Slack Experiments With a Technological Solution to Work-Life Balance

A new "do not disturb" mode gives users an option to silence the pings.

David Goldman / AP

One of the great features of Slack, the instant-messaging service many workplaces use, is how easy it can be to reach any colleague. For those on the receiving end of such “pings,” the notifications they receive can be at times largely helpful, but at others hugely distracting. A Slack alert can come at inconvenient moments: when a person is in the middle of a meeting (ping!), deeply immersed in a project (ping!), or at home post-work simply unwinding (ping!).

Last week, Slack (which is used here at The Atlantic) announced the launch of a new “Do Not Disturb” mode, an effort to help remedy this particular externality of the service. The feature reflects a growing emphasis by companies, on creating digital tools that allow users to demarcate boundaries for their apps—such as the one between work and home.

Similar to the “away message” of yore, Slack’s “Do Not Disturb” option lets others know that a user is not available through an accompanying icon, and also mutes any messages that are sent in that user’s direction, aggregating the notifications for delivery when the individual comes back online. According to a Slack post explaining this new option, its development is intended to help users place their full attention on a task or activity at hand:

Whether you need a few uninterrupted hours to attend to that mounting to-do list, plan to devote your entire evening to watching your kids’ living room rendition of “Annie,” or conversely, are struck by a brilliant idea in the wee hours that you just have to share: Do Not Disturb is here, for helping maintain business as usual (and make room for the other stuff too).

In the case of utmost emergency, users can still break through the “Do Not Disturb” shield and send a message, a practice intended for use “sparingly.”

According to Paul Rosania, a senior product manager at Slack and in-house expert on the new feature, one of the big motivations behind its development was not only to ease the minds of recipients, but also that of senders who are active night owls or based in different time zones. “One thing we’ve heard from teams, and experienced ourselves, is anxiety about contacting people outside working hours, for fear of interrupting personal time or sleep,” he says, “You might have a question or idea any time of day or night, and want to share it with a teammate right away so you don’t forget.” The development of this mechanism is partly a response to the increasing flexibility and ambiguity of individual work hours, and an effort to customize people’s experiences with Slack to accommodate their unique schedules and preferences.

“Most people don’t typically ‘sign off’ from Slack—just like you wouldn’t disconnect your email or messaging apps from your phone or computer,” says Rosania. Instead, the messages that are sent through it become part of a user’s daily stream of buzzes and alerts. On a smartphone, for example, Slack notifications about project deadlines could wind up sandwiched within a thread of family texts planning winter vacation. As such, the constant presence of Slack notifications can blur the boundaries between work and life outside of it. It can also give a person the feeling of always being on-call. The “Do Not Disturb” feature is a means for reinstating limits, creating a digital, personally defined 9-to-5 of sorts. “Do Not Disturb” comes on a default setting which turns that mode on between the hours of 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. each day, something that can be adjusted as needed. Company administrators also have the power to change this setting, disable it, or leave it up to individuals to decide what works best.

Last fall, my colleague Gillian White covered the findings of a poll that found that 41 percent of those currently employed say their jobs require them to be in contact outside the office. That same study discovered that people don’t necessarily mind a longer workday, but their greater complaint lies around unpredictable work that they can’t control or plan for. In another Atlantic piece, Carl Cederstrom notes, “The boundaries between work and leisure have effectively dissolved, and the 8-hour workday has made way for the 24/7 workweek.” This evolution of the amorphous workday, including a need to constantly be on top of email, can have a range of effects on productivity, stress, and even health, many of them negative for workers.

Technology companies helped facilitate this nebulous, “always-on,” culture, and now some of them, like Slack, are designing their products so users can wrest some control back. Rosania notes that while the company’s feature is unique to the Slack platform, the team also admires the “Do Not Disturb” feature of Apple’s iOS as well as the Snooze Notifications of Google Hangouts. Email clients including Microsoft Outlook also offer different ways to code messages, so those that need an immediate response are very clearly marked and enable users to efficiently prioritize. In France and Germany, there have been efforts by the government to urge companies to resist sending emails to workers late in the day.

Slack’s feature has the potential to help those on the platform turn work off after leaving the office, and to set a broader industry norm for making this type of option available. Its ultimate impact, however, like that of many work-life balance policies, will be determined not by its availability, but by whether people choose to use it.