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Best Practices From The Most Active Slack Users

From channel management to setting boundaries and using humor, a practical primer for how to use Slack.

Best Practices From The Most Active Slack Users
[Photo: Ivan Kruk via Shutterstock]

Earlier this year, Slack announced that half a million people used its enterprise messaging service daily. The two-year-old startup, now valued at $1 billion, continues to attract a cohort of die-hard devotees who claim the internal communication platform has done everything from provide instant informal feedback to lift the burden of email, and become the glue that bonds workers in remote offices all over the world.

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For the still-uninitiated, Slack functions somewhat like Campfire or Yammer in that whole teams can join in to chat. Slack offers the ability to create many different channels for specialized conversations, and users can also private message each other and the Slackbot, which functions like a virtual notepad for jotting down ideas you want to keep track of. Slack messages can be searched by keyword, and users can also set up alerts to stay on top of certain conversations by keyword as well. Integrations with other tools such as Asana, Dropbox, and Google Hangouts, among others, helps teams pull information from different sources.

With all these features, Slack is love at first click for many–just check the Twitter “Wall of Love.” Yet having another means to communicate, especially one that’s used among people who don’t share the same workspace, can be fraught with challenges. So we polled some expert Slackers (defined as those who use the platform heavily to communicate with a lot of users) to find out their best practices.

Make It A Fun Part of Onboarding

The best place to begin Slacking is right at the beginning. Dan Teran and Saman Rahmanian, cofounders of Managed by Q, an office cleaning and management service, tell Fast Company that 51 people at the company are active users of their 22 Slack channels. Employees communicate from the office, in the field, and in two different cities, in addition to communicating across different departments such as engineering and operations.

As such, the two say they have actually integrated Slack usage as part of their onboarding experience. New hires may have passed the skills test to work at the company, but to be indoctrinated into the Managed by Q culture, they have to show a more personal side of their aptitude. “All new employees–no matter if they’re from our NYC or Chicago office–have to Slack a Giphy on their first day in the #general channel,” says Teran.

Giphy, the app that lets you search animated GIFs from the web, is integrated into Slack by simply typing /giphy and a keyword like “birthday” or “good morning.” It generates a random result that is usually hilarious. “That’s generally a pretty good icebreaker and sets the tone for how we communicate,” he adds. Since Managed by Q installed the Giphy tool, they estimate the animations account for 20% of all messages. “It’s like people forgot how to communicate in complete sentences.”

Managing Teams By Channel

When you can have multiple channels, the tendency is to just keep adding new ones as different needs arise. Even with the search function, that can be too many.

Thor Fridriksson, CEO and founder of Plain Vanilla Games, makers of QuizUp, says that the company has more than 85 employees who use Slack on a daily basis. They have 167 open channels set up with different agendas, as well as multiple secret channels. To make things easy, Fridriksson says, “We have one general channel that all staff members are on, and we try to use it just for work-related stuff and announcements that concern the whole company.”

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Other channels allow them to sort discussions by subjects. “Each team at QuizUp has their own channel where they can communicate about work progress, share knowledge, solve problems, let the team know if they are running late, or share a funny video they came across browsing the Internet,” says Fridriksson. These are operated more loosely, and people can come and go as they please.

But he says it keeps productivity up, even if there is the intermittent share of something not related to work. “The chat allows us to interact with each other from our desks, without having to run around the office looking for people or interrupting people while they are in the middle of something,” he says.

Creating Action Channels

Elisabeth Rosario, managing director of Astrsk PR, says the firm has 15 channels, many of which are used for knowledge sharing of articles, media moves, and press opportunities for clients. This all used to be shared via email, where Rosario says, “It was lost forever on a business version of Gmail that is so hard to organize.”

Other channels simply alert staff to articles to be posted on the company’s social media accounts, says Rosario. Astrsk doesn’t use the chat function as much, she admits. “We do create private groups for every client, and there are two to four people in those,” she explains. “And then we can use that to check on each other, share coverage. This way everyone is in the loop on projects, and the record is always there.”

Encouraging Participation And Setting Boundaries

Chokdee Rutirasiri, the CEO of the design firm Story+Structure, says that Slack is helping redefine what an office or workspace is. As such, Rutirasiri says, “We open up all channels–internal and client-facing–to the whole team, so folks feel connected and engaged, even if they’re not actively working together on a particular project, and no matter where their desks are.”

Without the benefit of reporting to a common workspace, it’s easy to have people chiming in at all hours. Rutirasiri says Story+Structure has developed a good culture of being able to gauge how quickly we need to act on a message. “Sometimes it’s a flurry of rapid responses because we are dealing with an immediate issue,” he says. “Other times, we’ll take a little longer, but usually folks are good about replying  within 15 to 30 minutes. As a creative, Rutirasiri encourages everyone to share ideas as they’re happening, but underscores, “For off-hours our rule is: unless the firm is going to go out of business because you didn’t respond, it can wait until next business day.”

Humor and Taboos

Sparkly Giphys aside, humor in the workplace can be tricky when you don’t know the rules. Slack can become a slippery slope when it’s time to have a tough conversation that requires looking people in the eye. “A lot gets lost in text and gif,” says Teran, and advises, “When there’s something really important to discuss, it is always best to take a walk and hash it out in real life.”

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His cofounder, Rahmanian, cautions, “Slack is a giant water cooler conversation that reflects your company’s culture, so make sure not to say anything that you wouldn’t be comfortable saying in real life.”

Rutirasiri says Story+Structure uses its #unknown-channel for sharing nonwork stuff, to vent, or to share other things to lighten the day. “We have a pretty high threshold for irreverent humor,” he says, “so you really have to go way out to offend anyone. The humor we share online is the same we share in the office.” 

Avoiding Time Sucks

As everyone who spoke to us agreed, Slack has effectively killed the time suck that is email for them. But it’s important to note that spending time checking Slack (and getting sucked into side conversations) can be just as harmful to productivity. For those times you need to focus, Rahmanian offers this advice: “Leave any channels that you don’t absolutely need to be in, and mute all notifications that don’t have you personally mentioned. If you absolutely need to concentrate for a period of time, say bye bye to Slack by hitting command+Q.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a business journalist writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, commerce, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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