For a feature like this to work as Slack apparently intended, it requires wide buy-in. The company chose straightforward emoji for its five default statuses: in a meeting (), commuting (), out sick (), vacationing (), and working remotely (). When people choose wacky emojis, it scrambles the meaning of the status-update system. And unless everyone in a group is expected to regularly update their work status, a name without a status emoji could signal anything.
If that expectation does arise, however, the added convenience could bring with it a new burden for Slack-bound employees.
When instant-messaging systems like Slack and HipChat began carving away at email’s supremacy in the workplace, they brought with them new ways for bosses to check up on their workers. Before, if a check-in email from a supervisor rattled an employee’s phone, they might have a short grace period in which to reply and seem plugged in. Now, more than four million daily users on Slack wear their status on their sleeves. A quick scan down Slack’s sidebar reveals who’s away from their computer: A gray outline replaces the usual green circle by people’s names after they’ve been inactive for 30 minutes.
Anyone can grab another person’s digital attention via direct message on the app, or just by invoking them by name in a channel. Since Slack is an instant-messaging platform, a response is usually expected relatively instantly. This not only pressures workers into being ready to reply at a moment’s notice during working hours, but thanks to smartphone notifications, also helps work trespass into the home. (To address that, the company introduced a do-not-disturb mode in 2015 that suppresses notifications on command, or during a specified span of nighttime hours.)
The new status messages for work open the possibility of setting even higher expectations for employees to account for every moment they spend on the clock—and off it. The statuses could be a useful signal when someone doesn’t want to be bothered: As I write this, my custom Slack away message is “focus mode” (), and my notifications are off. With that status in place, I feel okay muting Slack for a while. Sorry, boss.
But people could conceivably feel pressured to describe what they’re up to at all times, in order to explain to their colleagues why they might not immediately reply to a Slack message.
In that case, what’s meant as a courtesy could easily spin out of control. If everyone diligently chronicles when and why they’re away, then, being status-less will mean something, too: I’m immediately available. As one colleague put it, that would leave us “one step above putting a toilet emoji on every time you go to the bathroom.” Employees might even feel compelled to set granular away messages for some nights and weekends, to justify why they can’t quickly reply to an after-hours message.