Slack’s Most Requested Feature is Bad for Business

This article is also available on Medium.

Slack needs no introduction. It’s the new generation’s IRC, but private, and user friendly. And perfect for business! (and more.. fun fact: our group of friends became closer again thanks to Slack).

It allows you to customize it through multiple add-ons, such as the essential tableflip add-on, or the roll bot.

It also flips words, not just tables

There is one feature that sounds so standard you’d assume it’s probably hidden in a menu somewhere but you never bothered to look for it: “Read receipts”.

But a lot of people did search for it. And the reason I’m writing this post is that I’m indirectly involved in this 5 year discussion that started with this tweet in 2014:

Which resulted in this reply:

Which was quickly followed up by Slack:

Notice the small hint in their tweet? Also notice how 100+ people are talking about this, and this is just one thread?

Anyway, Slack replied multiple times with the perfect solution:

But people weren’t happy. It’s not a proper read receipt. And they’ve been on about it on Twitter for years.

Read Receipt Troubles

Apple introduced this feature to iMessages back in 2011. Wonderful. You actually know if the person’s read your message. But then what?

Suddenly you have an expectation. An obligation and responsibility is put with the other party. Go on then, reply!

If you see someone’s read your message but hasn’t replied, I’m pretty sure you assume this person is ignoring you. But are they though? Might they not have glanced at the message, in order to reply later? Maybe they were driving, cycling, in the middle of a conversation? We tend to forget the person has stuff going on that does not involve us. This “always online” way of life has made us very impatient.

This puts stress on the receiving end as well. I saw the message. I should not forget the message (why do not more apps have a “set to unread feature”). I should reply ASAP. Suddenly that casual conversation the person is having, or that trip in the car, becomes stressful. You’re taken out of the moment (the problem with notifications is a whole other story of course). Your mind cannot let go.

I. Have. To. Reply!

Now, some of us are stronger, and some of us are weaker when it comes to fighting these urges or feelings. It’s all easier said than done. And sure, we shouldn’t put stress on our friends and partners like that. I think we can agree on that. But … this is a personal issue.

(By the way, Apple allowed users to disable it in 2015, in case you’re still stuck in the obligatory receipt reply cycle).

But what about business?

Remember when I said:

If you see someone’s read your message but hasn’t replied, … Maybe they were driving, cycling, in the middle of a conversation?

That’s a big no-no at work, right? Suddenly when you’re not replying to a message, well… the only logical thing to assume is that person is not working! Hell, maybe they’re not even at their desk! (this becomes a bigger issue if the person is … working from home!)

Hence, the read receipts! A subtle but effective way of checking up on your people.

First of all, if your boss has no trust in what you do (at work or remote), it’s time to look elsewhere. But you can’t blame your boss on “logical” conclusions, such as: if it takes you hours to see the message, what are they actually up to? They can’t be working! (Assuming your work mostly consists of reading Slack messages and not doing any actual work…)

But privacy is an important thing. Even in work environments. And so is trust! If you cannot trust your team members, maybe you have hired the wrong people. Or maybe you should reevaluate your perception of people. Yes, look inward.. You’re also causing unnecessary stress on your employees. Which in turn can lead to burn-out, depression.. (Ok I’m jumping ahead but still).

I can’t but think Slack is partially considering the problem from this perspective. Automating activities on behalf of the user without user control can create these situations in which people start expecting specific user behavior. It’s already hard not to misinterpret people’s messages (and feelings) through text channels, it might be best not to give people another method of reading online behaviors wrong. (Also, just pick up the phone if it’s THAT important).

(if you totally disagree, and if you really must, there is a read receipt solution:

Did you get that?

But there remains the problem that pretty much every Slack team I’ve seen consists of multiple channels. Multiple channels with walls of text. Some more important than others. And messages do get lost. How does one keep track of it all?

Sure, Slack could introduce read receipts. Maybe at a Slack team owner’s level, enforcing it on all their employees. Or at a user specific level. But good luck explaining to your boss why you chose to turn it off.

Slack has multiple solutions though: you can star messages, pin them to the channel, or even easily set reminders! Need to know if someone read a message? Ask them to add an emoji reaction!

This solution is ideal. It puts the responsibility with the receiver. It doesn’t automate the process, so something “read” is really “read” and “processed”. (and if it wasn’t, at least now you have proof the person is.. slacking, pun intended)

Confirmation of a message received should be part of the conversation. Just like I need to ask my five year old daughter several times to confirm she heard what I said. Nope, I cannot assume she heard me, no matter how much she nods…

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

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