Workplace communication tools were supposed to help us collaborate more effectively. But for many organisations, they seem to have made matters worse. In fact, there has been a growing backlash against tools like Slack, with various publications describing them as disorganised, addictive, time-consuming, non-stop chatrooms that silently ruin productivity. Bloggers have chimed in also, claiming that asynchronous messaging is a better alternative.
What would you call an all-day meeting with unknown participants and no agenda?— Jason Fried (@jasonfried) February 18, 2016
But these tools aren’t inherently bad. The problem is they are too easily misused and abused. To solve this, we must understand the root causes, and what to do instead.
So why do we get so frustrated with Slack?
Why we get frustrated with Slack
It’s “too easy” to use
In her much-cited Medium article Death By a Thousand Pings: The Hidden Side of Using Slack, Alicia Liu explains how Slack’s “greatest strength: amazing ease-of-use, is also its weakness: making it far too easy for everyone to default to using Slack for communicating, even for all the myriad things that don’t make sense to use Slack to communicate.”
She adds, “By lowering the barrier to initiate communication, the hidden side effect is that Slack has the quiet capacity to exponentially increase communication overhead.”
People still use email
That collaborating via email is terribly inefficient is no secret. Team communication tools like Slack were designed to replace email for this reason.
But instead of replacing email, these tools have become yet another demand on our already overstretched time. Poor guidance – along with a lack of training and effective internal governance – leads to unintentional misuse.
Lucas Miller, neuroscientist and co-founder of productivity consultancy Stoa Partners, says “Technology advances usually supplant what has come before, but Slack hasn’t, it’s just doubled the pain.”
IM enables poor communication
Email forces you to carefully craft your message and specify the correct recipients before hitting “send”. Instant messaging tools, on the other hand, enable you to communicate almost at the speed of thought; often haphazardly over separate messages. This encourages knee-jerk responses and invites yet more distracting notifications for team members.
The time saved in quickly firing off a barrage of poorly constructed ramblings offloads the cognitive work to other people. Worse still, this cognitive work is multiplied by the number of people receiving the message in that channel.
As Alicia Liu points out, each recipient now needs to figure out: “a) is this message relevant to me? b) if so, how? c) do I need to take some action based on this message? d) should I ask for clarification on its relevance or whether I need to take some action?”
Processing updates is a full-time job
According to productivity analytics company Time is Ltd., the average employee of a large company sends more than 200 Slack messages a week. That’s about one every 12 minutes. In a team of just ten people, this could amount to one new message received every 1.2 minutes.
It’s not uncommon for power users to send over 1,000 messages per week. Staying up to date with this torrent of information is an impossible task. As a result, we end up incessantly checking messages about work, rather than actually doing it.
Notifications disrupt your flow
It shouldn’t matter how much time you spend working. What matters is what you’re able to accomplish. Thanks to researchers and psychologists like Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, we now know that the secret to doing better work, faster is to enter into a state of flow.
It takes around 20 minutes of deep focus to build up to a state of flow. Unfortunately, this focus is all too easily broken by external distractions like notifications and the impulse to check for new messages. When this happens, it’s right back to the starting line.
For many, 20 minutes is an eternity in Slack-land. With new messages shared every few minutes, it can prove almost impossible to attain the focus required for truly meaningful work.
One does not simply “quit” Slack
The distraction of social media and constant notifications is easily solved. Simply delete/block social media during work hours and turn off all unnecessary notifications.
Slack, however, is different. If the only way you can communicate effectively with your colleagues is via Slack, you can’t just quit. If your workplace requires that you use it, you can’t rebel and ignore it.
We must learn to use tools responsibly
Technology can tackle problems like poor collaboration but unless we think critically about how we use that technology – unless we define and adhere to the conventions that make it work effectively – we will continue to experience the same problems.
When we open the floodgates and introduce new technology to our team without guidance or rules to govern its use, is it any surprise that we become cluttered and overwhelmed?
“Let’s use this” can be a recipe for disaster.
“How should we use this?” is the necessary question.
