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What your private Slack channels say about your company’s culture

With more workplaces hiring far-flung employees and leaning on Slack to bridge the gap, work culture is Slack culture.

What your private Slack channels say about your company’s culture
[Photos: fizkes/IStoc; AzFree/IStock]

Kally Lavoie was only introduced to Slack earlier this year, after part of her company had already migrated onto the messaging platform. By the time her office joined the company’s Slack workspace, their colleagues in San Francisco and Boston had already found their rhythm. “It definitely felt, at the beginning, like we were slotted into their culture,” Lavoie says. “It took a few months to create our own culture.”

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But almost immediately, the fresh crop of Slack users discovered the Giphy integration. Soon enough, channels and DMs were littered with the party parrot emoji. Lavoie and her neighbors in the office—a group she describes as her pod—found a room of their own.

“We have an open office, so it started as our pod, to talk about when we were getting coffee or going for lunch,” she says. “From there it spiraled. We included teammates and other friends. It definitely became the private friend channel for our group.”

In some workplaces, Slack communications start to take the place of face-to-face socializing. But in Lavoie’s office, the pod’s private Slack channel deepened offline relationships and brokered new ones. It wasn’t long before invites were extended to other coworkers. After a group outing to watch The Lion King, the channel took on a new name: #priderock.

“It’s easier to bond or talk about lighter things—movies, celebrities, books, and current events,” Lavoie says. “[Before Slack], if I was trying to build a new relationship or connect with a new coworker, it was a little bit more formal and stiff: ‘Hey, do you have time to go get a coffee?’ Slack has helped me create my own culture and made me feel closer to coworkers.”

As an enterprise tool that looks and feels more like a social media platform, Slack is full of contradictions. It is, first and foremost, a tool to encourage collaboration and open lines of communication in the workplace. But it’s also a chat room with private channels and DMs ripe to be populated with emoji and complaints. How you use Slack is shaped by—and, in turn, shapes—your work culture.

“There is this desire for connection across different levels of organization,” says Brian Southwell, a social scientist and researcher at the nonprofit RTI and faculty member at Duke University. “There’s a sense that sometimes, especially people working in different areas geographically, aren’t as connected as they should be—and [Slack] seems to offer a panacea for that. That said, the existence of Slack doesn’t necessarily guarantee all the connectivity that it purports to offer. What really matters is how it’s used.”

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For open office workers, in particular, Slack’s private corners can be a salve, offering the facade of privacy and a place to vent. With more workplaces hiring far-flung employees and leaning on Slack to bridge the gap, work culture is Slack culture, and private correspondence is a key piece of that. Those private interactions can enhance or detract from company culture, depending on the workplace and existing ethos.

Slack’s own philosophy is that channels should default to public, as much as possible. “Transparency matters, so most conversations should happen in public channels so that they’re searchable by all members,” the company recommends. But a workplace that welcomes private conversations, Southwell says, can also communicate a level of trust between employer and employee. “It signals that the organization trusts you to have those private conversations,” he says. “Ultimately, if the dialogue and conversation in a private group is going to have consequence for the larger organization, [they] are going to find out about what the recommendations are anyway. And if it’s not going to do that, then who is it harming for there to be that private conversation? If you’re shutting down private conversations just for the sake of it, to me that seems oppressive.” (It’s worth noting that Slack does have a setting that allows admins to export a log of all data—including DMs—but employees can check to see if that setting is on.)

In some workplaces, the company ethos might be reflected in the types of private channels one has—BuzzFeed, for example, had a Slack channel for Hamilton buffs, while Gawker had one for bad tweets—or the conversations that arise in back channels. Brian Feldman at New York magazine recently wrote about the impending doom of his employer’s Slack account merging with that of its new owner, Vox Media. (At Vox, he writes, employees are required to use photos of their faces as their Slack avatar—a policy one of his coworkers deemed “cop culture.”) Employees at both companies had discussed clearing their respective chat archives in advance of their Slack merger, which happened last week.

A number of workplaces (Fast Company being one of them) have women-only Slack rooms. At some companies, this might be a response to a lack of diversity in a company’s ranks, and in other cases, simply a space to speak candidly, away from prying eyes. Some men don’t respond well to being excluded, as gaming journalist Kate Gray disclosed recently.

