How To Slack

Feb 22, 2022 in Toolshed

If you are here nerdy details, click here.

Last week I started a new job. As in most companies, Slack is also the default communication tool there.

I spent some time and effort in my last job making Slack more enjoyable and less annoying. Here I have summed up my setup and my learnings.

Before we start, let's have a chat about Slack in your company. Because, well, communication matters.

Set Guidelines and Expectations

When do you expect someone to reply to you when you send a message? Five minutes, ten minutes, 24 hours?

Even calling it instant messaging, I would never expect an instant reply. People have to focus on their work. Every "short response" interrupts the flow.

To avoid this, it helps to set expectations, like when you are expected to reply.

For me, 24 hours works great. This doesn't mean that I only respond after 24 hours. This means I will definitely get back to you within 24 hours with a proper, thoughtful answer.

Later I will dive into how and why to use status. This helps set expectations as well. You should also clarify when not to expect an answer. When I am in a 1on1 meeting, I won't respond. The same goes for interviews and other meetings that require focus. If you can see time blocked in my calendar, don't expect an answer.

Another discussion to have is where to store which information. Slack is a messaging tool and not a documentation tool. Linking to Slack conversations from (Jira) tickets is lousy practice. This information belongs into the ticket itself or into something like Confluence.

This also carries another point. Don't copy lousy email behavior into Slack. Don't write long message threads back and forth that carry on over days or even weeks. Sometimes Slack may not be a suitable medium. Maybe it is a quick call, or it has a better home in a documentation tool. No one is willing to read your 50 message email thread, and no one is willing to do that in Slack either.

Now let's end the intro with the most crucial part: Keep it short. Don't write essays. Take time to communicate. Value the reader's time more than your own.

It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book. — Friedrich Nietzsche

The Setup

Remember: Slack settings are always per workspace. If you use more than one workspace, you must configure it for every workspace.

Enable 'All Unreads' and 'All DMs'

Depending on your organization and role, it can be hard to keep up with all the channels and messages. To stay on top of things, you should enable 'All Unreads' and 'All DMs' in the section 'Sidebar.'

Enable 'All Unreads'

You can get there by clicking on the workspace name in the top left corner and then Preferences. Or by hitting ⌘+,.

Turn Off Notifications

Disable all notifications

You can find this setting in Preferences, Notifications.

I am hard to reach on purpose. I like to spend a lot of time in my day uninterrupted to work on things that matter. So the first thing that I always do with Slack is turn off notifications.

It depends on your role and your company how often you need to check Slack. I would claim you can get away with every hour or less.

This one depends on your style of work. For example, I have enabled the notifications on my phone. Only a banner, no sound or vibration. So whenever I leave my desk, I check my phone and see any message that I would have missed.

Use highlight words

You could even use your name to be notified - whatever floats your boat

Highlight words can be excellent. Project names, team names, insider terms, your name, you name it.

Slack will show a badge for messages containing your highlight words. Plus, they will appear in All Unread.

Use the status

I like to work in a calm environment. And I trust people to get their work done on their own terms.

Sometimes it's still good to know where someone is or what someone is doing. Mainly to get a sense of if it's the right time to annoy your coworkers.

I like to use the status feature. It's great to let people know that you are on PTO, sick leave, or whatever.

If it is Outlook, Gmail, or something else, there will be a plugin for it.

People can even see if you are currently in a meeting with a calendar plugin. That's my favorite use case of the plugin.

I am a massive fan of time blocking. So deep-work sessions, my lunch break, and other routines are on my calendar. Through the calendar integration, my coworkers are always aware if I am free.

The Outlook Calendar integration even shows if you marked yourself as busy or out of the office.

Sections for DMs and Channels

In an ideal world, or a two-pizza world, we wouldn't need to sections in Slack. In most realities, it still makes sense.

I like to set up sections for different areas of my work. There is one for my team, so all direct reports and team channels. One for information and read-only communication, like announcements, and many more.

Again, this is dependent on your own style. Here is some inspiration.

  • Once a day - You guessed it, those I look into once a day
  • Community - Several community-oriented channels
  • High - Channels of significant importance
  • 1on1 - Channels for my 1on1 meetings to collect topics or write short reports

And this is what my actual setup looks like right now:

A collapsed view of the sections - you can add channels via drag and drop or via the context menu

The great thing is you can order them, to put the more important groups on top. Plus, you can collapse groups to hide channels when you don't need them.

Create sections by clicking on the three dots next to Channels or Direct Messages. And don't forget to add a nice emoji 🥳.

Use reminders

Even though I talked about guidelines and setting expectations at the top, I want to mention it again. It's essential to understand the following two points.

Make sure everybody has the same understanding of how to use Slack. By nature, Slack is not a project management tool, not a to-do list, and not a note-taking tool.

But, Slack can remind you of work that you have to do or, better said, of communication that you have to act on. That's where reminders shine.

Reminders can be accessed via the context menu

You can find them in the three-dot menu when hovering over a message. When you add a reminder for a message, Slack will annoy you at the configured time. You can either snooze the activity or complete it.

There is even more to reminders. But that I will let you figure out on your own. Hint: Type /remind into any chat to learn more.

Mention with Attention

Depending on the size of your organization, channels can grow. So please be aware of how many people will get your notification when using @here or @channel.

I warned you. Use it with caution.

Talk to yourself

Details matter. Words matter. Format matters. Tone matters.

Teams get more distributed. Often they act in different countries and timezones. Text becomes the preferred way of communication.

To get it right, I often use the direct message with myself. I can see how a letter looks and sounds before sending it to a bigger audience.

I write it, reread it, edit it, reread it. And when it sounds right, I will copy it to the right channel.

Schedule Messages

Are you often working at strange times, like in the middle of the night? Then it's a good practice to schedule the messages to be delivered during working hours.

You are not only looking less insane. You are not raising any expectations in people to answer at those late hours.

Next to the usual send button you find the 'Schedule message' option

Plus, I use it when I don't want to disturb someone. When people are giving a workshop or moderating a meeting, I will schedule messages to arrive later.

Use Another Theme

This one is pretty new for me. I got stressed out by tons of mentions from more than a dozen channels in my former job.

Of course, the number of messages stressed me out. But also the default colors of Slack did. More red badges than time look alarming.

It may be only a detail, but the Ochin theme feels way calmer. You can change it in Preferences, Themes.

1on1 channels

I stole this tip from Rands (thanks to Kahlil 😁). Before, I had a 1on1 document for each direct report.

The problem is evident. There is a lot of friction to open the document and type something in there. With increasing direct reports, the situation gets even more apparent.

Kahlil introduced me to the idea of having a 1on1 channel with every direct report. As we all "live" in Slack anyways, there is no friction to drop a quick note into a channel for the next 1on1.

This does not only work with reports. It works for everyone you regularly talk to.

By using a separate channel, the messages are always at hand. Plus, they don't add to the usual noise of direct messages, and you can even mute them.

Post one topic per line, then you can use threads to discuss. With reactions, you can mark them as done ✅.

Use Huddles instead of Video calls

Of course, when I talk to someone, I like to see their face. But we are over this discussion, right? Sometimes you just want to have a conversation and leave the camera off. Maybe even in the office days, where you chat with someone while working.

Here the voice is enough. Slack implemented a low-friction tool called huddles. Basically, it's like the regular Slack call, just without the video option.

Give it a try. You can find it at the bottom left.

Just press the magic button.

Conclusion

Slack is a powerful tool. As with all tools, it depends on how you use them. If you just replace bad email habits with Slack, you already have lost.

I hope these little tips help to get more out of Slack. If you liked this post, consider following me on Twitter.