Good stewardship in Slack
11 min read

Good stewardship in Slack

If you really want to get me riled up, all you have to do is ask me about my thoughts on Slack. As part of my (probably never-ending) journey to wrangle my thoughts on this, here are some thoughts on how to use Slack well.

I'll also say that this conversation between Ezra Klein and Cal Newport on the topic was one of the most illuminating and clarifying takes I've encountered on the topic. I wrote my notes and takeaways here in the event you're not inclined to listen to the full hour-long conversation.

The particular insight that helped me understand our magnetic (even when it's maddening) pull to Slack is that if our tribe is talking, we want to know what they're saying. Imagine seeing a crew of your besties chatting in the corner at a cocktail party–how could you not walk over?! With that understanding of the spell Slack puts us all under, no matter how many tricks we have up our sleeves to set our own boundaries with it, here's how I think we can make the best use of Slack in our organizations.

By upholding these norms, and encouraging others stick to these too, I think we can make it more likely that Slack contributes to our productivity, efficiency, feelings of connectedness, and work satisfaction (instead of taking away from it).

The best version of Slack

The most basic description of Slack is a chat application for a community's communication. The best version of Slack is the central (and searchable) hub for all community information. In other words, if you need or want to know something (even if you don't yet know you need or want to know it) it's in Slack!

One counter-intuitive thing about the way we use Slack is that in most contexts, we communicate with people directly to get the things we want or need. It’s very common to shoot someone a text or email or pick up the phone for a quick call. But, in the work setting, when many people can benefit from more context, the DM model breaks down. And beyond that, our instinctual mental models of communication at work are primarily “call and response”– I make a request and someone responds (or vice versa). So, our communication system becomes all about reactivity.

But, if we want to make Slack a truly great resource it should be more than a reactive DM machine. It should also be a river of information that establishes a system of shared knowledge that everyone can rely on.

Knowing your purpose

If we think of Slack a tool for communication and a hub of information, we realize that our communication can and will  have one of two purposes. This is important to acknowledge because the space and and norms you use to communicate should flow from the purpose of your communication.

  1. get something done: this is the stuff that usually requires a response. The goal here is to advance work as efficiently as possible.
  2. share information: this is the stuff that doesn't usually require a response. The goal here is to contribute to the collective knowledge of the organization.

Knowing your role

One challenge of Slack is that we play multiple roles at a time, and the role we play is very context-dependent. I've found that it's still helpful to articulate what those roles are so that we can ask ourselves "what is my role here?" and then participate accordingly.

  • System architect: defining the rules such that the whole system is reliable  and easy-to-use for everyone. this might include things like channel naming conventions or setting up org-wide reminders or integrating with tools like calendar.
  • Writer: publishing into the system
  • Reader: consuming what's published into the system

Quick overview of ways to communicate in Slack

  • Direct Message: private one-to-one message (similar to a text)
  • Group Message: Conversations between more than two people, outside of channels (similar to a Group Message on text)
  • Public Channel: Dedicated spaces for talking about any project, topic, or team in the open
  • Private Channel: Dedicated spaces for talking about any project, topic, or team in private

Should I Slack or email?

This will largely depend on your company's norms, but here's what I typically see:

  • Default to Slack for internal communication: this way, everything is searchable and referenceable ongoing. It’ll also make Slack the source of truth for everything going on!
  • Default to email for external communication: use email to communicate with external partners.
  • There will be exceptions: Try to uphold this system when we can, but you shouldn’t have arbitrary rules that make things harder. If something doesn’t play nicely with this approach: (1)  build the system that works, (2) communicate it to your stakeholders, and (3) document it for the broader organization.

Should I Slack or meet?

  • Meet when: a discussion is warranted. We don’t have to be too dogmatic about this. Trust your instincts.
  • Slack when: coordinating about that meeting. Fuzzy lines between sync and async is a part of navigating the modern work environment. Trust your instincts, ask colleagues for support, and adapt along the way.

Should I Slack or create a document?

  • Use a document if you’re creating an artifact of work like a job description or a meeting agenda.
  • Message in Slack to link to that document, let someone know it’s ready to look at, or request their collaboration on it.
  • Linking to documents in Slack makes them easy for you and others to search for later. Remember, we’re aspiring to make Slack the center of our communication universe. For example, you might post a link to an agenda for an upcoming meeting.

Communicating in Slack

Overall, the expectation is that everyone stays on top of their own Slack. When it comes to messaging, the most important thing to remember is that communicating in Slack doesn’t have to mean notifying and interrupting someone. The way you communicate will help the recipient know how to treat the message.

