The proliferation was the result of a new Slack feature that allows people to pick an emoji and type some words to create a status, as if on AIM or MSN Messenger. But since Slack is meant to help employees, not high schoolers, communicate with one another, they’re pitched a little differently. If you’re busy, the messages are meant to “share what you’re up to, when you’ll be back, whom to contact in your place, or anything else that helps your team know when they can expect to hear from you,” according to Slack’s blog post announcing the feature.
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.)
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.
All this oversharing would be great for Slack. The more closely the idea of working is tied to being active on its software, the more Slack ingrains itself into workplace culture—and the more easily the company could sell new features, or keep an office from switching to another, cheaper chat platform.
Perhaps it’s not so unfair to expect that an employee is plugged in and ready to communicate when they’re on the clock. If someone’s being paid to work, it makes sense that a supervisor should be able to check in and make sure they’re doing so—and to know why, for example, that person’s not at their desk.
The line between what feels like reasonable accountability and overbearing corporate surveillance likely differs from person to person. Already, before the emoji invasion, some of my colleagues regularly announced when they step out of the office for a meeting or a dentist’s appointment, while others only privately flagged their supervisor.
Instead, the statuses feel a little like early AIM away messages right now. While nobody’s rigged up their status to display the song they’re currently listening to, and I’ve yet to see an announcement that somebody’s “WoRkInG ReMoTeLy ;),” picking an emoji to go with your name is fun. But under different circumstances, it could feel like work.