Hello Slack, Goodbye Email

(What I’ve learned about slack and teamwork)

Everybody is talking about Slack. They were one of the fastest companies to reach a billion-dollar valuation, and are noted to be worth double that now. The founder, a fellow Canadian with a stellar track record and a couple of philosophy degrees, is doing wonderful things to improve how the cool kids work.

Photo by Kris Krug on Flickr.

Cool is great, but when it comes to day-to-day work, cool is not enough. For a tool to become part of the daily workflow for a business like ours (we are a digital strategy agency with a core team of 8 plus a rotating roster of contractors), it has to complement the work, make it easier, more nimble. To use an industry term, it has to save cycles.

On the surface, Slack seems like a simple chat program, but it’s much more. Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, has been around for nearly three decades and I consider Slack its user-friendly sibling.

Slack reimagines IRC — and repurposes it. It’s a set of tools that help teams collaborate through group conversations, private messages, file sharing, message history search, and with the right kind of programming, any number of other work-related automations. Such a simple thing, and yet its impact, in saving time and enabling communication, is hard to measure.

It’s not just businesses that are convinced of its usefulness. Slack has been used for conferences and other special interests. It’s those special interests I find the most ‘interesting’; mainly because they touch on a lot of what I’m doing for a career, as a web technology specialist, but also because people are finding interests outside their careers that are connecting themselves to Slack.

Slack in a petri dish

How has Slack affected our small petri dish of culture? In my case, I find it easier to get information to, and connect with teammates on a more personal level. The mobile app allows for communication to be fluid and instant. The desktop app is like an always-on lifeline to the team. A number of different integrations have made it even more “sticky,” as we have tied in Twitter, created custom bots (read below to learn about them) and shared many an interesting inline gif. It has effectively replaced email for us as a communications medium and I prefer it.

Go on

Slack and its integration points are geared toward startups building a vast array of digital services. In our position as digital strategic consultants, we find ourselves using the tool as a primary means of internal communication and organization. Our own use of integration points are small and growing, but, Slack’s strength is in its ability to reduce my email needs to a few internal messages per week.

How we use Slack every day at Modern Craft

One any given weekday, we have ten or more team members at our office. Communication is mostly verbal, but Slack has seen heavy use. Since signing up nine months ago, we have sent 21.5k messages. That’s tens of 1000s of messages that are not hidden in each other’s inboxes.

By the numbers

Admittedly, we are not the largest sample size. We’re a small team trying to take advantage of tools that help us do our jobs more efficiently. Here is how messages are sent:

Some of the messages we share are critical, workflow-related items, like when we are all collaborating around a strategy document for a client. But when you look at the figures above, you also see a lot of public channel messages: planning where to eat, or sharing the latest link.

Sometimes a conversation will start innocently enough, but will quickly devolve into a series of jokes about lasers and manscaping.

Can it kill email though? Really?

Consider the advantages that Slack has over an ordinary inbox. New to a project, or just got back from vacation? Jump into a channel get caught up. Follow the thread, follow the files, and get informed without draining time and resources of your project coworkers, and without scrolling through endless email threads.

We’ve all been on those dreaded email threads, with their copies and redundancies, blown headers, multiple email addresses for a single contact. Not an issue with Slack. You can easily dip in and out of channels as you need, keeping focus where it should be: on the employee, and the work at hand.

Colleagues can @mention a user by their nickname and they’ll find a nicely formatted list of those mentions to review. This is powerful: if the user needs to catch up, they can quickly check to see what’s important and instantly react to those @mentioning them. In project-related channels, communication and the history of that channel are paramount to keeping a project moving forward.

So is Slack killing email? In our world, it’s eliminating a lot of them — at least internally. As we adapt to it even more, it continues to change how we communicate.

Integrate with all the things

There are various integrations within Slack, to tie-in a multitude of operational support systems companies use every day. We use integrations with Dropbox, Google Docs and Trello to allow our team to centralize the “office” into a single point of contact. The new ‘Add to Slack’ button makes 3rd-party integrations easy. Clicking on the ‘Add to Slack’ button now allow developers of Slack-friendly services to share to a channel of your choice.

The privacy question

When it comes to internal communication tools, privacy is understandably every executive’s first question. How safe is your information? As an administrator of our group, I wondered out loud one day to a couple of teammates “just how much can an administrator / owner of our Slack group see, of what we type?” I asked Google and found a few informative bits and bytes, specifically this article.

The highlights:

  • Data collection does not happen automatically
  • There is a several-step process for team owners to request access
  • Each request is reviewed by Slack for approval
  • Once granted, workers on the team are notified of the data access
  • And the best part: data collection is not retroactive, so all those private groups and DMs you’ve been apart of can stay undeleted/unedited. No admin/owner can see this chat history

As an admin, this allows for peace-of-mind communication within your organization — something that is very important to a healthy business.

Next-level slack usage: Slackbots

Bots are also not a new bit of technology, but the barrier of entry for people to build these tools has been lowered. There are many services, code snippets, examples of bots written in just about every known modern programming language out there that help make your Slack bots easier to build; you don’t require an extensive programming background to make bots talk to your Slack community.

Ben Myers, Product Manager at Robots & Pencils, wrote about a bot he built that streamlines a process in their business, and, with a little work, can be easily to put to use in yours. It’s the “Standup Bot,” which asks each team member for their list of “did, doing, and blockers,” before populating a spreadsheet with the responses:

image: Ben Myers

This was a process that, in the past would require a team to get out of their headspace and roll up into a standup meeting. Most of those meetings, in my experience, turned in to sit-downs and would tangent to all sorts of places a standup should never go. In short, time and effort that was wasted before was now saved; what was going on was recorded and acted upon as it would be in a well-planned standup.

You can see how this same function can be applied in other ways:

“/pm-bot what you working on? @everyone”

(Sends out a private message to each team member)

(Each member sends their reply back when they see the message)

What we’re doing next with bots

Right now I have integrated a number of those earlier mentioned examples from other developers to test the bot shortcut:

/mc random — sends you back a random number (never know when you need a number)

/mc flip-table — Flips a table emoticon; can add name of someone to flip instead of a table (more useful than you think)

/mc food — Uses yelp to search around your immediate area and have it report back to what tastes can be devoured

These fun little experiments have opened a door into many possibilities. But for bots to be truly useful to us, we need to integrate with our emerging work flow. Next up for the team is to build a bot that enquires what people are doing; similar to the standup bot above.

We also want to build a vote bot that polls everyone on the team to vote on social posts, or just everyday questions. And often as we think through client problems, I’m left wondering: are they using slack? Can we introduce them to it? Can we streamline their process and allow them to better communicate what is going on internally? Can we bring them into our small world to better communicate with them? All questions I look forward to answering.

My final thoughts

In our office, Slack is here to stay. It would be difficult and frustrating to replace, if for some hope-it-never-happens hypothetical reason we ever had to. Yes, there are other collaboration tools, but none so elegant and simple that they feel like a suitable email replacement. Also it has to be said: email is still a very useful tool, and while we don’t send as many as we used to, we still receive and read our fair share.

I’d lastly like to point out that email may benefit from Slack and other services like it. As Slack grows in popularity, a lot of the one-liner noisemaker emails — the multiple mix of personal and professional accounts people have — may become less obvious. For those who crave the structured, back-and-forth nature of email, their inbox may just become a little less cluttered*, and that is a win for all involved.

*except for the spam. Hey, +1 for Slack; no spam! :).

Founded by three agency veterans in Vancouver, Modern Craft is a digital strategy agency with a fondness for new ideas, bourbon and Doritos.

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