It seems that we’re constantly grappling with the “is email dead?” issue. For me, living in a post-email world will probably be as likely as living in a post-snail mail world. We’ll always need email to send certain messages. Even if it one day becomes something that barely anyone uses, my thinking is that email will be like music records; just like there’s something special about closing your eyes and listening to Stairway to Heaven on vinyl - scratches and all - there could be something that inspires you to new heights after a close examination of a sales report that was emailed directly and specifically to you rather than posted on the company’s intranet site.
But while email has earned its place in the annals of workplace communication, enterprise social networks, or workplace “chat apps” as they are commonly referred to, are becoming more ubiquitous in today’s offices. In fact, with more than 5 million daily users at workplaces that include minimally staffed start-ups to Dow Jones and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Slack is the big boy on the block in terms of chat apps. Where people use, “Google it” when speaking of searching for something on the Internet, if they want something to be sent to them via chat app, they often say, “Just Slack it to me.”
So why has this platform become so popular? Basically, it feels more comfortable. Emails, like snail mail, are fairly formal in their structure. They require you to address your message, title it, and provide lots of thinking in terms of an opening, a body, and a close (you’re having thoughts of your eighth grade English teacher right now, aren’t you?). And don’t get me started on video conferences. I can’t stand them. I’d much rather conduct an old fashioned conference call if people can’t be in the same room together. With video, I’m always fiddling with the angle of my laptop screen so that my face doesn’t look so fat. Videoconferencing is distracting, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. Chat apps are more like – well – like chats. They’re footloose and fancy-free, well, as footloose and fancy-free as we can get so far in terms of communicating with our co-workers. I love the way writer Matthew Guay defines chat apps on Zapier.com: “Chat simplifies all that [formality and awkwardness] away. Type a tiny message, get an equally short reply or perhaps just an emoji, and get on with your work. There’s nothing complicated, confusing, or time consuming.
“Today’s best team chat apps help organize team conversations about multiple topics, search through your company archives to see if a question’s already been answered, and speed up with bots and integrations that bring apps into your chats. They’ve become the default way many teams talk.”
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But for all the good things there are to say about workplace chat apps, there are some down sides as well. However, before we get into those, let’s chat about some of the best chat apps out there.
The dirty dozen
Guay goes on to name the top 12 best workplace chat apps in his article, “The 12 Best Team Chat Apps for Your Company” (dated June 23, 2017). While I’ve listed them below, please note that Guay puts a disclaimer in his article that these 12 apps replaced the previous list, where more than half of the listed apps have failed and are no longer in service. So, when choosing an app for your office, it’s wise to make sure the app will be around for more than just a few months.
Slack; best for: a chat powered workplace
HipChat; best for: fast, focused team chat
Twist; best for: exclusively threaded conversations
Microsoft Teams; best for: detailed discussions about documents and meetings
Flock; best for: quickly making decisions in chat
Discord; best for: always-on voice chat
Cisco Spark; best for: mocking up ideas in chat
Mattermost; best for: self-hosted team chat
ChatWork; best for: chatting across teams
Ryver; best for: adding more details to important chats
Zoho Chat; best for: chatting in multiple conversations at once
Google Hangouts Chat; best for: an automated chat assistant
The dark side of chat apps
For all the good that chat apps bring to the workplace collaboration process, they are also further blurring the line between work and home. For Nicole Galluci, who works for Mashable.com, Slack is a necessary evil. “Slack is my nightmare. The fast-paced environment gives me heart palpitations, the constant desktop and mobile notifications detract from my ability to enjoy the world around me, and the wide selection of custom emoji reactions is far too overwhelming to deal with — it’s complete chaos,” said Galluci. “The worst part is, even though I loathe Slack ... I can’t delete it. I couldn’t work without it.”
For Galluci, like many Slack users, it’s all about the notifications; they seem to be endless, especially when workers are spread across time zones. Furthermore, the notifications are often meaningless as well. “Aside from your direct messages with co-workers, you’re also getting notifications every five seconds from private channels, keyword alerts, and emoji reactions. Whole channels devolve into a personal chat between two people, and the rest of the company is taken along for the painful ride,” Galluci said. The channels she speaks of are the vehicles by which chat apps like Slack direct the conversations. Public channels are for conversations that are open to all team members. Private channels can be set up for more confidential issues, or if you want to limit the number of members to a small group. The problem is that conversations, especially on the private channels, often devolve into things that don’t deal with work, like hobbies and inside jokes. At worst, these conversations on private channels turn into secret chats that trash other co-workers.
The future of chat apps
Chat apps, like email, search engines, the Internet, automobiles, medicine, basically anything invented since the dawn of time, have their good and bad sides. Cars get you where you want to go, but if used inappropriately, they can kill you. Medicines can heal you, but used inappropriately, they can make you sicker. Workplace chat apps have filled a need – to allow instantaneous conversation – about problems that have arisen and need immediate attention, on project updates, and to ignite brainstorming. Just like installing seatbelts in cars years after the car itself was invented, chat app protocols will need to evolve. Knowing the business of business, this evolution will probably include some way to measure productivity. If that happens, use of apps like Slack may start to feel forced or become stunted. The inspiration that comes from spontaneous conversation may get extinguished if management tries to quantify it. But then again, chat apps can’t keep people up at all hours like addicts, jonesing for their next notification or just a place full of channels about fly-fishing or who left their moldy leftovers in the break room fridge.