With that in mind, here are nine of the most common Slack mistakes, and what you should do instead.
Common Slack mistakes (and what to do instead)
1. Stop using Slack synchronously
This the biggest of all Slack mistakes. When we lack information or insights, the temptation is to “send a quick message” to a colleague to save the hassle of searching or thinking for ourselves. By itself, this shouldn’t be an issue. In a primarily asynchronous workplace, it might even be acceptable. The problem, however, is that few people use Slack asynchronously, defaulting instead to real-time, all-the-time communication. We’ve begun using it for slow-drip conversations in real-time, ultimately leading to communication FOMO (the fear of missing out).
When the established norm is to expect – and be expected to – provide instantaneous replies, we become addicted. It’s easy to get into the habit of “just checking Slack for a second”. But before you know it, you’re sucked helplessly into a swirling vortex of distractions and low-value chatter.
Do this instead:
- Take more Slack breaks: Batch your check-and-respond time into shorter, less-frequent periods throughout the day. Not everything is an emergency. Your colleagues can wait.
- Establish a separate protocol for genuine emergencies: For example, a phone call or a message via a separate, dedicated emergency channel.
2. Don’t write in a hurry
Faster communication isn’t better. More communication isn’t better. Better communication is better – and better communication requires thoughtfulness.
Good written communication is a cornerstone skill. A little extra time and effort spent adding detail and editing for clarity help avoid misunderstandings and, in many cases, saves hours of needless back-and-forth messaging.
Do this instead:
- Develop strong writing skills: And encourage others to do the same.
- Think first: Pause. Take a second. Consider. Then respond.
- Be concise: Don’t ramble. Use short sentences, paragraphs and bullet points.
- Be clear: Eliminate all fluff, jargon, buzzwords and acronyms. Could your message be understood by a 10-year-old?
- Over-communicate: State whatever is relevant. It will take you less time to type than it will take others to search for it.
- Give context: Think about the who, what, when, where, why, how?
- Anticipate: Consider how your message could be misconstrued. Re-write for clarity.
- Ditch the txt spk: FWIW, it myt save u tym but its not so gr8 4 the ova person 2 hav 2 wrk out the eck ur sayin! omd.
- Spell check: Use tools like Grammarly to ensure your language is clear and accurate.
- NNTR: If you don’t need a response to your message, say: “No need to respond”.
3. Don’t neglect your notification settings
One of the most common Slack mistakes is to allow yourself to be bombarded with distracting pings and popups. Notifications are literally designed to interrupt you and get your attention. Clearly then, trying to focus on challenging work amidst constant notifications is asking for trouble.
“If you don’t give appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.”David Allen – Creator of the GTD methodology
Most team chat tools (Slack included) provide the ability to customise notification settings (a.k.a when to be interrupted). The problem is, the default settings are usually set to “enabled”.
Why? Well, encouraging team members to adopt new technology is always a challenge, so the developers of these tools tend to enable most (or all) notifications by default. This way, new users don’t forget to check-in.
It works. In no time at all, communication frequency rockets. However, many people fail to update these notification settings once the habit is formed, causing users to become increasingly distracted.
Do this instead:
- Set a notification schedule: This way, you won’t be receiving intrusive messages outside of your preferred working hours.
- Customise your notifications: Get alerts only for what matters (i.e. not all messages).
- Disable @ here and @ channel notifications for channels you don’t actively participate in: Members of that channel can then use these notifications without disturbing you.
- Use “Do Not Disturb” mode: Set it to turn on automatically when you’re away from work. Don’t worry. Senders can override it and reach you for emergencies if needed. Think of it as a way to filter out 99% of the noise you don’t care to see.
4. Don’t forget threaded conversations
Linear communication feeds are a surefire way to lose track of important information and decisions. When all discussions are held simultaneously in the same place, important information quickly becomes buried in a long list of other, irrelevant messages.
Do this instead:
- Use threaded conversations: Every new message can become its own linear thread, allowing all messages to be focused on a single topic.
