In 2015, Slack promised to kill email. The newest web-based app was going to do magic, help distributed teams increase signal/noise ratio across communication channels, focus on what’s important, and offer one clean, searchable place for valuable conversations.
Fast forward to 2019, and we (still) have email, Meet, GoToMeeting, Skype, SMS/MMS, Facetime, and Slack — all used at work all the time (and driving us all crazy).
From a 2015 Time.com article:
Work on Slack for a few days and you can see why people think it can kill the most dreaded form of communication: email.
Not necessarily, in my experience. My first use of Slack was at the OpenStack Foundation (OSF), a highly distributed ~20+ person team spread across the globe from Taiwan to France and all over the US in various timezones. I gradually introduced the tool to OpenStack’s employees plus consultants, slowly training individuals on its features. It was mandatory to join it, although not everybody used the Slack client — many preferred the IRC gateway (now discontinued). Slack didn’t reduce emails but finally, put every member of the OSF team along with consultants on one platform. Quick exchanges could happen in real-time across all teams, searchable archives, and integrations with other apps: all things that IRC enjoyed for many years but did not make very accessible to busy people without the patience to set up a private IRC bouncer.
The thing is that Slack is a beast of an application and you can only decrease noise if you learn how to tame it. There are lots of guides out there, but here are my tips for more productive use of Slack, based on my years of experience.
- Everybody at the company must be on Slack. Discourage the use of other channels (SMS/MMS, Facetime, Skype, youNameIt) to keep communication lean. Migrate all quick discussions to Slack itself, making it the source of authority for business communications.
- Use Slack only for its intended purpose: fast, short-term conversations and updates. Leave more reflective conversations to long-form emails. Rule of thumb: if your message is longer than 2 sentences, switch to email.
- Always prefer room chats rather than 1-1 messaging: a group is more likely to have answers for you. Also, sharing questions and status updates with the group will reinforce the camaraderie and show your contributions to the team. Also remember that direct messages can be disruptive: they demand immediate attention from the recipient. Too many private rooms and direct messages only add to the noise and can duplicate communications unnecessarily.
- Get to your point in one message when starting a conversation. Don’t just say “Hey…” or “are you there?” or “can I ask you something?” and then wait for the other party to respond. Speed up the communication by putting the full sentence/question in one line, like “Hey @Stef, the fridge is full of chocolate. Do you want to recycle some of it?”
- Don’t rely on Slack’s archive as a substitute for proper documentation. If something important gets discussed on Slack and a decision is made, share that decision where it matters. It could be a piece of documentation, a Jira ticket, a forum post or an email to the team. We’re a distributed team, nobody can be expected to parse and understand hundreds of unread messages when they wake up! And search results are hard to parse.
- Use the right channel for the right message. Each room should have a clear topic: if there isn’t one, it’s a bug that needs to be fixed. If two rooms have similar topics, consider archiving one. If you’re about to create a new room, ask yourself if you could re-use one of the existing ones (more about this later).
- Subscribe only to channels that are relevant to you so you can aim for unread zero. Start your day clearing all unread messages in one go and review the queue at your own pace. I clear it at regular intervals throughout the day. This way I keep in touch with my team and other teams, too.
- Tame the notifications. Between mobile and desktop apps, Slack gets annoying very quickly. Set a Do Not Disturb schedule based on your regular work hours and snooze notifications temporarily when you need to focus.
- In general, avoid messages that only say “thank you,” “wow,” “nice,” etc., because they don’t add much to the conversation while they do add to the ‘Unread messages’ count. Try to use Slack reactions instead. Hover over to the upper right of the message you want to leave a comment for and click the little smiley face button. You’ll deliver the same warm feeling without cluttering the chat history. Or send a private message to the author, if you think they’ll appreciate a personal note or if a personal note is important to you. There are exceptions for major announcements like new babies, weddings and other major milestones.
- And finally, should I create a new slack channel? Short answer? No. Seriously, consider archiving one channel before you open a new one. If you must, however, here are some easy questions to ask yourself before opening a new room:
- What’s the topic of the room? Write down one sentence. Does it look clear to you? Ask a colleague: would they know what would be on-topic and off-topic there?
- Who should you invite to join the room? Can you find most of them active in other rooms already? How much overlap is there with other rooms?
With those answers, you’ll find that most of the time it’s a good idea to create a new room only to follow an event together or to communicate during a crisis. These rooms should also be religiously archived once the event/crisis ends and a summary is written. For long-running rooms, most of the time you can repurpose what’s already available. The myth of “too much traffic in one room” is a false one. Spreading relevant conversations across different rooms is a much worse problem to solve than skimming through unread messages in a single room.
These are my personal opinions and recommendations based on years of experience managing open source communities. YMMV. Leave your comments based on your experience with Slack.