The Extremely Online Workplace
The remote office needs community managers.
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For the New York Times, the guillotine emoji was the last straw. The reaction to Opinion editor James Bennet’s resignation, sent by two employees in Slack, touched a nerve. Reported by the paper’s own media critic, the incident prompted the Times to comment through a spokesperson, “We encourage constructive, honest dialogue among our colleagues, but there are lines that can be crossed.”
Bennet’s resignation followed a series of editorial decisions that set off angry online debates. Editorials run under his watch included a number of petulant Twitter fights, as well as others with more far-reaching consequences, like this editorial by Senator Tom Cotton calling for military action against protesters. Bennet’s critics on the Left hailed the news as a sign of long-overdue accountability, while libertarian magazine Reason fumed it proved “the woke scolds are taking over the New York Times.”
The Times is not the only employer struggling with civility at work. With Twitter driving the news, we are all, whether we want to be or not, extremely online. The platform’s laissez-faire moderation policies reward strong opinions, loudly expressed. And employers, long used to avoiding politics to preserve harmony (and productivity), have been left reeling as remote work emboldens and extends debates.
But rather than being explicit about what’s ok, most employers are repeating Twitter’s mistakes by dodging the issue of community management entirely. And their refusal to set and enforce clear rules has left leaders with few options when conflicts arise.
While internal chat apps aren’t public forums, they’ve been at the center of some very public meltdowns. Coinbase banned political discussions after its Slack lit up over the CEO’s response to George Floyd’s murder. At Basecamp, which sells collaboration software (and contrarian management books), tensions over a list of “funny” customer names, some of Asian and African origin, led to a similar ban. And the CEO of Shopify blocked posting in a diversity-focused channel after debate erupted over a custom noose emoji, saying “Open and unmoderated forums can turn into echo chambers and those end up with extreme toxicity,” according to Insider.
Slack groups work like any online community, according to Ryan Broderick, a former BuzzFeed reporter, community manager, and author of the newsletter Garbage Day. “It’s the same problems since the nineties,” he said. “The only difference is there’s new tools to be annoying or toxic.” But while the pandemic made the ROI of communities clear to business leaders, no one wants to do “the really boring, horrible work of monitoring [them].”
People act differently online, and tools like Slack, while not expressly built to hook users, still make work feel like social media. Emoji reactions and replies provide the same validation as likes and retweets. “I don’t post online anymore because I don’t like being so public, but if I have something fun going on in my life, I will put that into Slack,” said Rebecca Levin, a Program Manager at research startup Maze. And as Ellen Cushing noted in the Atlantic, like Twitter and Reddit, discussions in Slack feel “categorically different, somehow less real.”
“There’s this feeling that if I don’t post about it on Twitter, I’m complicit. You end up weighing in as if you’re some sort of public figure, despite the fact that you’re not.”
Online, everyone is engaged in a digitally-mediated performance. As Erving Goffman wrote, “We are all just actors trying to control and manage our public image.” And the pressure to maintain that image can quickly turn reasonable people into pundits. When news breaks, “there’s this feeling that if I don’t post about it on Twitter, I’m complicit,” said Charlie Warzel, co-author of Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home. “You end up weighing in as if you’re some sort of public figure, despite the fact that you’re not.”
Slack emboldens the meek; compared to an all-hands, the ease of posting makes speaking up a lot easier. Anne Helen Petersen, Warzel’s partner and co-author, has found herself in that position, and sees it as a mixed blessing. The freedom is powerful, she said, “but it also opens a portal. It’s just more discourse, right?”
Of course, more discourse isn’t always a virtue; left unchecked, it quickly becomes overwhelming. “The 24-hour news cycle has translated to the extremely online workplace, and it’s draining and exhausting,” said Cassandra Marketos, who managed communities for Kickstarter and the Obama White House.
Marketos is an advisor at the Integrity Institute, an advocacy group that includes former trust and safety experts from Meta, Instagram, and YouTube. In an open letter to Musk about his plans to relax Twitter’s moderation, the group warned free expression “requires clear processes, a culture of transparency, and a product that guides people toward best practices and behavior. Importantly, it also requires top executives to support those employees on the ground level who are tasked with building these systems.”
“You’re creating a public room where people are empowered to talk back. If something starts to blow up in Slack, you need to have an amazing response that’s defensible if it’s shared with a reporter.”
