These days, many tech companies use Slack or a similar tool to facilitate communication between teammates. Our most critical work-related conversations are happening via these chat tools, allowing us to streamline communication across multiple locations, provide a history of decisions made or issues raised, and easily loop in folks who were missing. But just as teams can use tools like Slack to build a culture of trust and inclusion, so are such tools prone to alienating team members and creating information silos.
At thoughtbot, one of our core values is trust. In defining this value, we highlight that:
We avoid having private conversations about each other or clients. Instead, we talk in person, and use tools such as Slack […] to communicate openly within a project, within thoughtbot, and publicly.
Here are some tips that we use to ensure that our team is using Slack to improve efficiency while nurturing a culture of trust.
Sometimes, we want to direct our communication toward a particular individual. Cue the Slack direct message - a tempting way to pass information privately on to another individual. While this type of communication does have its time and place, it is rarely inclusive and is often the culprit of an information silo.
Let’s say, for example, we want to ask a question about a pull request. By sending a direct message to the developer who wrote the code, we deprive the rest of the team from learning from the conversation and prevent the full team from being aware of the resolution. Or, let’s say we want to report a bug directly to a developer - we have now created an urgent-feeling situation that may have been better triaged if the full team were made aware of the issue. Even offering praise through a direct message robs the recipient of the chance to shine in front of their peers.
By using the direct message, others lose the opportunity to weigh in and provide context, or take note for future similar situations. Public channels encourage input and participation from the full team, which helps to cultivate a culture of inclusion and trust.
If you’re DM'ed in the future, consider asking that the conversation be moved to the most appropriate public channel. And if you ever have sensitive information to discuss directly with another individual, consider taking it offline, where more nuance and sensitivity can be applied to the conversation.
Private channels are another tempting feature of Slack that can cause information silos. When channels are private, people must be invited to participate and cannot find the most appropriate channels for information on their own.
I was part of an organization that had a private #api channel, for example, in addition to a public one. As I was unaware of the private channel for my first few months, I missed out on valuable context and information being discussed there. Ensuring that channels (and thus, conversations) are public encourages participation from team members who you may have thought would not have an opinion.
At thoughtbot, if we feel the desire to create a private channel - let’s say, without a client present - this is an immediate indication that we have a communication problem of a different sort. Perhaps we are experiencing a point of tension that we have not yet raised with the client. We can now focus on addressing that problem, while the Slack channels remain public.
Setting a specific purpose for each channel also helps us avoid redundant channels. I’ve been part of organizations that had three separate channels circulating information relevant to a single initiative. It was difficult and confusing to find the pertinent conversations to our workflow, as they jumped around these channels regularly. This added significantly to the cognitive load of an already complex project.
Another benefit of specific purposes is that if folks are commenting in a channel about topics not directly related to that channel, we can always feel free to respectfully point to the channel’s purpose and ask people to post elsewhere.
If you have the right streamlined and specified channels, you can most likely assume that the correct people are paying attention. And if you’re asking in a public channel, like #engineering for example, anyone in that channel should feel free and be equipped to respond.
Calling out the entire channel to your message with
@here can be
disruptive and create an even more urgent-feeling scenario than a direct message.
In addition, team mentions may indicate that we do not trust everyone to set
up their own notifications, or that we do not respect everyone’s time. If you
are trying to reach a particular individual in a public channel, consider
opening up the conversation with a “@handle or anyone else who might know”
mention. And if something is indeed truly urgent, consider addressing it in
This one is controversial, so be sure to get a pulse from your team. Some folks feel that Slack threads hide important information or are indicative of the need to split out a separate channel. Additionally, sometimes threads can indicate to readers that someone has already responded to the question, so others can ignore it. Before you use a thread, consider whether this may be information critical to everyone in the channel, or if an opt-in conversation can ensue.
In my experience, keeping conversations in threads is often invaluable in reducing the clutter in any particular channel. Once conversations are in threads, members of any channel can scan its content for main topics, and then drill down further into the conversations that are of particular interest. Imagine if your inbox displayed all your conversations listed out as individual emails - how would you ever stay organized?
If you participate in a thread, you can follow it separately by looking at “All threads” instead of selecting a particular channel. You can even set your Slack notifications to alert you if there is activity in any thread in which you have participated.
In order to build a trusting culture, it is important to ensure that the conversations in any channel are respectful and inclusive. At thoughtbot, our value of trust and transparency means we don’t hesitate to respectfully correct each other when there is a misstep. In fact, we even have a SlackBot to correct the use of presumed male pronouns like “guys”. When this type of language is used, our SlackBot responds with a prompt like “May I suggest “crew”? It’s more gender-inclusive.”
By keeping conversations public, transparent, and easy to follow, we can optimize our use of tools like Slack while continuing to build an open and trusting work culture. In addition, we can avoid the common pitfalls of these tools as an attention-seeking and disruptive work companion. By reducing the cognitive overhead of direct messages and mentions and keeping our conversations to the most relevant, we ensure that our teamwide Slack communication is helping us stay focused and do the best work possible.