If there was such a thing as anger nostalgia, it would be nostalgia for a time when people argued loudly—even in a setting as formal as the office. They waited. They escape. They rolled their eyes theatrically. Now, anger in the workplace is quieter and is often quelled by the clack-clack 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 reacted reflexively to professional insults: she took a screenshot of the offensive message and sent it to her work friend with comments like “OMG” or “WTF”.
Earlier this year, Mrs. Rodriguez made a tactical error. Her boss had sent her a message asking why a task hadn’t been completed, an accident, Ms. Rodriguez’s field wasn’t her fault. Woman. Rodriguez took a screenshot. She accidentally sent it straight back to her boss.
“It was a disaster,” she said.
Conditions that year were ripe for a workplace disaster. Many teammates haven’t seen each other in person very often since 2020. Their working relationships have broken down, but the flood of tasks continues. At the same time, they read headlines about constant crises – layoffs, inflation, company collapses.
So things get messy. People blow up on co-workers they’ve never met in person and find it easier to demonize a disembodied Slack account than lose it on someone in person. Entire battles can be fought between Catwoman and Squirrel avatars. Workers get angry messages and instead of talking about it, they respond with a half-baked retort.
“I’m on my laptop, that’s where I fight with people”
We live in the age of Slack Rage.
“People get this dopamine boost by saying negative things,” said Tessa West, a psychologist at New York University and author of Jerks at Work. “The reward is stronger and more immediate than the cost.”
With well over a third of American workers still working remotely, at least partially, and millions of them dependent on Slack, it’s clear that many conversations between colleagues – including disputes – are now confined to online platforms, even more so than before the pandemic, as Such tools were already an integral part of the workplace.
Anil Dash, a blogger and executive who runs collaboration platform Glitch, has found that people at companies whose Slack channels he’s been on are more likely to disagree with each other than they are in the office. They engage in broad debates on serious topics like politics and technology ethics or light topics like snacks. Much of it is heated.
“It can feel like, ‘Well, I’m on my phone or on my laptop, that’s where I fight with people,'” he said. “They have this tool that mimics public social media, and so people’s behaviors mimic public social media even though it’s being sold and used as a collaboration tool.”
Some parts of Slack’s design can be empowering for workers: It flips the power dynamic of work conflict by allowing people to share their views with the support of teammates in public channels rather than behind closed doors.
“Slack is very different from most tools used in the workplace,” said Mr. Dash.
“It’s intentionally very shallow,” he said, meaning anyone can easily message everyone else and give their opinions. Hierarchies, at the very least, appear less significant than in a physical meeting room, which can make employees feel more comfortable voicing criticism.
Slack isn’t the only software helping to challenge authority in the workplace. Woman. West was in a Zoom call with 50 people last year. A student called her a bully in the Zoom chat box; several others chimed in to agree.
But Slack, like other technologies, can subject employees to the whims of their bosses. Monte Williams, 41, the founder of ALEU – the Leadership Development Company, recalled being flagellated in a series of “bad pants” at a previous employer. He said that in a channel with all the company’s vice presidents and executives, the chief executive started a fight with him and told him he wasn’t smart.
Although many of his colleagues messaged him privately to express their sympathy for the treatment, he said none of them came forward to publicly defend him. Mr. Williams tried to adopt a collegial tone in his reply, sending screenshots to prove his point and assuring his boss that he wasn’t trying to offend her.
He also knew that Slack would not be an easy place to settle disagreements: “Slack is an amazing tool for many things, but not for resolving conflicts,” he said. “There’s an implicit sense of, ‘I just want the direction of this communication to be one-way.'”
You can’t go for a walk online
In a work environment already marked by ailing mental health, sluggish struggles erupt. Employees must deal with all the stresses of their work relationships without other light-hearted personal moments to ease the tension: the silly jokes, the snack breaks, the whispers in the bathroom.
Brad Smallwood, a San Francisco therapist who often supports people with professional disagreements, has watched his clients’ stress levels rise as they work more closely with colleagues they haven’t seen in person in nearly three years.
“I come from a traditional workplace, and when you have a conflict with someone, you go into their office and you’re like, ‘Can we go for a walk?'” Mr. Smallwood, 43, said. “For many people, this is no longer a reality.”
Mr. Smallwood used to have an office at Square, the payments company whose employees he considered customers. 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 lit up, they looked at it and said, ‘Ugh,'” he said. “You could see them firing their little fingers to give back something short.”
Workers also learn which online terms and emojis could unintentionally create conflicts. For example, many people perceive a thumbs-up emoji as a digital eye roll. Others dismiss “KK,” a substitute for “OK,” which they say can be more like “ugh” or “whatever.” The eyeball emoji can mean “I’m looking at this” – or “I’m looking at you sideways”.
Liane Davey, 50, an organizational psychologist, took a digital class earlier this year, and one of her colleagues said on Slack that she liked Ms. Davey’s idea. She may 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 airy callous.
“I had this huge reaction — ‘What do you mean you’re going to steal it from me?'” she said.
When deadlines loom, people don’t always think to defuse their outbursts with apologies. Alison Weissbrot, an editor, noticed that her team’s chat messages became more terse as they faced a plethora of tasks for New York’s advertising week. Even as orders piled up, the expectation was that answers would come immediately. She experienced the physical anxiety that follows a message like “Hello? Can I get an update?”
“My stomach would drop, my heart would be beating fast,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, my head is about to fall off.'”
Woman. Weissbrot, 30, tried to lighten the mood with emojis. “I know this is lame and cancelled, but I love the crying laughing emoji,” she said. “I also love the face that grinds its teeth. If I mess up, I’ll say ‘Oops’ through clenched teeth.”
Others work around conflict the old-fashioned way—by picking up the phone. “If you’ve been going back and forth on email or Slack a few times and not connecting, I’d get out of this mode,” Ms. Davey said. “Escape the death spiral.”