The Right Way to Use Slack

You might have guessed that I’m not breaking up with Slack. We’ve been using Slack and other tools like it since the early days of Savvy Apps back in 2009. Through the years, we’ve continued to both try new tools and end of life others. Whether it was Unfuddle and Campfire in the older days or Trello and Slack in 2016, we’ve constantly looked at each tool in terms of what we want them to do for us. We’ve had regular conversations with our team about how—and how not—we should use each of these tools. The reason? We never want any of them to run our day.

Being Unproductive is Not Slack’s Fault

Whether it’s Slack, HipChat, Trello, JIRA, Dropbox, GitHub, email, or any number of other tools, most people and organizations let the tools they use dictate how they’re supposed to work. They haven’t taken the time to think how best to use these tools or how they fit into their workflow. As a team, they then don’t have a shared perspective on what these tools are for and how they should be used. With each person then using these tools how they want, the results are frustration, distraction, becoming unproductive, and yes, even people blaming and quitting these tools.

Consider for a moment the introduction of email though. It was a much bigger shift for the workplace than Slack ever has been. Email was revolutionary. Slack is evolutionary. Slack had immediate predecessors ranging from Campfire, HipChat, and even IRC. Yet email, while not without problems if unbridled, is now embraced universally. Like email, Slack and comparable tools simply need some best practices and guidelines to be used the right way. They don’t, however, need to be quit.

Define How Slack Should be Used

Slack and other real-time tools should not be considered the sole communication methods for you or your organization. They are built to be real time, meaning that they are beneficial to discuss items that are relevant now. The biggest mistake made is to use them to discuss anything and everything under the sun. Often Slack is used to discuss future tasks, topics that require extensive thought, sensitive items, or to get feedback from people that may not even be available for conversation.

Real-time tools like Slack should not become replacements for documents, files, task & ticket systems, and even email. They should also not become replacements for other real-time ways of communicating, including in-person discussions, voice, or video calls.

Slack Equals Now, Not Later

At Savvy Apps, we rely on Slack for work that is in progress. If someone is working on a bug or feature for example, they discuss that specific work in a channel. We discourage using Slack to address future work or anything else that is not being worked on in that exact moment. These kinds of exchanges can go onto a Trello card , Pivotal Tracker ticket, Quip document, or comparable places. You can obviously insert your relevant tool, these are just the ones we use.

When future items are discussed in Slack, important context for that task gets lost in the channel instead of its permanent home (i.e., a card or ticket). By keeping all conversation in a single destination, when that work then comes into focus, everyone has the right context and no one has to go searching for previous conversations.

Keep Conversations in Channels

Almost all conversations should occur in a channel. Keeping conversations in channels ensures that all conversations are indexed and searchable. In other words, full context is available and not trapped between team members via direct messages (DMs). For example, a designer and developer, might talk about the nuances of an interaction. If that happens in DMs instead of a channel, a product manager would never know about it. Another developer who might step in to help would also lose that context.

An added benefit to this approach is that it greatly reduces the burden of direct messages. DMs can become overwhelming, especially because people feel they must be responded to, often immediately. By instead mentioning someone in a channel, they can get back to it when they have the opportunity to do so.

Limit Channels as Much as Possible

Each project we’re working on at Savvy Apps is a channel. We also have a global channel we call our lounge and channels for each discipline (e.g., design or DevOps). The second type of channel often becomes more focused on sharing links and resources relevant to that team. Anyone can join any channel but channels and private groups can only be provisioned by team admins or owners.

This approach might seem overly limiting but it ensures the number of channels don’t get out of control. If someone needs a channel, they can ping a team admin and ask that person to create it. In general though, our philosophy is that less channels are better. It reduces splitting conversations. As an example, we had a separate user experience and visual design channel in the past but decided to collapse them to encourage more interaction and discussion amongst team members.

Keep Slack at Work and Reduce Notifications

Do Not Disturb for Slack was a welcome addition. How about one step further though? Don’t even install Slack on your mobile device. Slack doesn’t need to follow you everywhere. If you use it for work in particular, keep it where you do work, on your desktop, laptop, or tablet.

Be selective with how you’ve enabled notifications as well. We use to encourage people to add their name to their Slack settings to trigger a notification. We’ve since changed that to rely solely on a mention to send a notification. This way someone’s name can be mentioned without worrying it would draw their attention to it (and also avoid having to write something like “K3n”).

When to Take Conversation Outside of Slack

Our general guideline is that if a topic is taking more then ten minutes to discuss in Slack, pop into a Hangout or walk over to someone’s desk. It doesn’t make sense to spend all day pecking away at a keyboard, especially when others may be getting confused or frustrated.

There are also times where it’s just best to stop discussing a topic either in Slack or otherwise. Take a step back and write up a document to clarify your thoughts, how a feature is supposed to work, or the ultimate outcome you’re attempting to accomplish. Then let others digest what you written and schedule some time to talk through it with them. As noted above, remember that Slack should not be the final resting place for important takeaways, action items, or next steps.

You Don’t Need to be a Part of 57 Slack Teams

Yes, there’s a Slack team for almost anything you can imagine. If you keep joining them, you’ll continue to have a higher and higher demand on your time. Whether it’s for conferences, industry, beta testing, friends, or your local coffee shop, joining more and more Slack teams just doesn’t make sense.

I decided a long time ago I would use Slack for one purpose and one purpose only, which is to communicate with my team. Historically, I’ve use Twitter at conferences or to chat with industry peers, SMS and iMessage with friends and family, email to send beta feedback, and other tools. These workflows were not broken before and thus don’t need replacements. I’m not saying you need to only join one Slack team, just be selective.

The Future of Slack

Slack realizes that messaging is not the final frontier for communication in the workplace. They have continued to invest into what they call “posts” although we prefer a formal document-based tool like Quip. They also recently rolled out audio calls in beta.

We’ve been pretty happy with the Hangouts integration for video and they have a number of other video and screen sharing integrations in their directory. We’re most excited about them continuing to integrate their Screenhero acquisition into a native video and screen sharing experience. The one-click option for these tools will further eliminate the hassles and frustrations many have with text-only messaging.

Those alone will not be the solution though. Take the time to think about how you want to use Slack or your comparable solution, along with all the other tools available to your team. You’ll be pleasantly surprised when there’s a common ground for how to think about and use these tools. By establishing these guidelines for yourself and your team, you’ll feel much more fulfilled, less distracted, and ensure that no tool runs your day.