Productive Slacking

Back in 2016 I joined Usabilla, just around the time we were evaluating our work chat solutions. Usabilla was at the time on Hipchat and Slack was the up and coming solution, with plenty of advanced features and goodies. I will not try to sell Slack here, but it clearly was the better contender and worth our move.

In order to make the move a success, in a company that still relied heavily on an email tradition, we spent some time carefully evaluating our policies around Slack usage, to make it friendly to non-tech users and also efficient for a rapidly growing team doing frequent on-boardings.

After almost 3 years and the opportunity to see how other companies use Slack “in the wild”, I decided to reflect a bit on how this went, spoiler alert it was a resounding success, and outline some of the policies I believe made a real difference and can help your company get a handle on Slack.

You are here: helping users find themselves

One very overwhelming part of joining a new company is getting access to their Slack. Which channels do you join, what is relevant to your position or to your physical office or even what is business and what is social? When joining a company and seeing dozens, if not hundreds, of public channels, how do you figure this out? and how can you do it quicker

One of the first agreements we settled on was the use of channel prefixes. Simple, short prefixes that allowed us to easily categorize channels and make them easier to navigate. Are you a new developer? easy, check out all the #dev-* channels to find your interests, maybe its #dev-edu to learn new stuff, or #dev-be-chapter to join our backend chapter group.

Or maybe you are new to our Amsterdam office so you can join #office-ams. Obviously once you are done with work you can head over to #ot-travel to get some sweet tips on that new city you want to travel to, or just relax watching awesome dog pics at #ot-dogs.

Adding prefixes, does indeed take some of your character limit away (Slack just upped the limit so that excuse is gone), but makes for a great and easy way to ease your new users, and existing ones, into your communication infrastructure. During the on-boarding of new employees, we share a list of our most relevant prefixes and their meaning so users can quickly skip over to what they are looking for. Here are some examples:

  • dev- all channels related to development
  • ot- channels that are Off Topic, usually social and not business
  • team- channels specific to a team, this also signals this is not a channel for non-team members to ask questions
  • warn- channels related to status and warnings, from infrastructure to dev to other parts of the company
  • prj- short lived channels for projects that need new groups of people to collaborate

Combine prefixed channel names with meaningful “Channel Purpose” and “Topic” and you can really help people navigate and find what they need at the moment they need it.

Dashing and visible

At first look dashes seem like a waste of time and char-space right? But they actually play a real important role in discoverability of channels. Let me illustrate: let’s say you have a #hashtagdogsrule and a #hashtag-dogs-rule channel. When you search for dogs in the quick switcher, only the one with with dashes will show up, because Slack does prefix/word based searching.

Do it in the open: because transparency matters

We limit the creation of private channels, sure these are great for conversations between certain groups of people, but a private first culture can hinder your companies entire communication flow and make Slack a literal black hole of information. Of course there are exceptions, HR related channels, or our surprise party planning committee, or even sensitive projects, like acquisitions. But other then those cases, everything is done in public channels.

Public information is extremely valuable, by allowing people access to what is happening you create serendipitous opportunities for collaboration. Maybe a developer sees someone in a Customer Success team is trying to automate a process and they have the skill to help out, or you notice another development team is stuck on a similar problem to the one you just solved. Maybe even you notice sales is trying to approach a company where you know the right people. If all of this happens behind closed doors, you may never find the opportunity to collaborate.

Some channels are special, for example our #team- channels. You are more than welcome to join a team’s channel as an outsider, but you are there as a guest, an observer, preferably a silent one. For example instead of asking questions and interrupting ongoing conversations, you can reply to messages where you can offer help by using threads, these are less intrusive and still allow you to access the context in which to ask or offer help. We also make it very clear that this is the team’s house and they can ask you to leave at any moment for whichever reason they believe is relevant.

Slack-tiquette: it’s a new world, let’s make new rules

Let’s start with a simple one: you are beautiful and your avatar deserves to represent you. None of us look like colored blocks in real life and Slack is a tool for uniting people who may work in separate offices or in big companies, having a complete profile with a proper avatar, title, information such as timezone will help your co-workers talk to you, identify you and create a stronger bond, so put your best face forward.

Slack is a tool made to speed up the usual flow of email conversations, and it’s asynchronous, meaning you can ask a question now and get an answer when the person is available. You would not send an email with “how are you?” and only follow it up once you got an answer to that, same goes for Slack, its not rude to start off with your enquiry, it’s actually way more productive to both sides. Of course you can always ask that question as well, but don’t wait for a response before carrying on with the communication. Especially for people spread out in different timezones this becomes really important.

Pinning is winning. Humans hate answering questions over and over, and pinning can really help with that, make sure your important resources are pinned to your channels so they are easy to find and reference, and you no longer need to repeat yourself over and over.

The Steering Committee

Have you ever asked a company who is in charge of Slack? Now I don’t just mean who is Admin and can install apps or add people, who is guiding the formation of your slack? I’m betting the answer will be “no one” or “I don’t know”, another solution we established early was a Slack Steering Committee. A group of people from various areas that could guide the usage and build up of Slack within the company. I believe its always useful to have a group of people who can pull back points outside the curve, or evolve the ruleset as new requirements arise.

Happy Slacking

I hope this brings you some inspiration and makes your Slacking a better experience, but I will warn you, caring about all this may make you open pandora’s box and you will never be able to stop cringing when you look at another Slack.

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