- Encourage others to follow: Unfortunately, many people miss this feature. It only takes one person to reply in the main feed (instead of the thread) for conversations to become fragmented and near-impossible to keep track of.
5. Don’t let channels get out of hand
One of the great things about Slack is that it’s easy to create new channels whenever a new topic or project needs a home. Unfortunately, this generates clutter over time. Just like with our homes, when we put aside the spring cleaning, things get messy.
Do this instead:
- Archive defunct channels: Don’t worry, you won’t lose any messages. Members of the channel can still search for messages (or everybody if the channel is public).
- Mute channels you need but seldom use: Some channels need not be checked on a regular basis (like auto-generated messages or utility channels). It is best to put these on mute. Muted channels are greyed-out and fall to the bottom of the channel list. You’ll still get notifications if someone @mentions you.
- Leave irrelevant channels: Sometimes you do not need, nor want to remain, in a particular Slack channel. It’s okay to leave! Slack suggests that you ask three questions for each channel in your sidebar:
- Am I still a part of the same working group or team?
- Do I really need to know about new messages on projects I’ve left behind?
- For social channels, am I still interested in the topics?
6. Don’t nag your colleagues.
Nagging colleagues is one of the most common Slack mistakes. Just because somebody is showing as active, it doesn’t mean they have time to read and respond to your messages. Sometimes, the temptation is to nag your colleagues into submission by posting a flurry of repetitive messages like, “Did you get this”?, “Hello?”, “Jim?”, “Are you there???”.
Do this instead:
- Trust your colleagues: They should respond in a timely manner.
- Respond in a timely manner yourself: Remember the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you!
7. Don’t abuse team-wide notifications
When organisations operate in a mostly synchronous fashion, people are more inclined to @ mention (i.e. send push notifications to) colleagues for a fast response. This is yet one more case of unnecessary, distracting notifications.
Features like tagging @here and @channel make it extremely easy to interrupt many people in one fell swoop. Without proper guidance and policing, this feature gets abused.
In a high-functioning asynchronous working environment, however, the need to interrupt everybody at once is rare. These interruptions are best kept only for breaking news and emergencies. For example, when a team meeting is cancelled at the last minute or there is an impending fire drill.
Do this instead:
- Use them very rarely: This command sends notifications to everyone in the channel, including those who are off work or on vacation. Use it exclusively for emergencies (i.e. website is down), time-sensitive situations (i.e. being locked out of the office) and major, channel-wide announcements (i.e. office is closing early today).
- Be patient: See above.
8. Don’t clog channels with private chat
While organisations should generally strive for transparency, some conversations should be conducted in private to avoid clogging the feed. For example, when two people need to agree a time to meet.
What to do instead:
- Take it to DM: Send a simple message: “Let’s take this to DM”.
9. Don’t use Slack for work tracking
When used correctly, team communication tools plug significant gaps in collaborative workflows. They facilitate quick file transfers, link sharing and on-the-fly knowledge transfer. However, they aren’t (and shouldn’t) be a replacement for specialised collaboration tools.
Workplace communication tools like Slack are disconnected from context. Work-management tools like Asana, however, are task-oriented. They are contextual by design, meaning that the best place for any task or project-specific communication is within the comment feed of the task or project itself. Any information needed can thus be found in one, easily accessible place.
In other words, communication tools help you to communicate quickly. Work management tools enable you to structure your thoughts toward action. Each has its own place in the collaborative technology stack. Use the right tool for the right job.
What to do instead:
- Use a work-management tool like Asana for all task and project-specific communication (i.e. most communication).
- Hire an Asana consultant to help you get up and running. Had to squeeze in a blatant plug somewhere, right?
Have you experienced these Slack mistakes?
Let me know in the comments if you’ve experienced these Slack mistakes at work, and what steps your organisation has taken to tackle them. Did I miss anything?
The official guide to using Slack – By Slack
How to use Slack effectively: 25 Slack settings and features that will save your focus – By Jory MacKay, RescueTime
Buffer: The 10 Slack Agreements of Buffer – by Hailey Griffiths, Buffer