Ways to create a notifications in Slack

A notification is what creates that little red and white number in your Slack app. Other terms you might see or hear that can be used ~interchangeably with notification are: message, @’ing, @-mention, ding, or ping. For example, “can you ping the group about this?,” and “can you message the group about this?” means the same thing.

  • @’ing : will create a notification.
  • @channel can be used within any channel to ping every person already in that channel. (Those who are not in the channel will not be notified about @channel notifications in channels they are not in). But, with great power comes great responsibility. Only use this when you absolutely need to grab everyone's attention now. (For example, “@channel, heads up All Hands is starting!”)
  • @here is like @channel, but is typically better received, as it only notifies channel members who are currently active on Slack. (For example, if you're in #coffee and looking for a buddy, you'll want to use @here to ask all currently online if they'd like to join you.)
  • Note on non-notifying new messages: If someone sends a message to a channel you are already in, starts a thread based on your message, or contributes to a thread that you’ve sent a message in, you will *not* get a notification. Instead, the channel or the ‘threads’ section will go bold.
  • @[team name] (or, user groups) will alert predefined members of a team, even if there are others in the channel. Slack calls these ‘user groups’ and here’s how to create them. If you are in a large channel and just want to ping the members of the direct team, default to @[team name] rather than @channel or @here.
  • Keywords/Ding words: Stay on top of projects you’re working on or topics you want to know about by setting up keywords in your notification preferences. Whenever the word you include is mentioned, you’ll get notified. These keywords will supersede any channel preferences–in other words, if someone says a keyword you set in any channel, you’ll get notified. Here’s how to set that up. Some examples of words you might want to include are your name, or the names of clients or projects. You can also include words like ‘coffee’ so you know if anyone’s going to grab some when you might need it.
  • (a note for system architects) your company can align on org-wide keywords so that everyone knows how to get everyone’s attention for particular matters. Examples are “911” to alert everyone about emergencies or “PSA” to let everyone know about a ‘public service announcement’.

To @ or not to @?

Remember, There are two primary purposes for messaging someone (whether an individual, group, or channel) on Slack. 1/advance work that relies on someone else 2/contribute to the collective knowledge (or, “pool of ideas”) of the organization.

The purpose of your message will dictate best practices for sending that message.

  • If your goal is [1] to advance the work: you probably require someone else’s attention immediately. Sending a message by @’ing them (or, @channel’ing) will do this by creating a notification on their end.
  • Remember, notifications can be interruptive to others so before you @ someone, it’s worth doing a quick gut-check that you can’t get what you need without engaging someone else.
  • Communicating urgency: When you request someone’s attention by @’ing them, you should let them know if a response is urgent or non-urgent and when you need a response by.
  • If your goal is [2] contribute to collective knowledge: you probably don’t need to get someone’s immediate attention, so just posting (without an @) will do. This means that the information will be available to be read (and signaled by the channel name going bold in the left hand feed), but it won’t create a notification for anyone.
  • When you send a message, default to using public channels as much as possible to increase access to shared knowledge across your workspace. You never know what information or insight is going to benefit someone else! (More on channel best practices below).
  • Even if you are requesting the attention of a single person, it’s best to @ them in the appropriate public channel so that others can benefit from the context or information (and find it later).
  • Slack maintains an ongoing record of work: Just like email, Slack maintains records of all communication that can be searched or references later.
  • You can search for messages across all of Slack in the search bar at the top. This will include all public messages. You can also refine your search by specifying a channel, to/from, whether it has an attachment, and more. Details on that here.

Tips for messaging well

  • Send a message later: if you have something important to share, but now isn’t the best time to communicate it, you can schedule a message to be sent in the future. Here’s how.
  • Use threads: to go back and forth on a single idea.
  • Note: if you need to get someone’s attention, @’ing them in the thread will send up a notification.
  • Re-ping if someone hasn’t responded to your message, follow-up in a thread by @’ing them. This will send another notification.
  • Slackbot creates automated messages and tasks. For example, you might want to use one to post automated messages in Slack like scheduling a message that goes out the week before All Hands that says ‘what should we talk about in All Hands next week?’. You might also want to use one for automatic responses. Like, if someone says ‘what’s the wifi?’ you can have Slack automatically return a message that links to it. More on Slackbots here.
  • Reminder commands: you can set automatic reminders for yourself in Slack. Just tell Slack what content you want to be reminded about and when to remind you. (For example, (‘remind me to follow up with Alice on Friday at noon’), and Slack will send you a message. It’ll appear just like a notification for a message from someone else.  Here’s how.Slack integrates with other applications (like Outlook/Google calendar or Zoom) to make it easy for it to be the central hub for communication.  You can read more about that here.