Despite this, few remote teams have any community managers on staff, let alone one to spare for Slack. Often, said Broderick, “that falls to the manager who set up the room,” and moderation amounts to “an ad hoc system where everyone’s supposed to be on their best behavior.”
Leaders often treat Slack as just another tool. But as Godwin’s Law wryly observed, any extended online discussion is a Hitler comparison waiting to happen. “You’re creating a public room where people are empowered to talk back,” said Marketos. “If something starts to blow up in Slack, you need to have an amazing response that’s defensible if it’s screenshotted and shared with a reporter.” While few HR teams are experienced in rapid-response crisis communications, for community managers, “it comes naturally, and it’s very much an unsung part of their skillset.”
So what steps can a CEO take to make Slack a nicer place for everyone?
To start, make it someone’s job—and make sure they’re fluent in the team’s remote culture. The challenge for many HR teams, Broderick said, is that “everything has to be professional, and it has to make sense. And the internet doesn’t make any sense… No one feels comfortable saying things like, ‘Sorry, we only use the bear emoji on Tuesdays.’” If your organization is large enough, it may want to follow the examples of GitLab, Meta, Okta, and Stripe, all of which hired a Head of Remote Work.
Of course, community management shouldn’t be entirely top-down. Online communities thrive when members’ voices are included, and employees deserve input into policies and procedures. That doesn’t mean consensus, but changes should be “slow and small,” said Broderick, allowing time for feedback and adjustment.
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Setting clear expectations for Slack is critical to work-life balance, especially for less experienced hires. These employees, many of whom identify with the global precariat, often feel pressure to make their work visible to higher-ups. And Slack, as its slick ads have made clear, is where work happens, leading many of them to engage in what New York Times reporter John Herrman called “LARPing your job.”
As the markets cool and layoffs loom, employees increasingly feel the need to prove they shouldn’t be the first against the wall. “There’s so much that people internalize as implicit,” Petersen explained. What those employees need most, she said, is “having a manager say ‘You are not expected to be on Slack past our general work hours.’”
A shared code of conduct can address common Slack-related issues, like an always-on culture, that can lead to burnout. But while many company handbooks outline general rules of behavior, few address online chat explicitly. In their book Get Together, the founders of People & Company, who’ve grown communities for brands like Nike, Instagram, and eBay, recommend five questions to start:
What’s the purpose of this space?
What’s not ok?
How do members report violations?
How will we investigate and enforce the rules?
Some companies—especially in tech, with its history of hippie-libertarian ideals—may resist the very idea of a centralized rulebook. Investing scarce resources to formalize structures of governance, after all, requires a measure of faith in government. (Sadly, few entrepreneurship programs require students to read Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”.)
Community managers need to know when things get out of hand so they can step in. With clear escalation paths, Marketos said, “everyone is empowered to say ‘Hey, this person’s behavior is not chill,’ and that goes somewhere.”
Slack itself doesn’t have an easy way to flag messages, but some third-party apps, like Dots and AnonymityBot, have reporting features. Teams on paid plans can also set up a Slack workflow for reporting: here’s how to install one that lets any user send a report and notifies them after it’s reviewed.
While technical solutions may help make Slack a better place, a big part of the problem is simple overexposure. Warzel has spoken to dozens of companies that rely on Slack, and “the people who use it really well,” he said, “are the ones who use it in a more intense, but really targeted way.”
“There's been no experimentation about how you treat Slack,” said Marketos. “It's just a given that it’s the communication tool for facilitating the workflow.” Her dream? Remove work from Slack entirely, and leave it for fun. “You use email and Airtable or whatever to do actual work during the day, and around 4 or 5 pm, everyone can get on Slack and wind down together.”
However they manage it, leaders need to acknowledge Slack is just as real as the office, and start learning how online communities work. That’s hard without the insight that comes from being part of one. “The people who understand the need for community management are the people who were part of an online message board in 1997 that imploded because they didn’t have mod[erator]s,” said Petersen. “That’s not generally the sort of person who bolted their way into the C-suite.”
Remote culture is often less visible to executives, who spend more time in meetings. But because online experiences are more intimate, said Broderick, that culture is probably more valuable, even if leaders may not always understand it. “If you can’t take it seriously, you can’t write it down. And no one at any of these major companies is taking that culture as seriously as wacky tie Tuesday.”
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