How to Use Slack While Working Remotely (Without Spiking Everyone’s Anxiety)
Whether you’re in a different time zone than your colleagues, you have a busy meeting schedule, or you’re focused on deep work, it’s impossible to be available at all times. Unfortunately, chat applications like Slack create an illusion (and sometimes an expectation) of constant availability.
While a green dot next to someone’s name might indicate that they are actively reading all of their messages and can reply in realtime, reality is much more complicated.
In an office setting, it’s easy to glance across the room and see if someone is at their desk — and even get a sense of whether they’re available to be interrupted or not. I’ve worked in a co-located team setting with a lot of high-pressure deadlines where we actually placed red, yellow, or green index cards at the entrance of our cubicles to indicate our availability so that we wouldn’t be interrupted during crunch time.
However, even with options like setting a status or muting notifications on Slack, boundaries are more difficult to set and abide by when you’re remote. The etiquette changes.
Nearly every remote employee I’ve spoken with has expressed a bit of paranoia around the expectation of availability.
If you receive a message and can’t reply immediately, it’s easy to imagine the sender thinking you’re neglecting your work. There have been many times when I’ve been in the kitchen (or, worse, the bathroom) and I start to hear my laptop pinging repeatedly. My blood pressure skyrockets because I’m imagining my boss getting increasingly irritated at my lack of response.
The story we tell ourselves is that all of our colleagues think we’re lazy, that we get paid to take naps and watch Netflix all day, or that we don’t care about them.
Let’s be clear: Slack is not realtime communication
In truth, it’s likely that your work is not as urgent as you (or your boss) may think. Hospitals and fire departments have extremely urgent work. Software developers, sales representatives, customer service agents, and graphic designers have work that allows them to use the restroom or walk the dog without the risk of anyone dying because they stepped away for a moment.
To avoid the stress and distraction of constant availability and the expectation to reply immediately, it’s absolutely critical to set realistic expectations with your manager and your teammates about how quickly chat messages should be replied to. Along with this, your team should discuss which channels are appropriate for which types of messages.
In my opinion, the only formats for realtime communication are phone calls, video calls, and mutually agreed-upon realtime chat exchanges. (“Hey, do you have a few minutes to chat this out with me real quick?”)
Any other chat communications should be considered semi-synchronous, with the expectation that they will not receive immediate replies because the recipient is likely busy with other work, but they will receive a reply as soon as the recipient is available, whenever that may be.
Email and communications in collaboration software are asynchronous and should only be used if a reply is not needed for hours or even a day or more. Your own team may choose different expectations, but they should be clear and everyone should agree to abide by them. You may need to be the person to ask for this, especially if your manager is not used to supervising remote employees.
Semi-synchronous communication etiquette that can make your life much more pleasant
Minimize the pings
When starting a chat with someone, type full paragraphs and get to the point quickly, rather than typing a brief thought, hitting enter, typing another piece of the thought, hitting enter, and so on.
In other words,
“Hey, hope you had a great weekend! :) Do you have an update on the board meeting slides? Are those still on track to be completed by tomorrow?”
is better than:
How was your weekend?
I was thinking about the board meeting slides
Do you have an update?
Are they still on track?
We need to get them done by tomorrow”
If you’re not already cringing at the second example, consider this: The recipient of the first message will get one ping. The recipient of the second message will get seven.
How would you feel receiving seven pings when you’re on a call with a client, trying to focus on a complicated technical challenge, or in the kitchen refilling your cup of coffee? Irritated? Nervous about where this conversation is going? Unsure of whether these messages are going to need an immediate response?
Consolidating multiple thoughts into a single entry is a considerate way to allow your colleagues to process your message with minimal interruption. You can hit Shift+Enter to insert line breaks into a single message — or simply type your message in a Google Doc or notepad app and then paste it into Slack.
Be willing to switch to a call if needed
If a chat starts to go on for too long, or if it becomes clear that you’re not fully understanding each other over chat, propose a quick phone call or video call instead.
It can be much faster and more effective to communicate verbally when you’re addressing a complex issue with a colleague. Plus, unlike chat, you have the benefit of knowing your colleague isn’t multitasking while they’re on a call with you; you have their full attention, and they have yours. You’re focusing on the issue together, and you can reach a conclusion more quickly than if one person is only giving it a quick glance every time a ping interrupts them from other work.
Status settings are your friend
In the interest of overcommunication, I often set my Slack status to indicate what’s up when I’m unavailable for a quick reply. Emojis are obviously great for this, but don’t be shy about typing out more context. Your colleagues will appreciate knowing what you’re up to!
I use my Slack status to communicate when I’m taking a break, when I’m in a meeting (the Outlook calendar integration sets this automatically for me), and when I’m recording training videos or webinars and shouldn’t be interrupted. One of the engineers on my team is diligent about using Slack status to indicate when he is doing deep work and may be slow to reply.
You can also use this to remind folks of your working hours if you’re in a different time zone or keep different hours than your colleagues.
Being clear about your status can relieve a lot of the paranoia that comes with being out of sight. Your team knows what you’re doing, and you don’t have to worry that they’re thinking you’re slacking off.
Let go of your expectations of immediate availability
This goes for your expectations of colleagues as well as yourself.
Remote work involves a little more planning ahead so that you don’t often need immediate replies. When your colleagues are in different time zones, busy with deep work, on calls with clients, or taking care of their children, it’s not fair or realistic to expect them to reply to your every message as if it were urgent. Try to plan your work so that you have more than enough time to get input from others. Many teams strongly prefer to keep all project-related feedback and conversations in their project management tool so they aren’t pinging each other on Slack all day.
Everyone is happier when the team can communicate without constant urgency.
By the same token, you can learn to accept that no one expects you to drop what you’re doing and respond to every Slack message right away. When we’re all working remotely, we all understand that there are plenty of perfectly acceptable work-related and personal reasons for not being available 100% of the time.
Protect your time, do what you need to do, and give yourself and others some grace.