In this Employee Experience column, HR Dive reporter Caroline Colvin discusses the complexities of work messaging app Slack’s redesign.
As a creature of comfort, I am notorious for putting off software updates. I am, as many people in my generation say, “chronically online.” My personal computer is only turned off when it’s dead. I don’t like too much getting in the way of my digital collaging or documentary marathons. This attitude has seeped into my work life as well. So it took a month, but it finally happened: I succumbed to Slack’s August 2023 update.
Per a Slack blog post, developers cooked up the new design to help us “stay organized, focused and productive.” Channels, DMs and app integrations now live in a “home.”
“Like a true home, it should feel familiar to how you use Slack today, and is a place you can base yourself throughout your day,” Slack’s blog post states, with a dreamy tone that evokes images of Tudor houses and sprawling countryside.
The “dedicated views” are designed to “give you more control over where you’re spending your time,” with notifications couched inside of the views. TL;DR: updated sidebar, new activity and DM views, and a “unified view across workspaces” known as the “enterprise grid.”
As a neurodivergent person, I kind of like the idea of less distractions. So often, I set my notifications to “do not disturb,” so I can cross the delicate, ADHD-bound tightrope of executive function to slog through interview transcripts and mountains of numbers from diligent researchers to write a respectable story. I also end up missing out on quick-turnaround journalism questions, meeting reminders and smoke signals from editors in distress. A more focused way to surface only the most pressing notifications would be a welcome change.
Still, the takes on the shuffle are mixed. Joseph Foley at art and design publication Creative Bloq wrote that even prior to the update, Slack’s user interface “was starting to feel bloated.” In Foley’s opinion, Slack’s race toward “more and more functionalities” — “canvases, “huddles” and all kinds of media-sharing — may have been too much.
Ian Bogost wrote about his impending sense of doom when he noticed the Slack update, and how his fellow co-workers at The Atlantic spent a hefty amount of time complaining about the layout. The anecdotes served as a springboard for Bogost to criticize something bigger: the overwhelm of social media-esque applications and the subsequent hyperconnectivity.
Whether the updates are helpful or harmful in the long run — there will never quite be a monolithic judgment among users, just factions under each label — doesn’t matter. As Bogost wrote, “All change is bad when you don’t think you need it.” Unlike the handful of apps that offer a portal back into the comfort zone, Slack does not allow users to revert to previous versions. (The developers do, however, accept feedback on the new design.)
Following the update and a conversation with Slack CPO Noah Weiss, The Verge’s David Pierce reported that Slack is “not going to stop releasing new features anytime soon, which means it’s going to continue to test the boundaries of how cluttered and complicated a messaging tool should feel.”
Inc. tech columnist Jason Aten also used the word “overwhelming” to describe the platform. People are bad at using Slack, Aten argued, but also “the interface doesn't exactly do you any favors when it comes to organizing and finding things.”
Aten is only slightly more optimistic than many critics, writing that “Slack isn't just redesigning the interface,” but “reimagining” the way we use it. Nodding to the cacophony of notifications that have gotten on my nerves, Aten noted that the update “really does make it easier to find the things that require your attention.”
It’s understandable that optimism about Slack is in short supply. When it comes to work, humans gravitate toward bonding in misery. Scientists say evolution is to blame for our tendency to latch onto negative stimuli. It’s a survival tactic.
And to the Slack redesign haters, trust me, I get it. Recently, my fellow reporters, editors and the like have been dragged kicking and screaming through a major tech migration following the acquisition of our company. Like unruly children bucking the unfamiliar authority of a newlywed stepparent, we’ve had a lot to say — on Slack, sure enough — about how the switch to new technology has affected us.
Weiss stated that these updated amenities now have a “productive and pleasant home.” As a military brat who’s moved house at least a dozen times, I know new homes take some getting used to. But love it or hate it, you and your employees will get used to the strange new world you’re settling into. Eventually.