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The Dark Side of Slack’s New Emoji Statuses

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Last week, emoji continued their unstoppable invasion into Slack. They began popping up alongside my coworkers’ names in the popular messenger-app’s interface: First, it was just a few early adopters, who were just trying one on for size—I chose a contemplative —but soon, they were everywhere.

The proliferation was the result of a new Slack feature that allows people to pick an emoji and type some words to create a status, as if on AIM or MSN Messenger. But because Slack is meant to help employees, not high schoolers, communicate with one another, they’re pitched a little differently.

If you’re busy, the messages are meant to “share what you’re up to, when you’ll be back, whom to contact in your place, or anything else that helps your team know when they can expect to hear from you,” according to Slack’s blog post announcing the feature.

That’s certainly not how the feature is being used at The Atlantic. On Monday morning, two people on my team were using the Slack statuses as intended: One to show she was commuting into the office (), and another to let us know he was “on crappy Amtrak wifi” (). The rest of my sidebar was populated with random emoji: a moon, a grimacing face, Spider Man, a tractor.

For a feature like this to work as Slack apparently intended, it requires wide buy-in. The company chose straightforward emoji for its five default statuses: in a meeting (), commuting (), out sick (), vacationing () and working remotely (). When people choose wacky emojis, it scrambles the meaning of the status-update system. And unless everyone in a group is expected to regularly update their work status, a name without a status emoji could signal anything.

If that expectation does arise, however, the added convenience could bring with it a new burden for Slack-bound employees.

When instant-messaging systems like Slack and HipChat began carving away at email’s supremacy in the workplace, they brought with them new ways for bosses to check up on their workers. Before, if a check-in email from a supervisor rattled an employee’s phone, they might have a short grace period in which to reply and seem plugged in.

Now, more than 4 million daily users on Slack wear their status on their sleeves. A quick scan down Slack’s sidebar reveals who’s away from their computer: A gray outline replaces the usual green circle by people’s names after they’ve been inactive for 30 minutes.

Anyone can grab another person’s digital attention via direct message on the app, or just by invoking them by name in a channel. As Slack is an instant-messaging platform, a response is usually expected relatively instantly. This not only pressures workers into being ready to reply at a moment’s notice during working hours, but thanks to smartphone notifications, also helps work trespass into the home. (To address that, the company introduced a do-not-disturb mode in 2015 that suppresses notifications on command, or during a specified span of nighttime hours.)

The new status messages for work open the possibility of setting even higher expectations for employees to account for every moment they spend on the clock—and off it. The statuses could be a useful signal when someone doesn’t want to be bothered: As I write this, my custom Slack away message is “focus mode” (), and my notifications are off. With that status in place, I feel OK muting Slack for a while. Sorry, boss.

But people could conceivably feel pressured to describe what they’re up to at all times, in order to explain to their colleagues why they might not immediately reply to a Slack message.

In that case, what’s meant as a courtesy could easily spin out of control. If everyone diligently chronicles when and why they’re away, then, being status-less will mean something, too: I’m immediately available. As one colleague put it, that would leave us “one step above putting a toilet emoji on every time you go to the bathroom.” Employees might even feel compelled to set granular away messages for some nights and weekends, to justify why they can’t quickly reply to an after-hours message.

All this oversharing would be great for Slack. The more closely the idea of working is tied to being active on its software, the more Slack ingrains itself into workplace culture—and the more easily the company could sell new features, or keep an office from switching to another, cheaper chat platform.

Perhaps it’s not so unfair to expect an employee is plugged in and ready to communicate when they’re on the clock. If someone’s being paid to work, it makes sense a supervisor should be able to check in and make sure they’re doing so—and to know why, for example, that person’s not at their desk.

The line between what feels like reasonable accountability and overbearing corporate surveillance likely differs from person to person. Already, before the emoji invasion, some of my colleagues regularly announced when they step out of the office for a meeting or a dentist’s appointment, while others only privately flagged their supervisor.

I don’t expect The Atlantic’s Slack culture to pressure colleagues into announcing every  break. The vast majority of my colleague’s statuses are lighthearted jokes, and many feature selections from our enormous library of custom emoji, like Lil Jon’s head, or an image of the earth peeking out of the top of a garbage can.

Instead, the statuses feel a little like early AIM away messages right now. While nobody’s rigged up their status to display the song they’re currently listening to, and I’ve yet to see an announcement somebody’s “WoRkInG ReMoTeLy ;),” picking an emoji to go with your name is fun. But under different circumstances, it could feel like work.

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