Flat's not chat. Here's why.
Chatting in Slack or Teams is quick and easy — but as your team’s primary mode of communication, it has major problems. Flat offers teams a better way to communicate.
Nov 29, 2023
While Flat is a team communication tool, it is very much not a chat app. Slack and Teams are great for having quick, spontaneous, synchronous conversations like “hey I’m on a call with a client can you join?”; for rapidly working together on an urgent problem; or for virtual watercooler time like celebrating team wins with funny memes. But the convenience of chat comes with real downsides: it’s too easy for important messages to get lost, and it’s too easy to interrupt each other incessantly.
Part of the problem is that chat apps are organized around channels: endless streams of free-flowing messages that may or may not have a clearly-defined theme. Flat is fundamentally different in that it’s organized around topics: central gathering places to collect the context and resources related to a team objective, and to host focused discussions about the work. If a chat channel is like a room where people can hang out and talk, a topic is like a bulletin board on the wall that everyone can look at and add things to, stand next to and discuss, or post messages to each other on. Flat’s topics can capture anything and everything your team needs to do: from fixing a typo on the homepage to a multinational product launch.
So, a Flat topic is very different from a chat channel with an endless stream of messages. But it does support discussion, and in a way that better reflects how people want to work. Because the reality is that most work conversations are things like asking a teammate a question, requesting that they do something, or raising an issue about a particular piece of work. None of which usually need an immediate, live response! But all of which need to hang around, clearly visible to the recipient, to make sure the ball doesn’t get dropped. Flat makes this asynchronous and tracked collaboration quick and easy with lightweight discussion threads. Threads in Flat have a simple life cycle that mirrors real conversations — they’re open until they’re resolved — and they can even be assigned to someone to ensure that an important question or request isn’t overlooked. They combine the ease of chat with the persistence of email, without the noise of either.
Also, chat apps have a completely different interaction style from Flat. Chat lends itself to synchronous discussions, employing notifications (pop-ups, playing sounds) to grab people’s attention so they can jump into the chat when summoned. That comes at the significant cost of interrupting people’s focus. And it puts the onus on each individual to take themselves offline if they need to focus, which many people hesitate to do (due to team norms, or managers’ expectations). Flat takes the opposite approach: threads are explicitly async in the interest of protecting everyone’s ability to focus by not interrupting each other. Flat intentionally doesn’t try to hijack your attention with sounds or even a little red badge on its icon. When you’re assigned a thread, it’s clearly visible in the app, but you can attend to it on your own time.
The net result of all these differences is a completely different team communication experience: as lightweight and effortless as chat, but always in-context, with zero noise, no dropped balls, and no interruptions. Some teamwork tools have taken the approach of simply incorporating chat functionality into their products, but we think that’s a mistake because chatting is simply not how most people need or want to work, most of the time.
Of course, chat is still great for some things that Flat isn’t trying to do! It’s perfect for quick, spontaneous conversations that don’t need to be retained, and for working on urgent problems together – not to mention sharing cat videos. But we think it should be used sparingly because of its tendency to hijack attention and interrupt the real work that people are focused on getting done.
Seth Purcell is the co-founder and CEO of Flat. His career has ranged over genomics, finance, and for the past decade, leadership roles in web technology startups.