Banning Preemptive Sludge Justification

This is a sample of Slack messages I’ve read lately that all share a common theme:

Hi all – I’m getting acupuncture from 11:30 – 12:30 so I’ll be offline during that hour.

Hey y’all, I have a few painters in my house today and tomorrow so I may be intermittently away as I shift my workspace from room-to-room

Good weather outside, so I’m gonna go sit under a tree and read [documentation]. Will be away from Slack for about an hour.

This is my favorite

Wanted to give folks a heads up. My mom (our babysitter) pulled something in her back so she’s not able to watch [kid]. [Spouse] is taking care of it today, but if she’s not better tomorrow I’ll have to take the day off and take over. Might still call into a few meetings here and there.

These messages were posted in channels with 20+ people. Most of the people in these channels were not working directly with the authors; they were not in the middle of a chat conversation and got interrupted. Most of these authors did not have meetings scheduled with any of the other channel members during their absence.

I recently advocated that we ban this type of conversation in Slack. It didn’t go over well. Here’s my defense.

In their book “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It” authors Ressler and Thompson define a term they call Sludge: any negative commentary that occurs naturally in a workplace and is based on outdated beliefs about time and work… it is any kind of code for the status quo”. The authors provide many examples of this type of dialog:

“Eleven o’clock and you are just gettin in?”

“Another vacation? How many vacation days do you get? I haven’t taken a vacation in five years!”

“I can’t believe Toby got that promotion. He’s never here.”

This type of dialog is directed at another person or behind people’s backs. But just as dangerous is what Ressler and Thompson call Sludge Anticipation. This type of behavior originates from the person being judged. “Sludge Anticipation is what enables a culture of fear in which you’d rather call in sick than have to worry about getting slammed for being late.” This then leads to Sludge Justification. “You have to justify yourself based on time and what work looks like… you have to make up an excuse based on time. You were stuck in traffic, there was an accident, your kid wasn’t feeling well…”.

In a work environment that relies on outdated and incorrect understandings of how/when/where work gets done, employees start to preempt this Sludge by justifying their upcoming out-of-contact time. I want to call this Preemptive Sludge Justification: these comments when people are going to be unreachable for small durations.

The messages I shared at the start are all examples of Preemptive Sludge Justification. Each person is justifying why they are going to be late/gone/out of touch for a few hours. Is Alice’s work going to suffer because she got acupuncture in the middle of the day? Is anybody going to notice that Bob is not online while he out-runs the painters? How are Carl’s contributions affected if he is babysitting and taking meetings?

None of these people’s work was affected because they were unreachable. Like all Sludge, Preemptive Sludge Justification, erodes trust and takes focus away from the real work.

Having to justify every hour of the work day says, “People don’t trust me to get work done.” “I’ll be in the park for an hour” says, “Work can’t be done if I’m away from my computer”. “I’ll be intermittently away” says, “Synchronous communication is more valuable than [coding|designing|writing]”.

In a workplace free of Sludge everyone’s time is respected. The authors get to the point when they say, “People are still hung up on the idea of availability rather than performance.” Without Sludge the work becomes the focus of everyone’s attention. “Because what you really should be asking yourself is not, ‘What kind of excuse can I come up with?’. The question you really need to ask yourself… is ‘Am I doing my job?.’ “

The reason tells a lot.

It’s the justifications you don’t hear that explain the mindset behind Preemptive Sludge Justification. Nobody says, “I’ll be offline for an hour to check Facebook.” People in workplaces that value showing up, instead of output, know that checking Facebook is grounds for reprimand or condemnation from co-workers. People in workplaces that value output know they can check Facebook and get their work done. In companies where Sludge is present, you can bet people are still checking Facebook, but when the reason for being away is not acceptable people will either lie or say nothing. It is a lack of trust that causes people to lie or hide their behavior.

This seems petty.

At first glance, Preemptive Sludge Justification seems harmless. But this type of behavior, even in its subtlety, has a serious impact on how people feel about work, the quality of their work and ultimately people’s happiness at work. The authors specifically call out that Sludge can seem small and harmless, but it has repeated impacts on our work. All the time people spend thinking up “valid” excuses is time they are not working, or maximizing enjoyment when not working. All the Slack messages that interrupt people have real consequences on productivity. We all know how a single tweet or phone call can derail deep work for 15 or 20 minutes. A Slack message is no different. It’s just noise.

Preemptive Sludge Justification creates artificial deadlines. “I have to get this finished before I go play with my kid in the park.” Deadlines are always stressful. They cause work to be rushed and quality to suffer. Unless you are delivering pizzas, your work can certainly wait a few hours. When you are the only one who knows when you are working, you are free to take breaks that are convenient for you. You are free to stop working on something that is halfway complete. You don’t have to show progress before “earning” a break. Personally, I get my best work right up until my brain says, “Ok you’re done.” That might be any time during the day, when I’m half way through a task, not after I’ve neatly completed something and notified the team of my progress.

What about missing meetings?

Yes, there are times when changes in a person’s schedule require that they miss a meeting. Most modern calendar tools have options that allow participants to decline, reschedule, or email other participants directly. If Alice previously scheduled a meeting with the marketing team and now has to cancel, she should contact them directly. Personally I don’t want to check Slack to see if anyone declined a meeting. My calendar will tell me.

What about longer times away?

At my company we have an informal 24 hour rule. If someone messages, emails, comments at you, then you have a responsibility to respond within 24 hours. If you are going to be away longer than a day then let everyone know. In these cases a Slack message would be required.

Discourage yes, but why ban them?

Ressler and Thompson take an all or nothing, zero-tolerance policy toward Sludge, “As long as there is Sludge, you’ll never be free. We have to eradicate Sludge…. If there is no Sludge, then it’s harder (or even impossible) to reinforce the status quo. If you take away people’s ability to judge themselves and others based on time, then it’s harder for time to be used as a measure for performance.”

Compare a zero-tolerance Sludge policy with other zero-tolerance policies in the workplace. All these policies are designed to prevent negative culture from getting a foothold. It is difficult to roll back a negative culture. It is much easier to prevent one in the first place.

But people really do need to get in touch with me

On rare occasions some people, in some organizations really do need to be available for quick response. If you work in sales or customer service every moment counts. Getting a fast response makes people feel valued, which is exactly how you want your current and potential customers to feel.

If you are a person that needs to be available for quick conversations within your team or organization, then you need to seriously contemplate your role within the team. How did you get into a situation where you can’t be away? What happens in an emergency when you need to be away? How will your team function when you are no longer on the team? How is it that work can’t get done without you around? You need to empower and equip your team to work without you at the ready.

It might seem insignificant to tell people not to preemptively Sludge themselves, but reminding people that they are owners of their own time, reinforces the trust the team has placed in them. It empowers them to do their best work, which creates a happier and productive workplace.