Slack, Millennials and Me

How Slack Brought Our Team Together And Made Me A Better Manager

First, a confession. I am technically a millennial, though an old one. I also think the term, like any applied en mass to millions, is a blunt instrument for defining the complexity of an incredibly passionate and talented group of people.

Nonetheless, it is used — frequently in business — to describe the frustration older folks feel with this generation. It’s a frustration, I think, that starts with communication.

I manage a team of bright and highly skilled, mostly “millennial” folks. And until two months ago, the way we communicated with each other was quietly busted. Email.

We work at a 30-year-old company, where Outlook and email are familiar old pals. I’ve been on conference calls where the back-channel conversation is a 45-email thread of asynchronous inbox sludge. And at first, I tried to inflict this antiquated system on a lovely group of people for whom it didn’t quite mesh.

So, two months ago, on a suggestion from a particularly persistent developer on our team, we started using Slack (if you’re new to the idea of Slack, this is required reading).

Here’s what happened, and why it matters to your business — particularly if you manage millennials:

Slack opened the floodgates of communication

227 messages. 1,694. 2,462.

“Well that happened quickly,” I thought, when I got our second weekly update from Slack.

In one week, everyone on our team had joined. By week three, the nine of us were exchanging more than 2,000 messages across more than a dozen project groups.

Two things were happening:

  • First, we had completely moved our existing Google Hangout chats to Slack. This had broken down the walls of one-to-one chat and brought much of that conversation into the open.
  • Second, it had unleashed a new kind of communication: group chat. All nine of us could discuss issues big (like a new WordPress vulnerability) and small (where should we get lunch?). Within projects, it let us quickly tackle an assignment, determine an approach, and divide up tasks — all in a chat exchange that would have taken far longer via email.

Lessons for managers: Adoption will be fast; it will bring existing chat conversations (that are surely happening) into one place where you can participate; you can communicate in real-time with your entire team; and your project groups will be able to quickly do what they do best: solve problems.

Slack brought our remote team closer together

One of our team members lives in Philadelphia. The bulk of our team lives and works in the DC area. And four years ago, I moved to New York City.

Beyond spending a lot of time on Amtrak, our situation means face-to-face time is precious, and that we have to work extra hard to build a tight team culture.

Slack makes this easier.

Quiz: When your friend’s kid becomes an instant meme by throwing a tantrum in front of Obama, would you rather:

A — Attach the photo to an email, include a link, and write up a note to send to all of your colleagues.

B — Pick up the phone and call your teammates to discuss and laugh about the situation.

C — Post a link to the #random channel on Slack, watch it automatically pull in the image, and let your team read and respond to it when they have a free moment in the day with a quick quip or a gif.

For us, the answer is obviously C. Moments of humanity, humor and insight make a day spent working in an office rewarding. And, they’re the first things to go when your team is remote and your communications center around formal email and phone calls. Slack helps reclaim what is lost when you can’t be in the same room together. For creativity, quality of work, and quality of life, that’s a big deal.

Lessons for managers: Teams need informal space for sharing and discussing ideas, articles, and new tools; remote team members will feel more included in the culture; and you will have an additional barometer for the collective mood of your team.

Slack gave me a window into all of our projects

As a manager, you are responsible for understanding the status of projects, identifying issues, and removing roadblocks so your team can succeed. Check-in meetings are great, email updates are helpful, but nothing provides a clearer window into the progress toward a goal than reading through a project discussion on Slack.

Very quickly, you’ll see what’s challenging the team, what the products (documents, designs, whatever) they’re creating look like, and how the team feels about the work. And, wherever necessary, you can jump in to provide guidance and help.

For me, I suddenly had an unfiltered window into conversations between project managers, designers and developers. For our team and for the projects we’re tackling, better communication means better results.

Lessons for Managers: See conversations around all of your team’s projects; spend more time reviewing and helping precisely where you’re needed and less time doing redundant and often “surface” check-ins with teams; and more quickly identify roadblocks and challenges across projects that you can help alleviate.

Slack put internal email in its place

Slack makes email more important. Let me explain…

When your email is full of quick transactions, bits of discussion, and noisy chatter, it’s a bit like being color blind and staring at a test image.

I am told there is a number in this circle. My brain tells me otherwise.

With Slack, your inbox will shed itself of clutter — making important emails from clients and colleagues pop (like the 15 to the left would do for me if my eyes weren’t dysfunctional).

Two months into this experiment, email traffic among our team members has slowed to a trickle. We’re communicating almost exclusively through Slack, and we have had zero complaints about this transition. Together, we’re creating a database of shared knowledge and project updates that is searchable for all of us, available to new hires, and painless to maintain.

Meanwhile, private conversations are just as native to Slack as transparent group discussions. In fact, sensitive topics are often more easily broached in chat, versus the formal medium of email. In chat, timing, conversational tone, and even emojis and gifs make up for the inherent lack of emotional queues in text.

Lessons for Managers: Chat is familiar and easy for your team — they’ve spent a lifetime training on how to convey their ideas, feelings and emotions using this tool (not so with email); no one will miss internal emails, which are easy to ignore, and lack emotional context; and you may find it is easier to discuss difficult topics via chat than through email or on the phone.

What can Slack do for you?

I could say so much more here (I’ve hardly touched on the technology itself, from the great OS X, Windows, and iOS apps to the intelligence of its notifications or the easy integration with tools like Asana, Google Apps, Dropbox, Twitter and more), but my best advice is to try Slack out for yourself.

Give your team a month to experiment, and then see how people react. It’s not an insignificant change to your workflow. But, the upside for productivity, creativity, and team communication and cohesion cannot be overstated.

For our team, business as usual will never be the same.

Follow Alex on Twitter @alexfield.