Olly Headey

March 9, 2021

Boosting the signal

I had a day "out of the office" yesterday (not to be confused with the previous 360 consecutive days out of the physical office since March 13, 2020). I just had a day off, which shouldn't be a particularly big deal. If anything urgent happened I would have received a phone call, otherwise I should easily be able to catch up with things on my return. I filter my email so it's a pleasant place these days, even after a few days without checking. Slack, on the other hand, is a complete disaster zone.

In my head I have long since departed all channels that I don't need to be in, and I only inhabit a few high-value, high signal-to-noise ratio ones. In reality, I have one day off and I'm snow-blinded by dozens of attention-seeking hashtags and red dots which results in a laborious routine of submissively channel-clicking and back-scrolling through history, desperately scanning for signs of value among a brain-frying array of links, mentions and updates. By the time I get to the end of it all I've forgotten most of it and bookmarked a few things which I will forget about and never return to until it's far too late. Even if I do remember, I will be unlikely to find those few nuggets of gold that I'm sure I came across because I can't quite make the search show me what I want. It's a context-switching nightmare. Is this progress? Is this effective collaboration and communication? Is this "work happening"? I recommend pressing Shift-Esc and moving on. If it's that important, someone will let you know.

The few channels I thought I was a member of turned out to be 157. At least I think so, because it's not something that Slack make particularly easy to find out. I guess highlighting this number to users might make them question the value Slack is adding to their day, and that question is probably not conducive to increasing weekly active users. I calculated it by browsing the channels then adding the Hide my channels filter if you wondered (972 channels – nearly 4 for every person!).

I've read a few books on the topic of Deep Work over the years which are interesting enough, but they can ultimately be summarised as something like: "turn off notifications and focus on one task for at least an hour or two". I even read recently about Deep Work as a Service. Concentration is now so hard to achieve it has been commoditised and oursourced to third parties to solve. This is dystopian stuff. 

Unless we act this will only get worse. Relentless group chat updates, back-to-back meetings leaving no time to work on the actual meeting actions, 15 people gathering in a room without a solid purpose. We've all been there. Leaders and managers in business have a real responsibility to do their own 'deep work' and concentrate on understanding the long-term costs of working this way. And that means the cost to employees as well as to the bottom line. 

Don't get me wrong, there is absolutely real value in these tools, it's just that it's suffocated by noise. To make progress, we all need to figure out how to suppress the noise in our workplaces and boost the signal.

About Olly Headey

Journal of Olly Headey. Co-founder of FreeAgent. 37signals alumni. Photographer.
More at headey.net.