked’ (Silicon Valley’s handbook for making habit-forming technology), “Indistractable” lays out the key to getting the best out of technology, without letting it get the best of you. Distraction at work, Nir says, is really a symptom of dysfunctional company culture.
We were thrilled when Nir agreed to do a guest blog for us on this exact topic and particularly one study. We can’t wait to see Nir and other thought leaders speak at Scale Up Summit, the premier learning conference for growing firms, in Dallas in May.
“Work hard and go home.”
That’s not a slogan you’d expect from a company whose product has enabled work to spill into every area of its 10 million users’ lives. As the creator of one of the most popular group chat apps, Slack is in a unique position to understand its product’s uses and misuses as well as how a company’s culture can destroy distraction.
One fast track to a distraction-filled workplace is an “always-on work culture,” which can be described, in part, by the Cycle of Responsiveness. It goes something like this:
1. A company’s culture sets the expectation that “People here are always connected.”
2. This reduces the perceived control employees have over their time, creating distracting psychological tension.
3. They think, “To get ahead, I need to be always available.”
4. This then furthers the expectations that employees should be available at all times.
The leadership at Slack understands that having parents answer emails at their children’s soccer games isn’t the best way to maximize productivity or morale. They understand the cost of extreme accessibility and have taken significant steps to make sure the company doesn’t set harmful expectations about accessibility.
The three strategies Slack uses to destroy distractions also counter the Cycle of Responsiveness. The fact that Slack is able to achieve this is proof that technology isn’t solely at fault for the unproductive expectations about availability. Any company can use their playbook in order to create a culture that gives employees a sense of control over their time.
Lead by Example
There may be nothing that shapes the culture of a company more than the behavior of its leadership. Great leaders understand that their every action communicates implications about how to get ahead within a certain organization. If leadership is constantly available, ambitious employees will follow suit, even if that’s not the best way of using their time.
Bill Macaitis, who served as Slack’s chief revenue officer and chief marketing officer, has the following to say about his personal use of Slack: “I’m a big productivity guy … You need to have uninterrupted work time … This is why—whether I’m dealing with Slack or email—I always block off time to go in and check messages and then return to uninterrupted work.” Mecaitis’ personal productivity gain from his habits may be less important than the signal that’s sent to the rest of the organization. I’m not always available, and you don’t need to be either.
Amir Shevat, Slack’s former director of developer relations, describes how this type of behavior has seeped into the company’s culture, “It’s not polite to send direct messages after hours or during weekends.” He sets a powerful example by giving coworkers his undivided attention while in meetings. “When I give someone my time, I’m focused 100 percent and never open a phone during a meeting. That is super important to me.” This type of commitment makes it more likely that the rest of the organization will respect the time they spend meeting with coworkers throughout the day. By showing that he’s okay with being fully present with one person at a time he sets the precedent that others don’t need to try to be in multiple places or meetings at once.
Precommitment Pacts can help us overcome our impulsivity by removing future choices. The most famous example of this may be Ulysses in The Odyssey. In order to hear the Sirens’ song without crashing his ship, Ulysses has his crew tie him to the mast of his ship. He’s then unable to act on the impulses created by the Siren’s call. Our daily struggle with distraction may not feel quite as dramatic, but the consequences can be catastrophic for our productivity.
There are three types of precommitment pacts. Effort pacts prevent distraction by making unwanted behaviors more difficult to do. Price pacts prevent distractions by making unwanted behaviors more costly to do. And Identity pacts prevent distractions by making unwanted behaviors clash with our sense of self. Each gets its own chapter in my book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Slack has a powerful effort pact built-in as a feature and its expected that employees use it heavily.
I’m referring to the widely underused “Do Not Disturb” feature. Using this feature when you want to focus on focused work, family time, or anything else, guarantees you won’t find distractions from your group chat. Shevat told me that if an employee tries to send a message when they shouldn’t, “you will get hit by the Do Not Disturb feature. If it’s after hours, it turns on automatically so you don’t get direct messages until you get back to work.”
This simple feature combined with a culture that respects it is a potent combination for increasing productivity.
This may not seem obvious, but a company culture that creates psychological safety is one that destroys distractions. Distractions start as internal triggers, emotions or impulses that demand relief. These internal triggers will be addressed by employees–whether they choose a healthy or unhealthy way of addressing them largely depends on the company’s culture. Research has found that fostering psychological safety can help employees positively handle many of these issues. One way to do this is to make sure employees feel they can express their concerns (that they’d likely otherwise keep to themselves) while being heard by leadership.
Slack has achieved this at a huge scale using its own product. Just as the company has chat channels for “pet photos” and “Star Wars,” they have channels for Slack culture and executive AMA’s. They even have a channel called “#beef-tweets” where the comments, according to Shevat, “can get very prickly.”
“People will post all sorts of suggestions and are encouraged to do so,” says Shevat. It’s important that employees feel they can air concerns, but it’s equally important they feel these concerns are heard. The leadership at Slack has found a simple, ingenious, solution to what could be a monumental challenge: emojis. “Management lets people know they’ve read their feedback with an eyes emoji. Other times, if something is handled or fixed, someone will respond with a checkmark.”
While not every concern should be handled in a group chat, the ability to air concerns freely creates a sense of psychological safety that can help reduce the chance of psychological strain found in toxic work environments. Not every company’s culture includes a Slack channel for “#beef-tweets,” but employees need something similar.
Slack’s commitment to making its employees indistractable shows up in its Glassdoor.com scores, where it has an anonymous review of 4.8 out of 5 stars, with 95 percent of employees saying they’d recommend the company to a friend, and 99 percent approval of the CEO. How can you use their playbook?
How can set an example that increases psychological safety and kills the unhealthy Cycle of Responsiveness? What precommitment pacts can you support your team in using? Are your employees able to air concerns openly and feel heard?
About our Guest Author: Dubbed “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology” by The M.I.T. Technology Review, Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. He is the author of two bestselling books, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, named one of the Best Business and Leadership Books of the Year by Amazon and one of the Best Personal Development Books of the Year by Audible. Nir has founded two tech companies since 2003 and has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Nir is also an active investor in habit-forming technologies including past past investments in Eventbrite (NYSE:EB), Anchor.fm (acquired by Spotify), Kahoot!, Product Hunt and others. Nir attended The Stanford Graduate School of Business and Emory University.
Read more lessons about becoming Idistractable in Nir’s latest book!
Nir is a featured speaker at Scale Up Summit 2020 in Dallas, TX. The premier learning experience for leaders at growing companies, this Scaling Up Summit features keynotes and workshops from leaders in strategy, sales, marketing, branding, and leadership. In addition to gaining a year’s worth of valuable business knowledge in just two days, ScaleUp Summit is a fantastic opportunity to network and start a dialogue about ideas for moving your business forward with your executive team and owners of other leading scale up firms.
Get started today!
Every day you wait is a missed day of progress on your goals.