How Work Became an Inescapable Hellhole

By Anne Helen Petersen

Granted, only a fraction of the workforce currently uses Slack—as of April 2019, around 95,000 companies paid for its services. But many other workplaces use similar programs, especially since the pandemic sent millions of workers home and left companies scrambling for some way to re-approximate the workplace. These days, Slack’s influence feels inescapable: there were remote workers before Slack, but unlike email, or phone calls, or Gchat, Slack is able to digitally re-create the workplace, complete with standards of decorum, and participation, and “presentism,” however unspoken. It was intended to make work easier, or at least more streamlined, but like so many work optimization tactics, it just makes those who use it work more, and with more anxiety.

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Slack thus becomes a way to LARP—Live Action Role Play—your job. “LARPing your job” was coined by the technology writer John Herrman, who, all the way back in 2015, predicted the ways in which Slack would screw with our conception of work: “Slack is where people make jokes and register their presence; it is where stories and editing and administrating are discussed as much for self-justification as for the completion of actual goals. Working in an active Slack ... is a productivity nightmare, especially if you don’t hate your coworkers. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either rationalizing or delusional.”

As more work becomes remote, it’s something so many of us think about: How do we demonstrate that we’re “in the office” when we’re in our sweatpants on the couch? I do it by dropping links to articles (to show that I’m reading), by commenting on other people’s links (to show that I’m reading Slack), and by participating in conversations (to show that I’m engaged). I work very hard to produce evidence that I’m constantly doing work instead of, well, actually doing work.

My editors would say that there’s no need to compulsively perform on Slack. But what would they say if I just didn’t use Slack at all? People who do “knowledge work”—those whose products are often intangible, like ideas on a page—often struggle with the feeling that there’s little to show for the hours we spend sitting in front of our computers. And the compulsion is heightened for those of us who worked, job searched, or were laid off during the post-2008 recession: We’re desperate to show we’re worthy of a salaried job, and eager to demonstrate, especially in this economy, how much labor and engagement we’re willing to give in exchange for full-time employment and health insurance.

This mindset may be delusional: Yes, of course, managers do think about how much work we’re producing, but only the worst of them are clocking how many hours the green “active” dot is showing up next to your name on Slack. And most of our coworkers are too worried about LARPing their own jobs to worry about how much you’re LARPing yours.

We’re performing, in other words, largely for ourselves. Justifying to ourselves that we deserve our job. At heart, this is a manifestation of a general undervaluing of our own work: Many of us still navigate the workplace as if getting paid to produce knowledge means we’re getting away with something, and have to do everything possible to make sure no one realizes they’ve made a massive mistake. No wonder we spend so much time trying to communicate how hard we work.

I’ll be honest: As I attempted to write those past three paragraphs, I was paying my credit card bill, reading a breaking news story, and figuring out how to transfer my new puppy’s microchip registration to my name. Everything—especially writing this—was taking far longer than it should have. And none of it felt good, or fulfilling, or cathartic.

But that’s the reality of the internet-ridden life: I need to be an insanely productive writer and be funny on Slack and post good links on Twitter and keep the house clean and cook a fun new recipe from Pinterest and track my exercise on MapMyRun and text my friends to ask questions about their growing children and check in with my mom and grow tomatoes in the backyard and enjoy Montana and Instagram myself enjoying Montana and shower and put on cute clothes for that 30-minute video call with my coworkers and and and and.