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5 Slack tips for better communication

Slack has been our backbone of communication for a couple of years now. Since OneSheep is an entirely remote team, it’s been essential to have solid, easy and clear communication between us.

If you’re remote worker, in a busy office team, or part of an online community, chances are you’ve heard of Slack (if you’re not using it already!). It’s been taking the business world by storm over the last few years, thanks to its power and simplicity. There is now fierce competition too, from Facebook, Microsoft and Google. Yet, the concept itself is nothing new, some would argue it’s nothing more than IRC with a nice interface.

However you view it though, we would make a strong recommendation you consider it in the mix of your workflow and team communication strategy. Aside from our OneSheep team, I’m also part of five other teams ranging from 6 – 7 people to over 1000 people. So, here’s a few tips and pitfalls to consider as you adopt it or maximise its value if you already have it.

1. Don’t cry wolf

We all know the story, the bored kid cries out for help claiming there’s a wolf when there isn’t. People come running the first couple of times, then don’t bother the final time when there actually is a wolf.

One of the dangers of Slack is that it’s so easy to do likewise. With a large and busy team (and even our small one) you can get notification overload. Thankfully Slack does well at providing options to dial down the pings and alerts. However, the one that trumps them all is global mention/​notify feature @channel, or @everyone or @here. Like twitter these @ message tags send notifications to name or group used.

At their best these mentions provide a quick way to let everyone know something important or draw attention to a time sensitive message. At their worst they come off as rude, intrusive, arrogant or just plain annoying.

It doesn’t take many @channel messages that are irrelevant to someone in the channel before they give up responding, and like the boy who cried Wolf” you lose everyone’s attention. This of course has a negative effect on the whole team and the whole value of Slack itself. As soon as people start drifting off you lose the team communication channel itself.

Consider when you use these options.

  • @everyone when your entire team really needs to know something important.
  • @channel when that specific channel needs to be aware of something — and make sure you have appropriate channels set up (see below)
  • @here like @channel but for those currently online. Particularly useful across timezones. Again when everyone still online should be informed.

Consider does more than 50% of this channel really need to see this message?’ If it’s just a question, consider the people most likely know and @ mention them by name, but keep it in the channel incase anyone else is able to help. If it’s really just for a few create a group Direct Message group with those people in.

In short, message as few a people as is necessary.

2. Channel your inner thoughts

Creating the right structure of channels is equally important. Too many and things get messy, confusing and fragmented. Too few and things get noisy, conversations overlap and it’s harder to engage.

Within our team it’s fairly easy as we’re project based. So each project has a channel. This can then focus on project discussion, commits, code questions and design updates. We often invite clients into these channels for transparency and faster collaboration. These can simply be archived when a project is done and reopened when a new phase kicks in.

We also have broader channels than are ongoing all the time. We try and keep these to a minimum as much of our collaboration comes around a project, but here’a quick rundown that might help you see our approach.

  • #_​general Overall team wide comms for questions, organisation level discussion, encouragements, news and updates and our Team Times. Often a good place to let people know if we’re out of office for a bit (without @channel!)
  • #_​monitor This is mostly an entirely automated channel that uses bots to scour the web for mentions and hashtags of things we’re interested in/​working on or about us specifically. The great benefit here is you can opt into the channel if you want to follow along.
  • #_​prayer Sharing prayer needs and prayer answers together.
  • #_​random Just fun chat and banter.
  • #_​sharedlearning Things anyone has learnt along the way that can help others in the team. Great resources and tools. All work related.

In short, make your channels useful and purposeful to your organisation. (Hint, the underscores in the name put these channels at the top of the channel list)

3. Appreciate Slack’s strengths and weaknesses

While Slack is part of our core communications it’s not the only place work gets done’ as Slack’s marketing puts it.

Slack is great for timely in the moment communications, the more instant the better. It’s not great (yet) for documenting, recording important decisions or long term/​slowly evolving discussion.

For example, for a quick small decision or feedback on a small design element then Slack is great. For defining the specification of a software feature not so much.

With the former you chat it over and move on. With the later you chat it over, typically over a longer time frame, and then want to refer back to it when the feature is ready to be implemented. In the latter case Trello cards capture these types of discussion much better.

In short if it’s decide, chat, share and forget then use Slack. If it’s discuss, define and remember then other tools are better.

Sure Slack has search, but currently it’s not something you want to rely on to find important information.

4. Connect Slack into your ecosystem

A huge strength of Slack is that the app is so open and well connected. The Slack team made a great decision to open up API’s and allow other developers to create really useful and clever tools around Slack.

For our team Slack has become more powerful and helpful as we’ve added in the right bots and apps.

For example, we connected with BitBucket (our code repo of choice). This allows us to put commit messages into the project Slack channel automatically. That enables other devs and designers to see exactly when a certain feature or fix is ready, so they can pull it down and add their part.

We also connect with Trello to create cards, or receive notifications of new cards. This is a great way to solve the silent” adding of cards to Trello and keeps a project team aware of new ideas or support tickets.

We use a poll bot to create quick surveys and gather responses to team wide questions.

This can really cut down on email too and allow all the right messages to appear in the right context and channel at the right time.

5. Apply empathy

Everyone works differently. Some like to talk all the way through work, others need solid focus and a distraction free environment. Some will therefore think others rude when they don’t respond, or annoying when they constantly interrupt.

Within your team, especially those you work closest to, develop an etiquette that helps you understand each other. Knowing what people are working on at any given time is a really helpful in doing this. You can use custom statuses to set that, we even have client icons for each project to add a visual touch. (add image?)

If you’re out of office, just leaving a quick note to say for how long really helps. These things we take for granted in a physical office. Just seeing someone leave the room or office, or that causal just popping out for lunch” comment. Replicating that in Slack helps put back some of the affordances lost by working remotely.

Overall, applying a little empathy to your teammates will really help Slack not be an annoying tool with too many notifications and too much noise, or be an empty place where people never engage.

Bonus. You can go a long way for free with Slack.

Yes Slack is a great free tool, and a vast amount of its value can be had for free. Set all the channels you want, all the users you want and even add up to 10 other apps. Things get limited if you want group calling, but that really is about it.

Posted on Jul 18, 2017 by Sam Peckham

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