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Using Slack - Choose Your Fighter

It’s a funny thing. We all use this tool to communicate, but we rarely spend time setting rules and expectations regarding how it’s used. With Slack this can be particularly dangerous for an organization because it defaults to distraction and frenzy.

I’ve been a Slack user for 7 years and an admin of the NashDev Slack community for nearly as long. In that time I have formed some opinions on how teams can best use this tool without feeling beholden to it.

General guidelines and best practices

Public channels whenever possible

  • Searchable by default
  • Less urgent / interrupting
  • Makes it possible for more people to answer
  • Allows more than just you to learn the answer
  • No “behind closed doors” optics

There are many reasons to use public channels rather than a DM. First, Slack stands for “searchable log of all communication and knowledge”. If you let it, Slack can act as an archive of decisions: when they were made and the reasoning behind them. This knowledge is lost forever, though, if it occurred in a DM, especially if one of the parties has left the organization. By gathering facts in a public channel, you not only make that conversation available to a wider possible audience (now or in the future), but it’s more easily found when you need to reference it.

Additionally, it’s important to understand that DMs will be received as SUPER URGENT no matter if you mean it that way. An @mention in a channel will be perceived as less urgent. Using someone’s name in a question in a public channel without a mention: even less urgent. This is good! We should reserve the urgency of DMs or @mentions for when we really need it. We also should consider whether what we’re asking truly needs to be answered right away.

Asking in public channels also gives others the opportunity to respond to your question, rather than one individual. You may think you know who has the answer, but there may be several more who could help you.

Furthermore, by gathering facts in a public channel you’re creating a place for everybody to learn! Maybe there are other people on that team who had that question as well. You now have your answer and can link it to anyone in the organization if they have the same question. Impossible with DMs.

Finally, there’s an optics issue at play, too. Imagine DMs as a side conversation at the office where you are whispering to each other, or like a meeting behind closed doors. How would that look to other employees? If you are solving problems that you are concerned about a wider audience overhearing (overreading?), this may be an indicator of other cultural issues.

Managing channel proliferation

  • Fewer, more active channels
  • Temporary channels are better than group DMs
  • Follow a naming convention
  • Define them
  • Actively archive them

Without knowing anything about your company I feel confident saying that you have too many channels. Does your company have more channels than employees?

Channels are a great way to organize your work, but they are not very discoverable. As I mentioned above, a major benefit of Slack is the ability to come back to decisions that were made and whey. Proliferating discussions or topics off into myriad channels makes this much harder. “What channel did I have that conversation in?” I recommend fewer, albeit noisier channels.

Often, I’ve observed teams want to integrate some kind of webhook for notifications, and create a channel for them so that a primary channel isn’t bombarded with alerts. Inevitably, these notification only channels get muted and ignored. Try and preserve alerts and bots for only things that are worthy of interruption, like a major outage.

Threads should be heavily utilized if there are fewer channels. However, in some cases you might want to split a particular conversation off into a DM if you expect it to last hours or days. Following up on my advice above, I think temporary channels are better for this purpose, because they won’t automatically send alerts for every message (as is the Slack default for DMs). It’s also easier to add additional people into the conversation and they can get the earlier context. Just don’t forget to archive it!

When you go to create a channel, make sure you’re asking the following questions:

  • What is the exact purpose of this channel?
  • Is there another channel that would also encompass this topic?
  • How will the necessary parties discover this channel?
  • When should this channel cease to exist? Who will archive it?

Creating a naming convention for channels such as #team-whatever or #project-whatever can really help enforce that channels have a defined purpose. Regardless, be sure to define every channel you create, and make sure someone in your organization is actively hunting for channels that can be archived.

Communicate your availability

Going on vacation? Stepping away for a few hours? Trying to get into the flow this afternoon? In a meeting? Use Slack status to communicate your availability to others. It can be hard to remember to do but it’s valuable.

Choose your Slack Fighter

Okay, now on to the fun stuff.

It’s not important or reasonable that we align our teams on a single way of working in Slack. Rather, we should encourage all teammates to reflect on how they use Slack, how they’d like to use Slack, and how they help their teammates understand their Slack behavior. So, to that end I’ve developed a few personas with tips and tricks that you might find useful for the way you like to use Slack.

DFW (down for whatever)

Slack is your homeboy. Finally, a tool made for your short attention span. You’re good with notifications: day or night. You’ll respond in a meeting, while driving, or from your surfboard. Every conversation, every thread, every DM. Notifications make you feel alive.

Tips and tricks

The Coordinator

You can’t imagine trying to do work without Slack, but it gets annoying sometimes. Distraction is a part of the job, though, because you’re a collaborator, or a verbal processor, or a lot of people depend on you to get their work done. You struggle to keep your head above the wave of notifications and get any actual work done, but when people need an answer to a question, you have it.

Job titles that might fit this persona

Engineering Manager, Staff Engineer, Project Manager, Tech Lead

Tips and tricks

  • You’ll probably want the Slack app on your phone as well as your laptop.
  • You should configure notifications to help you find the signal through the noise. Email notifications will probably be too much.
  • You’re probably in a lot of meetings, too, I’d guess. Calendar integrations are a must.
  • Realize that others won’t like to use Slack the way you do. Schedule messages or send emails for items that are not urgent.
  • Further to the point above, use public channels to source information whenever possible, rather than DMs.

The Librarian

You’re happy to help people if they approach you, but you prefer the peace and quiet as you work. You want to stay focused on your task. You are not actively looking at Slack to try and unblock colleagues or join a thread. Colleagues often have to ping you directly in order to get your attention.

Job titles that might fit this persona

Most individual contributors

Tips and tricks

  • You should definitely configure notifications to help you find the signal through the noise. An email digest may actually be helpful if you want to only check in a few times a day.
  • For DMs with multiple people, you should also change the default settings to only notify you with an @mention rather than for every message.
  • Consider setting a status of “in the zone” or “focusing” when you are heads down. Colleagues will see this when they are about to DM you and that may send them another direction.
  • Find some times throughout your day to carve out and catch up on Slack. It’s okay to treat it more like email, but be sure you’re not leaving people hanging.
  • You’ll probably want the Slack app on your laptop for convenience, but the phone app is probably unnecessary.

Casper

You vaguely remember IT setting you up with Slack on your first day. You’re not quite sure how it differs from email. You’ve logged in once from the browser. You’re loving remote work so far because you get your midday workouts in and have plenty of time for that side hustle.

Tips and tricks

  • Hey, you do you until it stops working.

Conclusion

Don’t let Slack push you around. Take conscious effort to wield it as a tool rather than boss you around like a taskmaster and kill your flow.

Russell J. Anderson

I am a Web Developer in Nashville, Tennessee, working for Lonely Planet. I love my family, my church, the local sports teams, and adverbs.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry