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How to Use Slack for a More Focused and Productive Environment

Leonardo Federico · July 18th, 2020

Slack is arguably the most popular software to communicate within teams. And if you work in an office, there’s a good chance you use, or at least know the existence of it.

For most teams, Slack is a water cooler. A place where all the members of the company can talk and discuss about more than just projects.

If used well, Slack is an amazing net productivity promoter. When abused, it's one of the worst net productivity detractors that contributes to a culture of ASAP and burnout. Especially, for the less disciplined teams.

Here are the three Slack horsemen:

1. Interruptions and Distractions

Slack normalizes interruptions, multitasking, and distractions.

It's easy to escalate from asking in a room to @person to @here in a company-wide channel in a matter of seconds.

Slack is the digital representation of the open office. Anyone can tap someone on the shoulder at anytime. If used properly, this a superpower that can augment the team's productivity.

At the same time, this total lack of friction can just as easily backfire when Slack is used as the only resource your team relies on.

Proper collaboration has three speeds: Real-Time, Async and Storage. These speeds must all exist in separate forms. Different products suit different velocities. There's no such thing as one product for everything.

Using Slack for all three will limit your team's ability to think, plan and get complex work out the door.

2. Fragmented Writing = Fragmented Thinking

Slack normalizes short mediocre thinking and, consequentially, poor communication.

The consumarization of chat represents the ultimate embodiment of the path of least resistance.

slack-path-least-resistance

If you think about it, Slack at its core does one thing well: it eliminates friction.

If you compare the amount of friction that goes into crafting a Google Doc, a JIRA issue, or even an email, it's much higher than what goes into writing a single line message on Slack (or any other chat system).

The corollary is that less friction means people will have a natural tendency to default to it most of the time. Ironically, the lack of friction can shut down your ability to think coherently and articulate ideas in a comprehensible way. Ideas shared in Slack are more often than not only half-formed or contradictory.

Using Slack for everything, not only costs you the fulfillment of users’ daily cognitive capacity, but it will end up limiting your teams’ ability to write and, most importantly, think well.

3. Organizational Amnesia

Slack is the opposite of organizational memory.

When knowledge workers collaborate together on teams they need to use writing to agree on what to do.

But why even bothering writing things down in a knowledge base when you can attain the information by writing a Slack message directly to someone? This is exactly how decisions, agreements, and plans start to happen in Slack as opposed to any other long-form medium of communication.

Writing things down is perceived as having upfront costs that are too high with advantages that are too long term.

This will result in a huge part of your team relying on a small set of brains. Which is the exact opposite of distributed context.


None of the above mentioned problems are visible at first. They emerge as the organization grows in employee headcount.

Here's a starting point for you to re-consider how you use Slack (and chat in general) in the workplace for a more focused and inclusive organization.

1. Off Slack Windows

If chat is frictionless, which makes it a too easy fallback, you need to limit its usage.

It doesn't mean you have to force people to log out, but you need to create social forms and conventions that limit its usage over time.

For instance, start by making it explicit to the team that chat is not the place where they are supposed to catch up on what matters. Not constantly checking out channels and DMs all the times is totally fine, and it does not imply they're behind their schedule.

Later, we'll see some tips on how you can do this in practice. For now, think of it as the goal.

2. Set Up Shared Chat Settings

Your goal is to limit noise and unnecessary distractions. Not just for you but your entire team. You should enforce, or at least recommend, notifications settings on a company level; not just on your account.

If notifications aren't set up in the right way at an organization level, no matter how little time you spend in chat, you are going to be harmed.

Don't limit this to an internal memo or a documentation page. Actively train HR and team leads on how to make this part of the onboarding program.

Here's some of the best tips we've seen working on the subject:

Ban Do Not Disturb and use Sign Out From All Sessions Instead

Before you hop on a call, it makes sense to activate Slack’s Do Not Disturb. This will stop all notifications for a set time window.

But, if you’re really looking to concentrate on important tasks for an undetermined period of time, your best call is to exit Slack completely.

You can do this easily with the Sign Out From All Sessions button. All your open Slack sessions (both on desktop and mobile) will close immediately. This is much more convenient than uninstalling and re-installing your Slack app.

Here's how to sign out from all sessions on Slack:

  1. From your desktop, click your workspace name in the top left.
  2. Select View Profile. Your profile will open on the right.
  3. Below your name, click More, then Account Settings.
  4. From the account page, click Sign Out All Other Sessions.

sign-out-all-sessions-slack

Switch From Clean to Compact Theme

By default, Slack sets you up with their clean theme.

This includes lots of whitespace and user avatars, which can be unnecessary.

Switch to the compact theme to remove much of the visual clutter, and you'll scroll less to catch up on conversations.

slack-compact-theme

Save Starred Conversations

No matter how well your organization uses Slack, inevitably someone will share important things or tasks that you need to follow up in a message.

I use Save feature in Slack to send important items to Inboxes or Things accounts to check them later.

Here's a handy Zapier Zap that does just that for you.

zapier-slack-gmail-workflow

It takes less than a minute to set up and can make Slack way more usable.

Keep your context sidebar clean, mute and leave irrelevant channels

It's almost impossible to understand the conversations in a channel without the necessary level of context. That's why a consolidated org practice should be to either mute or leave channels that aren't relevant to you.

Mute to stop it from bloating your sidebar when there’s new messages. You’re still in the channel, but at least it won’t distract you with every new message.

Leave the channel to remove it completely from the sidebar. You can always rejoin later, if you need to.

One way to incentivize this behavior is to deactivate the automated notification when someone joins or leaves a channel.

This reduces social pressure and people feel more inclined to leave when they need. Use the steps below to manage join and leave messages for your workspace:

leave-message-slack-channels

  1. From your desktop, click your workspace name in the top left.
  2. Select Settings & administration, then click Workspace settings.
  3. Scroll down to the Join & Leave Messages section and click Expand.
  4. Check or uncheck the Show a message when people join or leave channels.
  5. Click Save.

Change your Mark as Read settings to skip channel FOMO

When you log in to Slack or go to a channel with unread messages, Slack will take you to your last read message. This encourages you to read old conversations you might have missed, which is a huge distraction.

As mentioned before, Slack shouldn't be the place to catch up on everything you missed. Slack is not meant to be an insane inbox you can’t keep track of.

slack-message-mark-as-read

To change this setting:

  1. From your desktop, click your workspace name in the top left.
  2. Select Preferences from the menu.
  3. Select Mark as read.
  4. Select the voice Start me at the newest message, and mark the channel read

Activate notifications for a few important company channels

In the Slack App, navigate to the Channel, then select the Details button.

This will open the Desktop Notifications/Mobile Push Notifications window.

slack-channel-notifications

Click Done.

3. Chat is Not the Virtual Office

Availability is a pretty bad proxy metric for productivity.

Slack should never be the default discriminator for individual net productivity. Being active on Slack doesn't actually equal work.

Don't take 24/7 accessibility for granted. Chat shouldn't be your virtual office.

Change the sidebar settings to only see starred channels and unread DMs. You don't need to see who is online all the time. On the free version of Slack, the preferences you choose will apply to all of your channels and DMs.

Manage the conversations you see by using the steps below.

  1. From your desktop, click your workspace name in the top left.
  2. Select Preferences.
  3. Select Sidebar.
  4. Under Show, choose All your conversations or Unread conversations only.

slack-sidebar-settings

4. Dos and Don'ts – Set the Boundaries

Some of the prescriptions above are more than a toggle on a settings panel and involve a cultural change. That can take more time than expected.

Here's a last snapshot of what's of good versus bad usage of Slack:

Good Usage of Slack

  • Quick direct questions
  • Day-to-day real-time conversations
  • Ephemeral conversations
  • Camaraderie
  • Fun cultural stuff
  • Bots

Bad Usage of Slack

  • Share decisions
  • Project Specs
  • Project or team status updates
  • Long-form general purpose discussions
  • Important company announcements
  • Must Read Pleas
  • Project Management tasks
  • .. anything that needs to be referenced later

Here are a few empirical rules to encourage everyone to use Slack correctly:

  1. If a simple chat message is turning into an active, public debate that's not ephemeral, it's likely it's happening in the wrong place.
  2. Chat messages shouldn't exceed 300-400 characters in length. If you find yourself doing so, it's likely you're writing in the wrong place.
  3. If you're writing a chat message but no real-time interaction is required, it's most likely that you shouldn't use a real-time medium.

You want to be rigid on these rules until the entire company is able to self discipline.

One great way to codify how you internally use Slack is a clear internal manifesto.

Conclusions

Great collaboration and communication is the by-product of three speeds.

  1. Real-time Communication
  2. Asynchronous Communication
  3. Cold Storage Communication

These speeds must all exist in separate forms on different products.

Embrace each tool for what it's best suited.

Slack is great for quick and casual conversations. Async Tools like Pulse or P2 can help you share transitional long-form updates like internal memos, announcements, internal newsletters (i.e. continue on to The Weekly CEO Update to learn more), and stories that everyone needs to see.

Lastly, Storage tools are great for wiki and long-term knowledge base.