Why does Teams make us feel so disconnected?

What if the tools we use are shaping our culture, and not the other way around?

Today I saw an article worth sharing with all my colleagues working in the tech/agile/design space (this one by Tim Paul, in case you were wondering.) I wanted to share beyond my immediate team, to anyone in our government who was interested. In previous orgs I've worked for, we'd have a slack channel for that, and more often than not it would lead to a conversation that between many different kinds of people. Some of the things we'd share would look like this:

a screenshot of slack reactions to a post, showing many reactions and comments
Reactions to a post (not mine) in one of my Alumni slack channels (129 members)

But as I browsed my over 100 (yes, I counted) "teams" (aka channels), I couldn't find the right place for it. There were lots of potential spots where it might fit in, but when I looked in those spots, they just didn't seem right. They were full of organizational updates and push messaging, so they didn't feel like the place for an informal share or a casual conversation. I could've, as I've done in the past, just picked the best fit and hoped it would spark something. But more often than not, my sharing leads to silence or a couple of thumbs up reactions. That might look like this.

a screenshot of reactions to a Teams post, showing three thumbs up and a heart
Reactions to a post (mine) on a current BC Gov Teams channel (450 members)

So I didn't share it on Teams, which didn't feel like a big loss in the moment. But every thought or idea we don't share with each other is lost potential for conversation and connection. That adds up over time.

Since moving from an organization that uses Slack to one that uses Microsoft Teams, I've felt the loss of connection and communication deeply. I often experience a sense of both being in the dark while still somehow being overwhelmed with too many updates and notifications. I feel that I'm disconnected from everyone but my closest colleagues, and that I'm being communicated to, rather than with.

And yet, both Slack and Teams are just tools, they shouldn't matter. Culture is shaped by people, not tech. Right?

But ... what if we've got it wrong? What if the tools we use are actually shaping our culture, or at least influencing it? What if the structure and organization and permissions of Teams is actually reducing our willingness to communicate, rather than making it easier?

Here are four ways I believe Teams is actually hindering communication and connection:

  1. Closed conversations are the priority. In Teams, chats and channels ('teams') are separate tabs, and closed conversations are given more weight/importance/attention than open ones (eg notifications.) In Slack, it's the opposite–Open conversations (in channels) are the main attraction, and DMs are tucked away on the bottom of the screen. This design decision seems small, but it's significant. You're pushed toward open communication in Slack, but in Teams it's more hidden away, and it takes extra effort to post something openly.

    "It's easier for me to share in a closed chat with just my team, so that's what I'll do."
  2. Teams/Channels are optimized for broadcast messaging. A channel message by default now has a header. This gives you the feeling that you're making an announcement or writing a blog post rather than starting the conversation. Again, this is a small design decision that fundamentally changes how people communicate, even if they don't realize it.

    "I want to start a conversation thread, but this feels like it's only for announcements. Maybe I'll just keep this to myself."
  3. You can't browse all open channels. In Teams, I have to know a channel exists and/or be invited by someone to join it. I have no idea which Teams exist beyond my limited view, which conversations I might be missing out on. Slack is the opposite–I can look at all the open channels and join them if they interest me.

    "I want to connect with other people about ______, but I can't see any channels for that. I guess I'll just figure this out on my own."
  4. There are too many channels. I'm part of over 100 channels, and that's only a small snippet of our organization. It's overwhelming. Perhaps this has more to do with my organization than with the tool, although I think it's reasonable to expect Microsoft to anticipate and design for this problem, because it's not like this is unexpected. It's difficult for an open and connected culture to emerge when the information load is so high.

    "There are 100 different channels here and I don't have time to go through them all to find what I want. I'm just not going to bother"

(Side note: I'd also like to acknowledge that despite these 'barriers' I've identified, a lot of really great people in my organization do share openly and frequently on our Teams sites. If you're one of these folks, you're awesome 👏)

This blog post was not sponsored by Slack

I'm not here to advertise and this isn't a plea for my organization to adopt Slack. I actually think Teams is a strong tool, and it's a huge improvement over what existed previously. What I really want is for Teams to get better at supporting open communication and connection, and in that regard I think they could learn a lot from Slack (and Discord, and Rocketchat ... etc.)

But the real point I'm trying to make is this: the design of the tools we use matters, because it can profoundly shape how we do things in ways we can't predict. And when certain tools are forced upon us (as Microsoft is, for many organizations,) we need the people making those decisions for us to be aware of those impacts and consequences, and we need the people making those tools to understand and care about them, too.

Because I think we can all agree that connection and communication are crucial to a healthy workplace, and we need tools that will support that in the best way possible.