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How I use Slack to remain productive while working remotely

Photo by Pankaj Patel on Unsplash

Slack: The place where work happens.

As a fully remote worker for the last six months, Slack’s tagline perfectly sums up the pivotal role played by it in our organization.

It’s a fantastic tool indeed, having all but replaced Email as the mode of communication within our organization. Its feature richness, pleasing UI, integrations with other apps and playful tone of communication make it a delight to use.

Yet, I have a pet peeve associated with today’s workplace communication tools. Instead of helping us become more productive, we end up letting these tools make us more distracted. The blame for this entirely lies on us — the modern day knowledge worker.

Consider this scenario.

You are trying to get something done when a notification pops up on your screen. Its a message from a co-worker asking you a question. You quickly respond to the message. But as you respond, you notice messages in some other channels. You read them all even though none of them were relevant for you. Its already 15 minutes before you get back to your original task.

Now, imagine this scenario being repeated multiple times every day.

The result: wasted time, inefficiency, delay in getting actual work done and increased frustration.

After repeatedly experiencing this phenomena personally, I decided to take matters in my mind. And thus began the journey to regain back control of time, cut through noise and use Slack to “collaborate effectively” rather than merely communicate.

In the next paragraph, I highlight the major problems I faced with respect to productivity and workplace collaboration. Subsequently, I list down the principles and Slack features I used to resolve each of those problems.

Problems I Face while working

  1. Lack of focus/concentration: With a constant stream of messages demanding your attention, it becomes impossible to focus. As you have the urge to respond immediately, you end up responding to messages rather than focus on work.
  2. Bombardment with irrelevant messages: A lot of messages that we receive are irrelevant. This is because we are part of too many channels. On the other hand, we too are guilty of committing the sin of broadcasting messages which may not be relevant to everyone.
  3. Unresponsive co-workers: There is nothing more irritating than a co-worker who doesn’t respond to your message. Everyone (including me) has made this mistake. When you are working remotely, lack of responsiveness becomes a nightmare.
  4. Important messages/documents getting lost.
  5. Unclear communication: There is often a gap between what we are thinking in our head and what we end up typing. The back and forth ensuing from the lack of clarity ends up wasting people’s precious time.
  6. Context Switching — With so many work related products — email, calendar, project tracker etc. it becomes becomes difficult to focus on one thing. Like the monkey mind, you are constantly switching tabs and moving from one application to another.
  7. Forgetting small but important things such as following up on something.

Resolution of the above problems

Following are the key principles and Slack features I used to resolve each of the problems listed earlier.

1. Reclaiming your focus

The modern day worker is a distracted soul. There is so much to do, yet so little that they actually get done. While this inefficiency is an outcome of many sub-optimal processes, broken workplace communication is a key contributor.

Principles adopted to reclaim focus

  • A lot of the workplace communication is non-urgent and can be asynchronous. Thus, you don’t need to be “always ON” in Slack. My approach is to have dedicated work blocks throughout the day. During these chunks of time (totaling 2–3 hours), I remain incommunicado and focus on completing my work.
  • Not every message needs your response. Messages which are not addressed to you or don’t affect you directly can be ignored.
  • Responding to a message doesn’t always require you to type something out. Use emoji’s as a tool for acknowledgement to reduce your cognitive load.
  • De-clutter your Slack to weed out unecessary noise and only see stuff that’s important.

Slack Features that proved helpful

  1. Disable all Desktop notifications: Notifications serve no purpose except to break your chain of thought when you were doing something important. Additionally, mute all sounds from Slack through the preferences menu.
  2. Use compact theme (instead of the default clean theme):This will remove the excess whitespace and user avatars. This helps reduce noise and reduces the need to scroll as much to view messages.
Clean vs Compact theme (Image Source: Here)

To change the theme, click your profile picture on top right. Select Preferences > Messages and Media. Choose Compact from the theme options.

3. Change your sidebar settings to show only unread direct messages and channels. Consistently seeing channels and conversations that are dormant creates unecessary cognitive load.

View only unread channels and direct messages in the sidebar

4. Archive channels which have served their purpose. These generally include projects and initiatives that have been completed or abandoned.

5. Leave/Mute channel(s): To reduce the unecessary chatter, leave or mute channels where you don’t contribute anything or are not receiving any useful information.

*Note- In certain situations/roles, immediate communication is very important. For example, if you are on-call or doing a feature release. In such cases, you might need to have Slack open all the time.

2. Reducing the number of irrelevant messages received or sent

Having to consistently read messages that not relevant to you in any way is also a big irritant and distraction.