In a previous workplace that Gray described as having a “toxic bro culture,” her male coworkers started a private Slack channel of their own upon realizing there was a women-only Slack room (which Gray claims was intended as a place to ask each other for tampons). Other men understand it’s not their place to question why women might want a space of their own. Evan Alexander, who works at digital agency Union, says people in his office know their female coworkers have a private group. “I think there’s a big difference between secrecy and privacy,” Alexander says. “I’m aware of that private channel, and I know I’m not in it because that subject matter doesn’t apply to me. I’ve heard bathroom etiquette largely dominates that channel.”

In Lavoie’s office, the #priderock channel has catalyzed hangouts—some of its members play Dungeons & Dragons together after work, while others started a puzzle club—and spawned public channels. “Because it was private and had that exclusive feel, we ended up making more general public channels for everybody,” Lavoie says. One such channel exists for the sole purpose of coordinating coffee runs and lunch outings.

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But in other workplaces, private Slack rooms can further hamper potential relationships, or project an air of exclusivity. The same cliques that might exist in person can be easily mapped onto Slack. In the case of Laurice Wardini’s company, physical—and personal—divisions are reinforced in their Slack workspace.

Since most of her company works remotely, Wardini says Slack plays an outsize role in her experience of company culture. “It was definitely way different than being in an office,” she says. “It felt more lonely. I couldn’t really get to know them over Slack. We have phone conversations, too, but even that—it’s not the same as meeting people in person.”

Wardini is all too aware that she isn’t privy to any number of conversations that take place in private channels and that she doesn’t have the same relationships with her coworkers as they do with each other. “A lot of people in the company were already close before, or they joined the company together,” she says. “In the shared channels that I’m in, they’ll say, ‘Go to this channel, and let’s talk there.’ There was even one channel that I was a part of, and they kicked me out because it wasn’t relevant [anymore].”

Slack may not be an effective social lubricant in all workplaces. But when it comes to increasing transparency, Slack can empower users to speak up in a way they might not otherwise. It can give a junior employee access to a higher up who they wouldn’t otherwise approach in person, for instance. In Alexander’s workplace, many teams have private and public work channels to help them collaborate while also giving them the space to express frustrations. “We make it a mission for people to ask for feedback constantly,” he says. “That’s really important, to foster that transparency and accountability.”

Like social media, Slack—even in a private channel—gives users an audience, which lends it the aura of accountability, Alexander says. Your coworkers are more likely to witness a disagreement on Slack, for example, than they would a face-to-face conversation. “Because [Slack] is an instant feedback loop, I think people feel like they can be candid, especially about how they feel in the moment,” he says. “It kind of creates a paper trail, too.” Of course, that can introduce a layer of ambiguity as well, since tone is harder to read in interactions that aren’t face to face. The result, according to Alexander, is that people are more thoughtful about what they say and how they say it. “It does help me be conscientious of what I’m saying and how I may be coming across,” he says.

That’s also why at Squarefoot, a real estate tech startup, Josh Vickery, the VP of engineering, encourages employees to have those conversations out in the open, especially if they get heated. “Two people will have a disagreement in Slack, and one of them will take it to a manager and complain about it,” Vickery says. “But if you have something to say to somebody, can you say it in public? Do you have to reframe it a little bit so that it doesn’t seem hostile? That helps with conflict resolution. It’s not always the answer—sometimes they’re private conversations, and you need to have a private conversation. But sometimes you’re having a fight over a technical detail that is actually a very open conversation that other people can chime in on.”

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But Vickery recognizes that as his company grows, encouraging employees to use public channels is a more difficult endeavor. “We’ve doubled in size every year for the past few years,” he says. “With every big chunk of addition, culture changes a lot.” Vickery keeps an eye on statistics from Slack that disclose the percentage of conversations that happen in DMs and the percentage that are in public or private channels; as Squarefoot has hired more people, the percentage of DM conversations has jumped significantly. Vickery believes that could have a negative impact on company culture—but he also realizes that it’s only natural for culture to shift as headcount increases. “I think that it’s reflective of changing culture as the company grows,” he says. “When [you’re] 17 people in an office, everybody’s conversation is everybody’s conversation.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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