According to McKinsey, the average office worker spends a full fifth of her day searching for the information or people she needs to connect with to do her job. Every company under the sun would like to cut down that percentage. How do you do it?

The obvious answer is knocking down the walls between people, both figurative and literal. Help people connect more easily and you'll help them get more done.

We all know how that worked out when it comes to the literal walls. The open-plan trend took offices by storm. At least until people noticed that workers tended to hate the noisy new layout and Harvard researchers conclusively proved open-plan offices actually make people less collaborative. Then many realized, as my Inc.com colleague Geoffrey James memorably put it, that open-plan offices are the dumbest management fad of all time.

Maybe the project is going better when it comes to the figurative walls?

Companies have rushed to adopt tools like Slack that aim for the same effect in online spaces, boosting serendipity and making it easier for people to connect and find information. That hasn't worked out so well either, argues a fascinating report by Rani Molla for Recode. Her bottom line conclusion:  "Slack is ruining work."

Do Slack and similar platforms actually make us more productive?

"On average, employees at large companies are each sending more than 200 Slack messages per week, according to Time Is Ltd., a productivity-analytics company that taps into workplace programs -- including Slack, calendar apps, and the Office Suite -- in order to give companies recommendations on how to be more productive. Power users sending out more than 1,000 messages per day are 'not an exception,'" reports Molla.

But wait, you might object--firing off a Slack message is easier than dealing with an email. That sounds like a lot, but maybe it's all for the good if employees are using less email.

"Since Slack launched in 2013 -- followed by Workplace in 2016, Teams in 2017 and Hangouts Chat and Meet in 2018 -- time spent in email has declined," Molla writes. So far so good, but the same data shows that instead of using that new email-free time to, say, work, employees are generally using most of it to Slack each other.

"The total amount of time we spend communicating is roughly the same as it was six years ago. That means the addition of workplace chat apps hasn't actually lessened the amount of time we spend communicating," she concludes.

"We're just moving email to another place and it's less searchable," comments Sarah Peck, founder of Startup Pregnant and one of the many of those in the knowledge work trenches Molla speaks to.

How to tame the Slack chaos

Of course, to be fair, Slack is only a tool, like a hammer. If people choose to use it to do the productivity equivalent of bashing their own thumbs, it's the user, not the tool, that's to blame. There is a moderate and sensible way to use Slack. It's just that many if not most offices aren't using it that way.

Nor is Slack necessarily a worse offender when it comes to distraction and overload than other technologies (we're looking at you, social media). But as productivity blogger and entrepreneur Darius Foroux points out to Molla, "People can quit social media. It's more difficult to say, 'I quit Slack.'"

Molla goes on to outline ways companies like Slack are trying to improve their products to nudge people to use them more constructively. She also discusses what changes to company culture would improve our collective sanity. It's well worth a read if you're struggling to get anything done thanks to your office's overactive Slack chatter.

But while programmers and designers wrestle with the question of just how addictive is too addictive, and management ponders whether to create Slack guidelines or even create a Slack moderator position, the rest of us can take some responsibility for quieting down the office messaging madness.

"My strategy is personal accountability: taking personal responsibility of my own job performance and looking at my personal effectiveness," Foroux declares.

Maybe we all could take a little more responsibility for making our virtual spaces less productivity and sanity-sapping than the worst of our boundary-free physical ones.

Published on: May 3, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.