A phrase I commonly hear now on an almost daily basis is “Slack me.” You know when a product’s name has become a verb, it’s having a significant impact on existing paradigms–in this case, workplace communication.
Launched in August 2013, Slack allows colleagues to create and message groups of people and individuals, and it’s had a profound effect on how colleagues and coworkers communicate in (and out of) the workplace. An organization can have one company-wide Slack group, or channel, for all its employees, and multiple smaller channels for specific groups inside that organization, and colleagues can also privately communicate with one another via direct messages.
With Slack, individual, team, or company-wide communication is instant, organized, and kinda fun. In other words, it solves some of the biggest frustrations people have with that other communication stalwart: workplace email. No wonder Slack has been valued at over $2.8 billion and has gone from 12,000 users in January 2014 to 1.7 million users by October 2015: Slack is changing workplace communication for the better.
Still, as with any form of communication, misunderstandings are inevitable, especially in a new medium. As with email and phone conversations before that, it takes a while for a customary code of behavior to emerge. With this Slack etiquette guide, we hope to speed that up.
“Etiquette is all about being mindful of others’ feelings and communication styles,” says etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore. That mindfulness can be easily lost when everyone in your organization, from the intern to the CEO, is reduced to sentences on a screen. “When you are speaking to someone in a text, you have to know your audience, and you have to communicate in the way in which they would like to be communicated with.”
So while your pal from marketing that you have drinks with twice a week might be cool with short replies and five emojis in every sentence, it’s probably not a good idea to reply that way to everyone if you don’t know them well. You could come off as silly, or worse, unprofessional. That’s not to say the CEO you hardly know is an uptight suit. Maybe she’s as laid-back and hip as you. In that case, your casual Slack style might be fine, but just find out first.
“One of the things we recommend to new team members is to go back and read through previous messages in channels to get a sense of people’s communication style,” says Anna Pickard, editorial director at Slack. And if you’ve already made a fool of yourself? “If all else fails, talk to your teammate and clear things up. That’s where a friendly DM can come in handy. And a well-placed emoji can go a long way.”
While it may be fun, and even tempting if you’re friends with a lot of your colleagues to just chat about your day in Slack, avoid the urge. Slack isn’t Facebook Messenger, and it’s not Instagram, so don’t go sharing your lunch pics.
“Be aware of who and how many people are in a channel. When you speak, you’re asking for these people’s attention, so use that time productively,” says Pickard. “Public channels are wonderful for transparency: Saying something to the biggest group of decision makers can save you from repeating yourself and help get to decisions faster. So respect everyone’s time by keeping messages in those channels relevant, purposeful, and concise.”
This is an important tip to remember, especially if you’re the boss or a team leader: Never criticize someone in a public Slack channel. “That’s just poor etiquette in general, and you shouldn’t do that face-to-face in a group meeting, you shouldn’t do it in a group email, and you shouldn’t do it in a channel in Slack,” says Whitmore.
Publicly criticizing someone can cause embarrassment at best, and at worst can lead to resentment, which could hurt team morale and make that person less likely to speak up and communicate regularly in the future.
“If you have a serious matter to discuss with someone or you have an issue with someone, it’s best to be done in a private channel in order to save face,” says Whitmore.
Of course, that’s not to say you should be afraid to correct people in a public channel. After all, Slack is designed to foster open dialogue among team members so they can be more productive.
“When something is out there that’s incorrect, you should correct it through Slack, because everybody should really see that there needs to be a correction,” says Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and the founder of The Protocol School of Texas. “Somebody may be working off something that was an error, because it was miscommunicated the first time or it was flat out wrong. That doesn’t help anyone—so correct it publicly.”
Just be delicate about it, Gottsman suggests.
“You don’t want to call somebody out in a negative way and say, ‘Hey, the last message you sent was incorrect. It was actually 32% rather than 11%.’ Instead do it in a positive way by saying, ‘I think you meant to say 11% rather than 32%.’ That way everybody has the corrected information, and you’ve done it without putting anyone down.”
You wouldn’t walk into a room full of colleagues without saying hi or leave the room without telling everyone you were taking off for the day—and don’t do it in a Slack channel either. This is especially important if you’re the boss: Announce when the workday is done, and when you are signing off. And even if you aren’t the boss or team leader, it’s good etiquette to announce when you are going out for lunch for a bit or need to step away to attend a meeting. This stops people from wondering why you aren’t replying to a discussion in Slack.
Slack channels can get pretty chaotic when there are a dozen people or more chatting. Sometimes there are so many sentences flying around it’s easy to lose track of what question or query is directed at whom. That’s why it’s good Slack etiquette to call people by name in every message when speaking to them in a public channel. Saying “@Michael, can you do this?” “@Michael, here is more information,” or “Thanks @Michael,” directs each statement you type to the appropriate person so it is always clear who is being spoken to.
Slack also supports @mentions for individuals and groups. They’re a great way to get people’s attention—just don’t abuse or misuse them, or you could annoy your teammates. The @here command lets you grab the attention of team members in a channel who are currently active. The @channel command, on the other hand, will send a message to all team members of the channel, whether they are currently signed in and active or not.
Obviously, the @channel command is great for emergencies or major channel-wide announcements, but use it for only those instances, as doing so will send push and email notifications to everyone in the channel—including people who may be off work for the day or on vacation. For non-urgent announcements, @here is always best.
Slack bombing is a phrase I made up to describe the glut of repetitive direct messages I sometimes get from Slack novices. These are people who ask something and then follow up almost immediately with, “Hello?”, “Did you get this?”, “You there????” I get that Slack is a real-time communications tool, but it’s important to remember that just because someone is active on Slack doesn’t mean they have the time to read your message the moment it comes in—they could be active in another DM discussion or channel.
Slack bombing can make you look impatient or rude, so it’s best to avoid it, says Gottsman. “If they haven’t replied and you need an immediate answer, you have one of two choices. You can either say, ‘John, following up on my last message,’ or pick up the phone and call. You don’t want to get aggressive. I’d give it one follow-up and then I’d pick up the phone. It’s business. Business means that you respond to a message.”
Emojis, or emoticons, used to be something relegated to the domain of teenagers’ text messages, but recently they’ve become more acceptable in professional communication. Indeed, there are a host of emojis built into Slack, and they can play an important role in adding context to someone’s otherwise curt-sounding text statements.
“The protocol is you always stay very professional in a business setting. That would be the protocol,” says Gottsman. “The reality is, if you are trying to make a point and you’re looking at your message and it sounds curt, there may be a place, depending on that relationship with that person you’re communicating with, that you might send an emoji that is upbeat or softens the tone.”
Gottsman says to choose whether to use emojis based on your personal relationship with the person. Are you close? Do they use emojis too? If not, excessive emoji use can make you look a bit unprofessional. On the other hand, Gottsman says, “If someone has done something fabulous, emojis are a great way to say, ‘Yay! Congratulations! Super! Bells and whistles!’ Just use them in moderation and with caution.”
Over the last decade, the the rapid rise of the popularity of texting has lead to an explosion of shorthand, abbreviations, and a reliance on autocorrect. While all this may be fine for texting family and friends, Gottsman says the excessive use of shorthand or abbreviations can come across as unprofessional in the workplace. “Even though shortcuts and abbreviations are easier, I really suggest that you don’t do it.”
As for Slack’s Pickard, she says, “FWIW, we’re totally okay with it,” and notes that the move to messaging has come with a whole roster of causal LOLs and OMGs, which can have a home in Slack, but appropriate use depends on who you’re speaking to and generally on how your organization prefers to communicate. “It’s really up to each individual, their team, and their organization. Shorthand like ‘k’ offers quick acknowledgement when you’re in a rush, but if you prefer to be more formal, an ‘okay’ will certainly do.”
But whichever way you choose to communicate, make sure the words you do write fully are spelled correctly. It’s okay to be somewhat loose with punctuation, but poor spelling always makes you look sloppy.
Given that Slack is a work tool, it’s best to keep night and weekend slacking to a minimum. With all our gadgets and their pings and push notifications, it’s already hard enough to switch off from work for the night or week. If you do need to be active on a public channel during the night or at weekends, at least try to keep the @channel and @everyone mentions to a minimum so your team members won’t be bothered with notifications on their time off.
Of course, as great as Slack is, it’s not the be all and end all of workplace communication. While some routine meetings can be had in Slack, the company’s editorial director, Anna Pickard, acknowledges other meetings—such as one-on-ones and feedback sessions between managers and their reports, training sessions, and demonstrations—are still important to have face-to-face.
“Slack can be a useful leveling ground for introverts and extroverts, making it easier to feel heard without getting out of your comfort zone. But when you’re having a discussion with many people at once, sometimes things can get a little confusing, or ideas and opinions can get lost in the shuffle,” says Pickard. “Rather than continuing to go back and forth, quite often the best thing to do is take the conversation offline and regroup with the necessary people. Slack’s a great place to then post summary notes from those meetings for follow-up discussions.”
With reporting help from Rose Pastore