What I Learned at Slack

Part 5: Building a Great Communications Culture on Slack

I was the first product manager at Slack. I couldn’t be more grateful for all that I learned helping grow the product and the team, so it’s high time I shared a few of those lessons.

It’s easy to forget how completely email owned office communication for the past two decades. At some point communication stopped being a part of company culture, and became a checkbox on your list of office skills: word processing, spreadsheets, and email.

The good news is that’s changing. With the rise of real time messaging and collaboration apps in the workplace, we have access to a far greater range of useful tools to talk to one another. From Slack to Dropbox to Google Docs to wikis, a new, better world of collaboration seems tantalizingly close.

The not-so-good news is most of us need a little help to get there. The tools are finally here, but we haven’t quite figured out how best to use them. We’ve all been coasting on a communications culture inherited from years of ad hoc email usage. After suffering for so long from overloaded inboxes, lost emails, and overuse of reply all, we finally have the chance to build something new and better. The key word there being build.

Because great communications cultures don’t happen by themselves. They’re built by people with consideration and intent, who can lead the necessary change by exemplifying the right way of doing things. Want to be that person for your company? Let’s walk through what you’ll need to consider for Slack.

What tools should we use?

Slack will always be only one of a portfolio of tools that any individual or company uses. That said, it works best when your team goes all in: try swearing off sending email for at least a day or a week. You’ll be surprised by how many emails, meeting invitations, Asana tasks, Trello cards, Google Docs are unnecessary when you can just have the conversation in Slack. For those that remain, all the tools above integrate nicely with Slack. But you won’t know exactly which will make sense until you’ve made Slack a part of your daily routine.

Who should use them?

Everyone, of course! Exactly how they do that is a bit more nuanced. While it’s tempting to have everyone on one team, Slack teams tend to get a bit unwieldy above 500 or 1000 people: larger organizations should divide into multiple teams by division/department. The larger the team, the more team members are encouraged to have conversations in private groups, which means they’re missing out on Slack’s usual openness. With a more intimate team more conversations can happen in channels, which anyone on the team can join. Those conversations in Slack are what create that magical sense of “ambient awareness” of what’s happening, as well as an archive of organizational knowledge over time.

When adding people to Slack, be sure to think beyond your core team. Take advantage of Slack’s restricted and single-channel guest accounts to invite contractors, customers, investors, and partners onto your Slack teams. Even if you only give them access to one or two channels, it’s still a powerful way to build human connections outside the company.

What should we use them for?

Slack is like any other communication medium: you can use it for anything. Yet at the same time, it benefits from having some intent about how it’s used — some patterns from email just won’t work. Because so much communication in Slack happens in the open, teams in Slack are more like communities. They need leaders to set standards, take charge, and lead by example. In Slack, this often means inventing a new use for Slack, creating a channel for that purpose, and showing how to use it. This is especially true of teams spanning multiple organizations, where you don’t have the existing power structure and priorities of the company to drive activity. I’ll walk through a few examples below.

How should we add organization and structure?

The usual advice for small Slack teams is keep it simple — start with the #general channel, and create new channels as you need them. This is solid advice, but larger teams will benefit from some channels created in advance to seed proper usage and some patterns to solve common problems as they arise. Some examples:

  • Create a #welcome channel and add it to the default set. This gives your team a specific place for celebrating new members and indoctrinating them into the specific culture of your team.
  • Create a channel to celebrate #milestones or #releases: few things bring teams together the way these group accomplishments do. It’s effective way to honor these moments and build culture by showing what’s really important to the company.
  • Only allow administrators to post in #general. While #general can be useful for very small teams, it’s better used as a place for administrative announcements vs. general discussion. This forces team members to choose a more specific (and appropriate) forum for their discussions.
  • Create channels for each functional team within Slack. One each is a good place to start, but often large teams will need multiple channels: one for internal team discussion, one for external requests/questions, one for automated posts from integrations, one for a discipline within a team, etc.
  • Create channels for cross-team projects. This need not be exhaustive: for new teams it’s more a way of seeding the idea, giving people permission to create channels for transient as well as permanent use.
  • Create channels for different locations: cities, buildings, floors, etc. This helps cultivate cross-team communication and build personal connections. Plus it’s good for organizing lunch. :)
  • Create channels for a few common areas of interest, both work-related and otherwise. Again, this need not be exhaustive: it’s more a way to generate cross-team interaction and give implicit permission to talk about #football and #television as well as #marketing and #engineering.
  • Create channels around documents and data. Got a few important documents with critical data for the team? Lots of questions and updates? Post a link to the documents, pin them to the channel so they’re easy to find, and you’ll have a dedicated place to distribute, discuss, and update the information.
  • As important as open discussion is in Slack, there will always be some discussions that need to happen in private: hiring, management, administration, etc. Create private groups with the right people to create a forum for these discussions: otherwise they’ll only happen 1:1 or via other communication tools.
  • Worried that questions in popular channels take the entire group away from the task at hand? Try creating specific #<topic>-triage or #help channels and staffing them with dedicated people: that will make sure there’s always someone on call to answer questions, while not distracting numerous others from their work.

These are just ideas: no need to implement every one, but especially for larger teams these are useful patterns to get the most out of Slack and avoid common issues for growing teams.

What are the rules of engagement?

Many of the “rules” for using Slack effectively can easily be picked up from simply trying the product for a day: make sure you’re reading the right channels; adjust your notification settings so you’re aware of key updates but not constantly distracted; don’t use @channel unless you really need to notify everyone in the conversation. Others tend to emerge as the team grows and needs more structure: use your real name, title, and photo; don’t distract people by idly chatting in channels with many members.

While these can largely be enforced by social convention, as your team grows and its culture becomes more complex, it can be helpful to create an onboarding guide to get new members up to speed. This is especially true for teams that grow very quickly, and community teams where there isn’t already the strong social contract between coworkers in place. For the latter, it’s critical to explicitly define standards for appropriate communication.

One of the opportunities when adopting Slack is not just to try a new tool, but to establish a new, more intentional, communication culture. While it may seem strange to adopt rules for communication, a few well-chosen guidelines for Slack can be far more positive for your culture than the many unwritten rules of email. Start with the basics above, link to Slack’s own getting started guides, and add to them as your team’s culture evolves over time. It’s an opportunity to make the workplace both more efficient and more human.

How should we integrate with our other tools?

Integrations are a powerful and under-appreciated aspect of Slack. Don’t worry about getting them exactly right in the early days, but do take the opportunity to start building your archive! Even if you don’t know exactly how you’ll use the data yet, aggregating information from your other tools in Slack makes it all available in one place via one search box.

A simple place to begin is dedicated channels for each feed of information. Completed Asana tasks in one, Twitter feeds of your competitors in a second, GitHub commits in a third. Even if these are too high volume to allow for much human conversation, they expose the potential of the data for other uses and make it available via search. These will often be more general feeds of information with applicability across teams.

From there, you can start to choose which integrations to include even in channels primarily dedicated to person-to-person conversation. These should typically be lower volume — no more than one notification every hour or two — and be natural conversation starters. These will often be more specific to a given team or small group. Use Zoom or Hangouts for videoconferencing? A notification in the channel is a great way to let people know when a meeting begins. Has a critical problem been detected? You can make sure it’s seen by all the right people ASAP.

Where do we go from here?

Communication culture and the tools and conventions that support it are by nature constant works in progress. These guidelines are a starting point, but it’s every team’s responsibility (and opportunity!) to continue cultivating them over time.

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