A year into my job as a writer at BuzzFeed, Slack arrived. We’d had a group chat system, but Slack was different: It promised a revolution. Its goal was to “kill email” by switching workplace communication to direct messages and group discussion channels. It promised easier collaboration (true) and less clogged inboxes (maybe). And most importantly, it had a sophisticated mobile app. Like email, Slack allowed work to spread into the crevices of life where until that point it couldn’t fit. In a more efficient, instantaneous manner than email, it brings the entire office into your phone, which is to say, into your bed, when you land on the plane, when you walk down the street, as you stand in line at the grocery store, or as you wait, half naked, on the exam table for your doctor.
Granted, work has long been able to follow people home. Doctors would review their “dictation,” or notes on a patient visit, after hours, and you could always whip out some memos on the Apple IIe at home. But none of those processes were “live”: Whatever work you accomplished on your own wouldn’t be known to others, or force others to respond in kind, until the next workday. Workaholism could be a personal problem.
But the spread of email—on the desktop, then on the Wi-Fi enabled laptop, then the BlackBerry, and now all manner of smartphones, smart watches, and “smart appliances,” including your exercise bike—changed all that. It didn’t just accelerate communication; it standardized a new, far more addictive form of communication, with a casualness that cloaked its destructiveness. When you “shoot off a few emails” on a Sunday afternoon, for example, you might convince yourself you’re just getting on top of things for the week ahead—which might feel true. But what you’re really doing is giving work access to be everywhere you are. And once allowed in, it spreads without your permission: to the dinner table, the couch, the kid’s soccer game, the grocery store, the car, the family vacation.
Sites of digital leisure increasingly double as sites of digital labor: If you help run your company’s social media, every time you log into Facebook or Twitter or Instagram you face bombardment from your work accounts. If someone emails you and you don’t immediately respond, they’ll move straight to your social media accounts—even when you have an auto responder indicating that you’re not available. Fewer and fewer employers supply work phones (either on the actual desk or in the form of work cell phones); calls and texts to your “work phone” (from sources, from clients, from employers) are just calls and texts to your phone. “Back in the day, AIM was the thing,” one Silicon Valley CEO explained. “You had an away message. You were literally away from your device. Now you can’t. You’re 100 percent on at all times.”
It’s the emails, but it’s more: It’s the Google Docs, and the conference calls you listen to on mute while making your kids’ breakfast, and the databases you can log in to from home, and your manager texting on Sunday night with “the plan for tomorrow.” Some of these developments are heralded as time-saving schedule optimizers: fewer meetings, more conference calls! Less rigid workplace hours, more flexibility! You can start your workday at home, spend an extra day at the cabin, even take off early to pick up your kid from school and wrap up loose ends later. But all that digitally enabled flexibility really means digitally enabling more work—with fewer boundaries. And Slack, like work email, makes workplace communication feel casual, even as participants internalize it as compulsory.