How to use Slack effectively

1 Dec, 2020

Slack is a "must" communication tool nowadays in many companies. I've been using it for a couple years already and I can admit, it's a super easy tool to use with a clean interface and a lot of plugins available that are easy to install. This is probably why Slack became so popular among companies and developers.

Slack has one great advantage: sending messages is cheap! But it also has one huge disadvantage: sending messages is cheap!

Since sending messages is cheap, we can very easily do it whenever we want, just open Slack and type. That's it, nothing else needed. We can write anything in no-time without any effort and it seems people really like that approach. If a good joke crosses our minds, just share it on Slack; if we have some news, put it on Slack; if we need simple information about something, ask on Slack. So easy. And the cool thing is, everyone can see it, and whoever is interested in our message, will respond to it.

That's how we usually use Slack, and then, all of a sudden, very quickly Slack becomes a busy place with a plenty of messages in different channels, mixing different types of information in a big ball of mud. Trying to separate important information from small talk and looking for specific announcements in the past through in conversation history, becomes a huge challenge that consumes our time. People easily get overwhelmed with messages which might significantly decrease productivity. This, in particular, can be a problem for bigger teams and companies.

How do people fight against the noise and not sacrifice their productivity? Usually they start missing and ignoring messages, either consciously or subconsciously. In other words that means that we started using Slack to improve our communication so that we all can stay up-to-date with the latest company news and announcements, and as a result people started ignoring it, risking missing important information and not being responsive, decreasing the quality of communication. Slack's huge advantage, cheap messages, turns into Slack's biggest enemy. Silly, but true.

In order to use Slack effectively and keep our team’s productivity level high, we need to stick to some rules.

Don't shout every question publicly

Even though Slack is great to get people's attention, if you need information or have a question, don't immediately ask on Slack, including small channels, and even worse, bigger channels with more people. This way you are not interrupting your co-workers for every question.

So what to do instead? We should apply rules that we apply in a real office when we need to ask about something. Since Slack is kind of one big open office where people sit together in a large room, we need to stick to the rules we would use as if we were sitting in it as well.

Let's imagine we are sitting in an open office with 40-50 people and suddenly someone stands up and shouts: "Hey everyone, listen up, how am I supposed to do this and that?". That's not something we do when we sit in a room with many people, right? And then, two minutes later, somebody else stands up and says: "Hey everyone, listen up, is it OK if I do this and that?". And then a minute later again, somebody else: "Hey everyone, listen up, how do I ...?" etc. This would be an equivalent to asking questions publicly on Slack. Even worse, imagine someone standing up and yelling: "HEY EVERYONE, LISTEN UP, HOW TO ...". This is similar to using @here or similar tags for attracting attention in Slack channels.

Can you imagine working in such an environment where people are constantly standing up and shouting questions at everyone and every now and then someone even starts yelling? Hard to imagine. But even if that office did exist, people would be so frequently interrupted, that they would most likely start using headphones all the time in order to mute the noise and focus on their jobs. Putting headphones on in the real world is equivalent to ignoring messages in Slack.

To avoid this, we should behave as if we were in the open office. That means, if we had a question, we would probably ask our colleague sitting next to us. That's what we need to do on Slack as well, send a private message to a person who we think knows the answer. If we don't get a response in a proper amount of time, he/she is probably busy at the moment and we can send a private message to another person.

Someone can argue that's disturbing as well, which it is, but it's far better than if we disturbed 50 people at once. In this case it is just one or two.

Sometimes what we do on Slack is send a message in a specific channel and just tag/pin (with @ symbol) one or two people, since it concerns only them. Instead, we should only send a message to the relevant people as a private message, we shouldn't bother a whole channel if the message is not relevant to them.

In conclusion: avoid bothering people with messages that are not relevant to them.

Don't mix jokes with business related information

Very often we can see channels that are overwhelmed with different types of information. What we don't want to do is to mix important messages with jokes. We should have a special channel only for jokes, so that people can mute it and come back later. It should be obvious why we would do that.

Having any kind of non-business related messages like jokes, small talk, interesting photos, songs etc in a business related channel is disturbing since people keep an eye on important channels all the time and check what's going on. Since they wouldn't know before they read it if a message is important or a joke, this is disruptive and not conducive of productivity.

Not to mention how difficult it would be to look for something in that channel since many different types of messages are mixed in. Searching for a message in the past becomes a time-consuming and tedious job. If we had a channel like that, people would most likely pay less attention to that chatty mess and might miss important information.

Separate channels for important and less important news

The next thing we can improve is when we send announcements to the whole company. We should be very cautious about that, especially if we do this very often.

A solid approach would be to have two channels for that, one would be a channel for important news that has to be read right away; something that cannot wait and we need to act on immediately. In this channel we can use tags like @here to attract people's attention. The second channel would be for less important news, where it’s okay to read messages a couple of hours later.

This way, we can mute the less important announcement channel, and come back later when we have time to read it. There is absolutely no reason to be disturbed with the messages that do not need to be acted upon right away. One of the biggest distractions on Slack is the less important news and announcements.

Similar channels that their names don't reveal the differences

A confusing thing in Slack is having too many channels with very similar names. For example, if we had channels like: news, announcements, notifications, general etc. people wouldn't necessarily know where to post a message if they have to, or where to look for an older message in a history.

All these channels are very similar and their names don't reveal the differences between them or what they are used for. We should consider merging them into one channel or having an important and less important dedicated channel for that purpose.

Going through the history in this case is not easy, since we don't know exactly in what channel the message we are looking for was posted.

Conclusion

If we apply these rules, Slack will become a way less chatty place that doesn't hurt our productivity and we will be more effective and efficient users. Searching for messages and looking through the history will be way less painful and won't cost us much time. People will respond to messages in less time, since they will not be overwhelmed with many different conversations that don't concern them.

If we have a feeling that we are slightly losing control over Slack and our productivity sinks, we should start thinking about changing it before we hit a big ball of mud with plenty of messages. Some steps we can always do:

  • Don't shout every question publicly, always keep in mind that you are sitting in a big open office
  • Have dedicated channels for fun and don't mix them with business related channels
  • Have separate channels for important and less important news
  • Don't have too many similar channels (news, announcements, general) that their names cannot reveal the differences

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Marko Krstic | Senior Software Engineer
About the author

My name is Marko Krstic. I am a software engineer and support companies by automating their processes and creating online platforms from which they can reach a wider customer base.