The Slackification of the American Home

Ricky Of The World/

Stretched for time, some households are starting to operate more like businesses.

When Tonya Parker, a mom in Illinois, wanted to better organize her family life a little over a year ago, the first thing she did was set her kids up on Trello, a web-based project-management tool. Parker’s four children, ages 9 to 18, now use Trello, which is more typically used at work, to keep up with chores, to-do lists, shopping, and homework. “I use it every day to keep track of what schoolwork I need to do, or places I need to be, things to buy,” Hannah, her 15-year-old daughter, says.

“College was my first experience of having to keep track of my own stuff,” Tonya said. “I wanted [my kids] to have that sooner.” Incorporating Trello, along with Gmail, into the Parker family’s life has been a godsend, in Tonya’s view. It streamlined family communication, helped keep everyone organized, and added a layer of accountability to tasks. Now, instead of wondering if her children forgot to do something, Parker says she can ask, “How are you doing on your checklist?”

Children’s free-play time has been on the decline for more than 50 years, and their participation in extracurricular activities has led to more schedule-juggling for parents. Parents are busier too, especially those whose jobs demand ever more attention after hours: 65 percentof parents with a college degree have trouble balancing work and family, a 2015 Pew Research Center report found, compared with about half of those without a college degree. In an effort to cope, some families are turning to software designed for offices. Parents are finding project-management platforms such as Trello, Asana, and Jira, in addition to Slack, a workplace communication tool (its slogan is “Where work happens”), particularly useful in their personal lives. In other words, confronted with relentless busyness, some modern households are starting to run more like offices.

Julie Berkun Fajgenbaum, a mom of three children ages 8 to 12, uses Google Calendar to manage her children’s time and Jira to keep track of home projects. Ryan Florence, a dad in Seattle, set up a family Slack account for his immediate and extended family to communicate more easily. And Melanie Platte, a mom in Utah, says Trello has transformed her family life. After using it at work, she implemented it at home in 2016. “We do family meetings every Sunday where we review goals for the week, our to-do list, and activities coming up,” she says. “I track notes for the meeting [in Trello]. I have different sections, goals for the week, a to-do list.” Her oldest son started high school last year, and Platte says that without productivity and task-management software, she doesn’t know how he could manage it all. Trello allows her son to track responsibilities and deadlines, and set incremental goals.

Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University and the author of Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool, and her husband started using Asana at home nearly a decade ago, when they bought a house and were expecting a baby. “We all of a sudden had a bunch of stuff to deal with,” she says, explaining how Asana made the jump from software her husband used for work to software they used as a couple.

In the hectic days of new parenthood, the platform provided a way of managing all the sleep training and child-care-coordinating Oster and her husband were doing. The to-do lists these days are a bit thinner—her two kids are no longer toddlers—but the couple’s Asana use surges during big projects, like a home renovation.

Oster, who is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, says she takes a “business-y approach” to other aspects of home life as well. After she and her husband arrive at a decision as parents, it’s not uncommon for one of them to send an email recap, something along the lines of “As per our earlier conversation, we have decided that the children will be enrolled in tennis camp over the summer. Please let me know if you want to follow up on this.” She acknowledges that such a note is “more like an email I think most people send at their jobs,” but says it helps minimize miscommunication and confusion about the many things she and her husband are juggling.

Asana said it doesn’t collect data on the various “personal-use cases” its software is put toward. But Joshua Zerkel, the company’s head of global community, says that in talking with people about how they use the product, he hears many say it comes in handy for nonbusiness purposes, such as planning a wedding or a move. When asked how Asana might be designed differently if it were intended for personal use, he said, “I don’t know that that much would actually change.”

“We think of Trello as a tool you can use across work and life,” says Stella Garber, the company’s head of marketing. “The example we had on our homepage for a long time was a kitchen remodel. On our mobile app the example was a Hawaiian vacation. We know humans have a lot of things they need organized, not just what they have at work." (Slack declined to share any information about how people use its software, and Atlassian, which owns Jira, did not respond to a similar request.)

Despite these tools’ utility in home life, it’s work where most people first become comfortable with them. “The membrane that divides work and family life is more porous than it’s ever been before,” says Bruce Feiler, a dad and the author of The Secrets of Happy Families. “So it makes total sense that these systems built for team building, problem solving, productivity, and communication that were invented in the workplace are migrating to the family space.”

Melissa Mazmanian, an informatics professor at UC Irvine, agrees. “The way that we imagine knowledge work and more and more kinds of work is really about coordination and collaboration across distance, across people’s different time commitments, managing attention, figuring out who’s going to do what when,” she says. “And that style of work … It’s very similar to family life, if you think about it.” Perhaps one’s children and direct reports are not so different after all.

Mazmanian says that these programs might be of particular value to households with two working parents, an arrangement that more children grow up with now, compared with a few decades ago. Without one adult in charge of the professional domain and one in charge of the domestic domain, there’s more coordination of who’s in charge of what—which is something productivity tools can assist with.

She wonders whether a program like Asana might help even out the imbalances in household duties that often arise between partners—especially men and women—by making them more visible. “It tends to be that couples divide this work up in ways that aren’t exactly equitable, and that one person takes on more of that truly invisible work … Something like this might actually be a way for that person to say, ‘Look what I’m doing’ [to their] family [or] partner.”

Perhaps the desire to streamline home life is also a product of how much employers ask of today’s knowledge workers. “I see the use of business software within households as an effort to cope with feeling too stretched at work,” says Erin Kelly, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and a co-author of the forthcoming book Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It. She says that the “escalating demands” of many white-collar jobs leave workers (parents or not) increasingly frazzled and worn out—so the same tools that systematize their workdays might appeal as a way to cut down on the time they spend organizing life at home.

This strategy doesn’t always play out smoothly, though. For Peder Fjällström, using Slack at home was mainly a fun experiment. A former app designer who lives in Stockholm and is starting a kombucha brand, Fjällström, initially was excited about using the software at home a couple of years after adopting it at work: He custom-built little tools within the program that would let members of his family add an item to the grocery list when something was running low, report “bugs” in the house (like a broken appliance), and determine the kids’ current location (pulled from the Find My iPhone app). On occasion, Slack was also a way for Fjällström and his wife to summon their two kids at dinnertime.

But the Slack experiment lasted only three or four months—the kids soon gravitated toward apps that were “more fun.” After some reflection, Fjällström has concluded that using Slack with his family made home life feel more like work. “It helped at that point in time because it felt like life was a bit messy … but life is supposed to be a little bit messy.” There are things, he recognizes, that productivity software doesn’t optimize for, such as carving out quality family time and allowing children to “feel all the emotions.” “That’s what we’re aiming for at the moment,” he said, “not structure.”