Tips for for managing your notifications and availability

  • You should probably read all messages sent:
  • Directly to you
  • To #general
  • To your team’s channel
  • To channels for any workstreams that you are a meaningful contributor to (or stakeholder of)
  • If you’re unsure of whether you should pay attention to a particular channel, talk it over with a colleague or manager.
  • Mark unread: If you read something but you’re not quite ready to respond right now, mark it ‘unread’ by clicking the … on the message. This will keep the notification up.
  • Remind me about this later: when someone notifies you about something non-urgent while you’re in the middle of something, you might want to be re-notified about it later. When this is the case, click the … on the message, and then remind me later and pick a time. This will get rid of the notification icon temporarily and re-ping on your selected time frame.
  • Set a status: You can set a status in Slack to manage expectations for your colleagues about your responsiveness. For example, you can let others know when you’re in a meeting, out to lunch, sick, or out of the office. Here’s how.
  • Snooze/Do Not Disturb: If you need time to focus or time away from work, you can pause your notifications. All notifications and @mentions and team members will see a Do Not Disturb icon next to your name until you end your session. Here’s how.
  • Note: someone can make a decision to override this when sending a direct message, if they really really need to. That way, you’re not at risk of missing something truly urgent.

Using Slack Channels

Channels help organize conversations so that everyone can contribute and follow along productively. Channels can be used for teams, topics, or projects.

Perhaps the biggest shift companies make in communication is moving conversations into public channels instead of direct messages or group messages. These are norms you should set as a company and it should be perfectly acceptable to say "can you re-post this in a public channel?" if someone DMs something that doesn't need to be DM'ed.

One mistake I see a lot of teams make is trying to minimize the number of channels. But having lots of highly-targeted channels helps everyone know where to go to post or read and allows people to set up efficient notification preferences. For example, if your company-wide channel is used as much for business-critical announcements as it is silly inconsequential team chatter, your team members are going to have to stay on top of all the silly stuff to make sure they don't miss what matters. If you split them out into #announcements and #chatter, team members can have notifications set up on #announcements and pop in to #chatter when the mood strikes.  

As teams grow, having conversations in channels will make information easier to find as you produce more of it. Channels will also make your company more friendly to newcomers because they will be able to read the channel history for context.

What channels should we have?

Here's a list of some of my favorite company-wide communication hubs. These primarily satisfy the "contribute to the collective knowledge of the organization" purpose.

Channels that "advance the work" should also be spun up for teams and projects.

You may want to establish some company-wide norms or conventions for doing so in a way that makes them discoverable for those that might not have full context.

Creating a new channel

  • You can spin up new Slack channels whenever you think it’d be useful. For example, when a new project is getting kicked off. Here’s how.
  • When you do, announce it in #general so that others know it exists and can join if they want to.
  • If you think someone in particular should tune in, DM them and say so to make sure they don’t miss it
  • Add a description so everyone knows what the purpose of the channel is. Include anything participants should know about how to be productive contributors to the conversation in the channel.
  • Pin messages and bookmark links to keep important messages visible no matter when someone joins. The effect is kind of like a virtual bulletin board. Here’s how.
  • Keep an eye on the channel and make sure everyone’s using it as intended. This is especially important in its early days while the norms are being set.
  • It’s up to everyone to maintain the right set of channels for the work. It’s always going to be a work-in-progress! Expect to retire channels that are no longer useful (more on at below) and spin up new ones to keep up with new work.
  • Consider appointing a channel ranger: who is in charge of upholding and evolving the norms of that channel.

Tips for keeping track of so many channels

  • Star important channels or direct messages: When you do that, this channel then appears at the top of your list in the "Starred" section. This will allow you to separate channels you use and read all day from the ones you’re in in case of pings or just to get up to speed with what's happening in those teams. The channels not starred appear separately in the "Channels" section of Slack. Here’s how.
  • Mute channels: By muting a channel, you won’t be notified every time a new message comes in. You can also set up your channel preferences to only notify you if you are mentioned. Here’s how.
  • Align on naming conventions: Since channels are organized alphabetically by default, your team can decide on naming conventions (ex- #team-marketing, #team-collections, #project-book, #project-think-different, #fun-coffee, #fun-gardening), so that channels naturally group around others like it.
  • Archive or delete a channel when it is no longer active. Here’s how.
  • Archived channels are closed to new activity, but the message history is retained and searchable.Deleted channels are permanently removed from a workspace, message history included. More details here.