Principles adopted

  • Avoid being a constant part of random banter that happens on certain public channels. Occasional participation is okay but don’t make it an hourly habit.
  • If you are part of a channel that is not beneficial to you in any way, don’t waste time being a part of it.
  • Don’t unnecessarily disturb people who don’t need to be a part of a conversation. I create channels when discussing things relevant to a specific group of people. For example, if I am working on a new feature XYZ, I will create a channel named temp-XYZ and add the relevant team members to it.
  • If the conversation is intended for one person, don’t broadcast the message on a channel.

3. Handling unresponsive co-workers

To be honest, I used to get ticked off by people who don’t respond to messages unless they are sent like five reminders.

Principles to the rescue

  • Set your expectations right. Unless something is super-urgent, its wrong to expect immediate responses from others.
  • If something is super-urgent consider giving your teammates a phone or WhatsApp call.
  • If someone does not respond after repeated attempts, ask your query in a more public channel. Mention them in the message using the ‘@’ symbol.

4. Not being perceived as unresponsive by others

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

If we don’t want others to be unresponsive, we should also strive to not be perceived as unresponsive. Sometimes, your attempts to stay focused might create a perception of you being unresponsive. Thus, a greater emphasis needs to be put on setting the right expectations for your co-workers.

Principles adopted

  1. When you open slack, clear off Direct Messages (DMs) and the threads first. These can be found on the top left. This way you can respond to all messages that were addressed to you and leave no threads hanging.
Respond to Threads and DMs first after opening Slack

2. Respond quickly to messages using emojis.

Source: Slack

3. If you are going to be away from slack for more than 20 minutes, update your status so that the person messaging you does not expect an immediate response. To accomplish this super quick, use the keyboard shortcut (Shift Y on Mac and Ctrl Shift Y on Windows).

4. Sometimes, we might not want to respond to a message immediately after reading it. To ensure that you don’t forget to respond to it later on, mark it as “unread” or ask Slackbot to remind you later.

You can mark a message unread or set a reminder for a later time

5. Keeping track of important messages/documents

Hundreds of messages, files, documents are shared across Slack every week. Amidst this chaos, its easy to lose track of what’s important. Its a nightmare to try finding important stuff in your messages. The damn thing just won’t show up!

Pinning feature to the rescue

Use the pin feature liberally to make your life easier. I use the pinning feature in the following way:

  • For every new feature the team works on, we create a temporary channel. Links to the relevant documents such as PRDs, Design file, clubhouse ticket are pinned for ready reference.
  • Meeting Links (for repeat meetings) are pinned to the channel.
  • In 1:1 conversations, I pin document links and meeting links if these are expected to be used regularly.

6. Bringing clarity in communication

Effective teamwork begins and ends with communication. — Mike Krzyzewski

Principles adopted and Features used

  1. While crafting longer messages such as announcements or updates, use proper formatting to ensure readability. Use bullet points, bold type, proper spacing to help people quickly scan messages.
  2. If any decision is taken, post it in the relevant channel or thread. This way, all stakeholders have a full context of the updated situation.
  3. If a message posted in a public channel is intended for someone specific, don’t forget to them tag them using ‘@’ symbol. Otherwise, you might end up not receiving any response or acknowledgement.
  4. If its an important message, re-read it once you have sent it. If it doesn’t seem clear, don’t hesitate to use the “Edit Message” feature. A quick shortcut for this: Use the “Up arrow” key to select the message and then press ‘E’ key to open the edit box.
  5. To maintain context around conversations, use Threads to get collate everyone’s response in the same place.

7. Reducing the amount of context switching

You need to keep a lot of other applications open all the time — email, calendar, drive etc.

Turns out, you don’t need to have everything open all the time. Slack provides you with the amazing ability to add apps and pull relevant details right within slack.

The Slack App directory lists a dizzying variety of integrations available at your disposal. While we have not explored most of them, the apps that we have integrated with Slack include:

  1. Google Calendar: I get meeting reminders right inside Slack.
  2. Google Drive: Any new document that’s shared with me, I receive the update right within slack. If my document’s sharing permissions won’t allow everyone in a channel to access it, I can update those from within slack.
  3. Typeform Integration: Any typeform response we receive is pushed directly to a Slack channel.
  4. Polly.ai: To capture instant feedback on Slack using polls and surveys.

8. Using Slack to remember things

Human memory is fallible. With so much stuff on our minds, it is easy for things to slip through cracks.

Remind feature to the rescue

  • Use reminders for personal tasks: For example, submitting your monthly expense report, completing an unfinished task, sending someone information they had asked for etc.
  • Use channel reminders to nudge your team: For example, you might want to remind people about daily stand-up, weekly demo, code review etc. Setting up these reminders ensures that no one forgets about them.

Read this excellent article from Slack to learn how to set reminders.

Summary

Modern workplace communication tools have made our life super easy. However, not using them carefully could lead to these reducing our output rather than maximizing it. There are some principles that you can adopt and features that you can use to remedy this situation. Once these become a part of your regular workflow, Slack will indeed help you become your most productive self.

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