It seems like Slack is becoming the default chat tool for both distributed teams and collocated teams. This really astounded me. There was a time not long ago where I hated slack. Yes, I hated it. The signal-to-noise ratio was awful. There was no value to it that I could see. Zero. I couldn’t figure out why some of my friends used it. So I asked. And I kept asking.
For folks who used it, Slack seemed to be a simple way to connect to teammates. I get that it is a chat client, but I already have Outlook, Skype for Business, texting on my phone, and any number of other tools for communicating. What value could yet another channel create? It seemed like yet another damn place to go try to figure out what was going on. Frustrating.
When I asked about the signal-to-noise issue, they would tell me about configuring alerts for specific topics of interest to them. So, granted, I can configure alerts to get alerts on keywords that I’m interested in, and I can turn off alerts. That approach can help to amplify the signal and dampen the noise of the communication. Baby steps.
But since those frustrating times, Slack has grown on me. What really changed for me was having a client that set a really good example of how to use Slack. Here are some of the lessons I learned and want to share with you:
Use Channels Effectively
The company set up channels for individual teams, channels for build servers to post test results to, and even channels for communicating about lunch plans. If people were interested in a topic, they could join the appropriate channel. No interest? Don’t join the channel. Just like you cannot expect to be part of every conversation in the office and not feel overwhelmed, don’t feel a need to be in every Slack communication. Let go of the desire to be engaged in every Slack message.
Use Slack Integrations
If you’re going to use a tool, get the most out of it. You can have up to 10 integrations in the free version of Slack. Some integrations can be useful, and others are mostly for fun. Here are a couple apps that we have added and have been getting used:
/Giphy – Add fun animated GIF to your chat. You can type “really?”, but doesn’t a brown puppy shaking its head convey so much more emotion? For those concerned about whether the GIF might be NSFW, you can configure the rating of the GIFs that are returned. Don’t fear the HR people. Well, at least don’t fear them because of Giphy.
/Donut – This randomly pairs people up each week for coffee. I’ve found this to be an excellent way to connect with remote colleagues I might not otherwise engage with during the work week. If you’re collocated, you can go somewhere and get coffee. With my distributed team, we hold an impromptu video call to have coffee and catch up.
Remember it is Temporary
Slack’s free tier of service provides capabilities that might meet all your needs. An interesting feature of the free tier is that it preserves the 10,000 most recent messages. So, with any meaningful level of use, you will hit that limit. For $7/user/month (billed annually) Slack removes this limitation and allows you to search an unlimited number of messages in your video archive.
Before you open your wallet to pay, consider this: do you take minutes and archive the conversation at the watercolor, lunch, or happy hour? Do you document the hallway conversation you have with a teammate? If you do, grab your wallet. If not, the free Slack tier is good enough for you. Shifting your mindset from thinking of Slack as an archive of decisions to thinking of it as a temporary conversation space really changed how I viewed the message limit. Be OK with the fact that it is a tool for conversations, not a tool for documenting decisions.
If you make a decision by chatting in Slack, use your system(s) of record to preserve the conclusion. If you clarify a User Story, add it to the Story. If you find a document needs updating, update the document. Troubleshooting a bug? Fix the bug. Make it safe for the conversation history to be lost.
Even though Slack may only hold messages temporarily, some of the messages may be more valuable than others. For those messages that you want easily accessible, Slack provides the “Pin….” option. On can click on the “…” button and select “Pin to <channel name>”
Now, when a user visits a channel, they have the option of viewing those pinned items in a sidebar. This is a very convenient way to see the more important messages.
Send Notifications When Needed
Slack allows notifications using the “@” command. If you want to notify everyone who is currently active, start your message with “@here” followed by a space and your message. Start your message with “@channel” followed by a space and your message to notify the whole channel about a message. You can use these notification options to alert your team to more valuable or urgent messages in Slack. That said, don’t be “the boy who cried wolf” and over-use the @here or @channel mentions.
Use the Call Feature
Communication via text can be convenient. I also find that people use text chat because it feels less emotionally risky. That said, sometimes it is just not an effective or sufficient mode of communication. Arguably the most effective form of communication is face-to-face. That is true whether you are collocated in an office, or half a world away. If you are in the same office, walk to the person you’re wanting to talk to. If you’re working with a remote colleague, view their profile and click the “Call” button, turn your camera on, and start a video call. It might feel awkward at first, but the reward is worth the risk.
Configure Slack on All Your Devices
Slack is available for so many platforms (Mac, Windows, iOS, Android…) that I found it valuable to make sure I had all my Slack Teams on all my devices; each computer, iPhone, iPad. This solved the problem of not realizing that I’d missed updates from the Hack Michiana, a Code for America Brigade, when I was away from my non-work computer.
“But typing in the passwords to use on a bunch of devices is a pain in the butt,” you might say. I agree. To make that pain more tolerable, use the “Get a Magic Link” option when signing in. When you are adding a team to a device, you enter the team URL. Then, you enter the email address you used to sign up for that team and click the “Get a Magic Link” button to get a one-time-use e-mail sent to me for signing in. Poof! No more remembering complex passwords and typing them in.
Benefits of using Slack
Slack’s biggest benefit, for me, is that it allows a “public” conversation to take place amongst the team, and allows individuals to contribute how they see fit. No longer are inboxes getting filled with communication that they may or may not need to know about.
Speaking of inboxes, you can really reduce the amount of e-mail sent and read. I recently wrapped up a client engagement where the whole company used slack. I no longer suffered through reading all the new messages only to figure out if I should care about their contents or not. And, I didn’t have to get hit with all the unfounded “reply to all” email. One side-effect of this, however, was that at times someone would say “did you see my e-mail?” In fact, it was rather interesting to see how much my communication mode shifted to Slack, and how much more effective it was for getting prompt responses.
Virtually Unlimited Options
There are so many integrations for Slack that can help to streamline communication. In addition to fun tools like Giphy, or tools to facilitate team member engagement like Donut, there are tools for voting on options. There are integrations for your calendar app to facilitate setting up meetings. And, if you don’t like those integrations and are inclined toward writing your own, there is an API that can open up a world of new possibilities. Search through the available apps and integrations and find ones that you want to try. Many are free.
A Starting Point
Because my client used Slack, that meant I was expected to use Slack during the engagement. And, I feel a responsibility to gain some level of proficiency with the software tools I use. After all, what’s the point of having a tool and not knowing how to make it work for you?
Since Slack was now part of my daily responsibilities, I found it easier to be in tune with other Slack teams on which I have been either lurking or neglecting. I’m not only got in tune with my client’s Slack, but many other Teams in Slack that I belonged to It is simple to get started with Slack. If you’re curious about Slack here’s what I would recommend.
- Start with the free tier of Slack service.
- Set up your Team in Slack.
- Invite your team members.
- Chat freely.
- Add some integrations. Try them out.
- Use “@” mentions of user names to pull people into the conversation.
- Allow members to add channels and experiment with what might work for them.
- Don’t try to control the Team with burdensome policies.
The reason I say to not try to try to control Slack is that if rules and regulations about how people use Slack, there is nothing to stop people from setting up their own Slack Team for free and communicating with a subset of the team in their own Slack Team.
In conclusion, if you are curious about Slack, try it. Try the tips from earlier, and see how you like it.
What has been your experience with Slack? Do you have tips you’d like to share? Please feel free to comment on this post.