If there were such a thing as rage nostalgia, it would be the longing for a time when people fought out loud — even in a setting as formal as the office. They vented. They cursed. They rolled their eyes theatrically. Now workplace anger is quieter, often contained to the clack-clacking of a hastily typed note on Slack, the messaging software used by many companies.
Take Ani Rodriguez, 24, who works in public relations. At her previous company she had a reflexive response to professional slights: She took a screenshot of the offending message and sent it to her work friend with commentary like “OMG” or “WTF.”
Earlier this year, Ms. Rodriguez made a tactical error. Her boss had sent her a message asking why a task hadn’t been taken care of, an oversight Ms. Rodriguez felt wasn’t her fault. Ms. Rodriguez took a screenshot. She accidentally sent it right back to her boss.
“That was a disaster,” she said.
Conditions have been ripe for workplace disaster this year. Many teammates haven’t seen each other in person much since 2020. Their working relationships have frayed, but the slog of tasks continues. At the same time, they’re reading headlines about constant crises — layoffs, inflation, company collapses.
So things get messy. People blow up at colleagues they’ve never met in person, and find it’s easier to demonize a disembodied Slack account than it may be to lose it at someone in person. Whole battles can be waged between Catwoman and squirrel avatars. Workers receive irate messages, and instead of talking it over they respond with a half-baked retort.
‘I’m on My Laptop, That’s the Place I Go to Fight With People’
We’re living in the age of Slack rage.
“People are getting those dopamine boosts by saying negative things,” said Tessa West, a psychologist at New York University and the author of “Jerks at Work.” “The reward is stronger and more immediate than the cost.”
With well over one-third of American workers still at least partly remote, and millions of them reliant on Slack, it’s clear that many conversations between colleagues — including fights — are now confined to online platforms, even more so than before the pandemic, when such tools were already a staple of the workplace.
Anil Dash, a blogger and executive who is the head of the collaboration platform Glitch, has noticed that across companies whose Slack channels he has been in, people disagree with one another more freely than they might have in the office. They have broad-ranging debates on serious issues like politics and tech ethics, or light subjects like snacks. Much of it gets heated.
“It can feel like, ‘Well I’m on my phone, or I’m on my laptop, that’s the place I go to fight with people,” he said. “You have this tool that mimics public social media, and so people’s behaviors mimic public social media, even though it’s sold and used as a collaboration tool.”
Some parts of Slack’s design can be invigorating for workers: It tilts the power dynamics of professional conflict, letting people share their views on public channels, with support from teammates, instead of behind closed doors.
“Slack is very different from most tools used in the workplace,” Mr. Dash said.
“It is intentionally very flat,” he said, meaning that anyone can easily message anyone else and express their views. Hierarchies at least appear less significant than they might in a physical meeting room, which can lead workers to feel more comfortable raising critiques.
Slack isn’t the only software helping challenge workplace authority. Ms. West was on a Zoom call with 50 people last year. One student called her a bully in the Zoom chat box; several more chimed in to agree.
But Slack, like other technologies, can also leave employees exposed to the whims of their bosses. Monte Williams, 41, the founder of ALEU – the Leadership Development Company, recalled being castigated in a series of “nasty Slacks” at a previous employer. He said that the chief executive had started an argument with him in a channel with all of the company’s vice presidents and executives, telling him he wasn’t smart.
Though many of his colleagues privately messaged him to express sympathy for the treatment, he said, none of them stepped in to defend him publicly. Mr. Williams tried to adopt a collegial tone in his response, sending screenshots to prove his own point and assuring his boss that he was not trying to offend her.
He also knew that Slack was not going to be an easy space to hash out the disagreement: “Slack is an amazing tool for a lot of things, but not to resolve conflict,” he said. “There’s an implicit sense of ‘I only want the direction of this communication to be one way.’”
You Can’t Go for a Walk Online
Slack fights are erupting in a work environment already marked by fraying mental health. Employees have to deal with all the stress of their work relationships without more lighthearted, in-person moments to offset the tension: the dumb jokes, the snack breaks, whispering in the bathroom.
Brad Smallwood, a therapist in San Francisco, who often supports people through professional disagreements, has seen his patients’ stress levels rise as they’ve gotten deeper into collaboration with co-workers they haven’t seen in person for nearly three years.
“I come from a traditional workplace, and when you have a conflict with someone you pop by their office and say, ‘Can we go for a walk?’” Mr. Smallwood, 43, said. “For a lot of people, that’s not a reality anymore.”
Mr. Smallwood used to have an office at Square, the payment company, whose employees he saw as clients. Sometimes they brought their phones to therapy sessions, he said, and he watched them react in real time to receiving aggravating Slack messages.
“Their phone would light up, they would look at it and they would be like, ‘Ugh,’” he said. “You could see them firing their little fingers to message something curt back.”
Workers are also learning which online terms and emojis might unintentionally breed conflict. Lots of people perceive a thumbs up emoji, for example, as a digital eye roll. Others balk at “KK,” a stand-in for “OK,” which they say can read more like “ugh” or “whatever.” The eyeball emoji can mean “I’m looking at this” — or “I’m giving you side eye.”
Liane Davey, 50, an organizational psychologist, was taking a digital course earlier this year and one of her peers said on Slack that she wanted to “steal” Ms. Davey’s idea. She might have meant it as a compliment, but without the benefit of body language or tone of voice, Ms. Davey said, she initially interpreted the message as breezily callous.
“I had this huge reaction — ‘What do you mean you’re going to steal it from me?’” she said.
When deadlines are looming, people don’t always remember to defuse their outbursts with apologies. Alison Weissbrot, an editor, noticed the tone of her team’s chat messages getting more curt as they faced a crush of tasks for New York’s advertising week. Even as assignments piled up, the expectation was that responses would come immediately. She experienced the sense of bodily dread that follows a message like “Hello? Can I get an update?”
“My stomach would drop, my heart would start beating fast,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, my head is going to fall off.’”
Ms. Weissbrot, 30, tried to lighten the mood with emojis. “I know this is lame and canceled but I love the crying laughing emoji,” she said. “I also love the face gritting its teeth. If I mess up, I’ll be like, ‘Oops,’ with the gritting teeth.”
Others are skirting conflict the old-fashioned way — by picking up the phone. “If you’ve gone back and forth on email or Slack a couple times and you’re not connecting, I would get out of that mode,” Ms. Davey said. “Pull out of the death spiral.”