Social Contracts Under Stress

A few weeks ago, during normal working hours, something interested happened in one of our team's Slack channels. One of the engineers (from a different team) came in, asked a question about a project they were working on, and, after waiting less than ten minutes, decided to "@here" with a rude message, alerting over a hundred engineers and salespeople and product owners about their singular, isolated problem. The backlash was immediate and widespread, causing ripples and disruptions in other channels for the rest of the day. The most confounding piece was that the offending person was an experienced engineer who was used to working with my team, not a new employee who bumbled in and made a simple mistake.

Slack is the primary communication for my company, especially among engineers, and using "@here" is a very abrupt method of alerting everyone in a channel. The best usage is for a site outage, though it can be used for other reasons in smaller channels -- to alert everyone on a team about an important meeting or announcement, as example. What this engineer did, though, was the equivalent of storming into a plane and yelling at the top of their lungs that they needed an extra pillow. Their question only pertains to a few people (flight attendants), and there's no need that fellow passengers or the pilot needs to know. This is why my company has an unwritten policy, a social contract, of using Slack responsibly and not using "@here".

After this event I couldn't help but think about this breach of social contract in terms of the debates around our global pandemic. Something new happened in late-2019 / early-2020, a microscopic virus showed up and fundamentally altered humanity's normal environment, and institutions around the world chose different and contradictory approaches, resulting in a myriad of acceptable behaviors across different countries, social groups, and political affiliations. There was no singular way to respond to the new threat, no agreed-upon set of practices, and the result was chaos.

Personally, it didn't take long for this chaos to invade my house and work life. Schools closed down, Katie began working from home, and the very idea of normalcy was a joke. I leaned on the dependable work environment, and when my workplace decided to shake things up and change team flows, there was no rock, no reliable pattern, and everything was disrupted. And I'm not the only person who has had to deal with this over the last few years.

I'm not sure what the solution is. Social contracts feel very stressed right now at all levels. Whether its personal, work, or societal, the constant barrage of crisis over the last few years has placed a lot of pressure on normal behavior. My team at work has a working agreement that we use, and while that works for our team, it does not extend to our stakeholders or the rest of the company, creating a limited overall impact. Clear communication does help, and I've gotten into the habit of being brutally honest when someone asks "How's your day?". Maybe one day we can all look back and chuckle at these times, but for now I'm perpetually holding my breath, waiting for another break in another stressed system.