Making work tools feel more human, so people can thrive

Slack’s head of research on the role tools play in employee engagement

Colorful illustration with a laptop and small people
Image Credit: Skinny Ships

“I think we can challenge ourselves to set higher expectations for the work products we build and use every day,” says Christina Janzer, head of research at Slack. “What would it look like to bring more humanity, fun, and delight into the tools we use for work?”

Along with her team of researchers, Janzer studies how people work and what they need to do their best on the job. And they consistently find that an important signal of employee engagement lies in how people feel about the tools they use at work.

Engaging employees with technology isn’t just about supplying more efficient or more robust software — it means giving people tools that they look forward to using as much as their personal social media.

Christina Janzer
Christina Janzer, head of research at Slack

That might seem like a tall ask, but Janzer emphasizes that when a product reflects the nuances of human communication, while at the same time making information more accessible, employees feel more connected — both to their work and their coworkers — resulting in stronger, more trusting relationships and better performance.

Here are a few insights from Janzer and the team on the design elements and interactions that can be baked into work-based products and that ultimately make for a more fulfilling — and productive — work experience for employees.

Visual cues are emotional cues

“Working online, we’ve lost the ability to pick up on emotional cues,” says Janzer. “Before, we could gauge whether someone was happy or sad or, judging by the stacks of papers on their desk, stressed.”

Without these physical cues, Janzer says people tend to be reticent to communicate with coworkers online, fearing that “more communication will lead to miscommunication.” Janzer thinks product teams can learn from how social media integrates visuals with text to add social and emotional context to online conversations.

“Emojis help,” she says. “Think about the difference between responding to someone with ‘That’s fine.’ versus ‘That’s fine 😊.’”

Within Slack, status indicators add further context by showing someone’s location or availability — but people also have the opportunity to customize their status.

“We’ve often heard in our research that Slack feels closest to face-to-face communication,” says Janzer.

“It lets you talk more informally and show your personality a little bit, which helps employees get to know each other,” she adds. “That translates into things like feeling more comfortable voicing doubts or opinions, or taking more creative risks together as a team.”

Social connection = team cohesion

Feeling lonely or misunderstood at work can be detrimental to an employee’s performance, which is why creating safe spaces for people to build camaraderie — and even be vulnerable — with other colleagues is important.

Janzer notes that joining “community channels” in Slack — channels where employees discuss their hobbies, affinities, or life experiences — helps workers feel more connected and allows them to form bonds and nurture relationships outside of organizational silos.

“I joined a channel for working parents, and it was such a huge relief to know I’m not alone in my fears of balancing work and family,” she says. “I can bring my whole self to work, not just my professional half.”

While it’s easy to dismiss community channels as distracting, Janzer notes that these kinds of spaces allow people to expand their network at work, increasing their opportunities to meet other internal experts. Not only does that inspire a greater diversity of thoughts and ideas that can lead to new collaborations — and new solutions — but it inspires greater loyalty to and solidarity with people in the wider organization.

Delight matters

Speeding up workflows through simple interactions can cultivate delight in the workplace. “People find genuine delight in increased productivity, in the removal of unnecessary hurdles and steps from their work,” says Janzer.

Take the Google Drive integration for Slack, for example. If someone shares a link to a Google Doc or a file in a channel, but forgets to update the permissions settings so other team members can access it, Slackbot generates a friendly message alerting the person who posted the link to update the settings — which they can do right from that channel.

Janzer returns to emoji as another good example of an element that can be both fun and functional in a work context. Over time, her team has observed how people have come to use emoji in Slack to communicate the status of a project, collect and archive knowledge, or convey urgency.

Together, these kinds of functionalities prevent common hiccups in team communications and workflows. They extend a courtesy to users, whether by allowing them to communicate more simply and clearly via emoji, or by automatically picking up on things they might have forgotten, freeing them to focus their efforts on deeper and more meaningful work.

Another thing about delighting users: Janzer says it’s easy for product teams to focus on building and releasing “the next shiny, big new feature,” but her advice is to remember that releasing small, incremental changes can also make a huge difference in how users experience a product day to day. So, do both.

Good communication can make all the difference between a job getting done and getting done well, which is why it’s necessary to imbue work-based products with more humanity, fun, and delight. Doing so not only makes for a fundamentally more fulfilling work experience for workers, but it can lead to greater productivity, and progress, overall.

About Slack

Slack has transformed business communication. It's the leading channel-based messaging platform, used by millions to align their teams, unify their systems, and drive their businesses forward. Only Slack offers a secure, enterprise-grade environment that can scale with the largest companies in the world. It is a new layer of the business technology stack where people can work together more effectively, connect all their other software tools and services, and find the information they need to do their best work. Slack is where work happens.