A few weeks ago, I reached my one year anniversary at Slack. It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year. When I look back on my first months, one of the biggest changes for me after decades of working in email was learning to use Slack every day as my primary mode of communication. I had to learn a new tool and a new organization, all at once. Once I got up to speed, it was rewarding and fun to see how Slack uses Slack. Every day I experience how working in channels makes information more transparent, lets our teams be more agile, and helps me to stay connected with my colleagues in real time.
With Slack currently operating as a 100% remote workforce, I’m relying on communicating in channels more than ever. As people all around the world navigate the transition to fully remote work, the need to stay connected to one another is a top-of-mind concern. This article is a peek into how my team at Slack uses Slack, much of which is increasingly relevant during these unique times.
There’s no such thing as too many channels
I’ve been working in and leading tech teams for a long time, and bringing people together and aligning them around a common goal is always one of the biggest challenges. So, how do we do this at Slack?
Making sure that information gets to the right people, at the right time, is what makes organizations more or less effective. At Slack, all work happens in channels. You never get an email from someone inside the company.
We use channels to organize our work into focused, easily searchable conversations – for announcements, teams, projects, culture and, of course, #pm-fun. We also have a public channel for every feature that we develop, which anyone in the company can peek inside to see the latest status and updates. Every department across the organization uses channels, not just our technical teams. For example, our HR team uses channels for everything from hiring (interview and offer channels) to reorg coordination to planning off-sites. We often create temporary channels and archive them when they’re no longer needed.
Our cultural norms allow us to make the most of channels. My team knows to @mention me in a channel if they want to make sure that I see something, but we use @channel, which pings all members of the channel at once, sparingly. We’re all responsible for keeping conversations on topic, and we freely use our internal shorthand, the :raccoon: emoji, to suggest that someone take the conversation to another channel. Finally, we try as hard as possible to have public conversations so that information is available to everyone. For example, we run a weekly executive product review with a small group, sparing people’s time from unnecessary meetings, and then ‘pin’ the notes in a public channel. I was delighted to find that pinning items (files, messages, etc.) made it easy to find what I was looking for quickly in any Slack channel.
Not every channel is for conversation. We have lots of ‘feed’ channels, i.e. channels that post updates and information from other sources. Our Customer Experience team sends every tweet to @SlackHQ into a channel to review and discuss (we have #love-tweets and #beef-tweets). Meanwhile, we have Jira set up to send a report to #upcoming-features on what’s launching that week and the next, so it’s easy to see, at a glance, what’s coming up.
Another unsung timesaver is our ‘reacji channeller’. Once it’s installed, whenever someone reacts to a message using a specific emoji, it will automatically copy that message to a designated channel. For instance, the engineering team uses a brain emoji to crowdsource relevant posts or documents about post-mortems into #announce-postmortems, where people can stay informed about recent review meetings and their outcomes.
Messaging is only the beginning
Our product and engineering teams have a goal to ‘make Slack the company where we can do the best work of our lives’. There is so much that we need to do in order to achieve this, starting with hiring the best people, building great engineering tools, maintaining high code quality, training managers and staying close to customers. In addition, we need tools and systems that help us to stay agile, find information quickly and deal with ever-changing conditions.
All that work can’t be done with conversation alone, which is why we’ve connected the third-party tools that we know and love to Slack, helping us to get through tasks a little bit faster. Today, there are over 2,000 apps to choose from on Slack’s platform, and I use a handful of them every day. I can review and approve requests for time off via Workday or expense reports via Concur, all without leaving Slack. For product development, we use Ally to report on objectives and key results or OKRs. Every week, the owner of each key result gets a ping in Slack. Without leaving Slack, they can send their update directly back into Ally, so it’s accurate when we share status reports in our Monday meeting. The engineering team relies on PagerDuty, GitHub and other tools connected to Slack for incident management, making it quicker to get the right people working on an incident.
One of our newest features, Workflow Builder, lets anyone automate tasks – even those who don’t know how to code (or forgot 😉). For example, we added a simple onboarding workflow to our #team-product-managers channel to welcome new people to the team. Any new PM who joins the channel automatically receives a welcome pack, which includes relevant onboarding documents that they should take a look at.
We also use a Slack workflow to gather remote questions during all-hands meetings. People join #all-hands-and-events, where they can click on the shortcut button (⚡) to trigger the ‘I have a question’ workflow. Any submitted questions are then posted into a channel where our internal comms team prioritizes them and assigns them to the speaker. The result is an open forum that is inclusive of all Slack offices and remote team members. When the whole company is remote and conditions are changing rapidly, we’ve found that workflows in channels are remarkably helpful for getting clear answers to the right audiences quickly. While we’re reconfiguring work practices to be remote company-wide, we’ve also found that some meetings can be moved entirely into a channel. We have a handful of suggestions and ideas on this here.
Lastly, communicating in Slack goes far beyond the written word alone. Emoji are another small, but important, part of how we use Slack. For example, if a team member shares a big win or announcement in a channel, we often use emoji such as 🎉 to share in the celebration, or the plus sign to convey support. No matter which office someone is in, I can add a reaction emoji (‘reacji’) to their messages. It shows them that I’m listening and that we’re connecting. As I heard one of our customers say during user research: ‘Slack is a more human way of communicating.’
Extending beyond our four walls
We all do better work when we’re connected to our company’s mission, our leaders, and our teammates. Slack helps us to create and amplify our working relationships within our teams, but none of us exists in a silo at work. In almost any job, you also benefit from building closer relationships with people outside the four walls of your organization – from suppliers and agencies to partners and customers. This is why we built shared channels: to help create that deeper connection with people outside your company using Slack.
Using shared channels, we can bring our customers into Slack, and ask for their early feedback on new features that we’re piloting. When engineers and product managers are communicating directly with customers the same way we communicate internally, we feel like we are part of one team. Customer Success managers can also use this opportunity to deepen their relationships with customers and understand their excitement (or hesitation) for any product changes that we’re exploring.
Shared channels were especially key to our recent major upgrade of the Slack interface. Working closely in shared channels with more than 100 of our customers, we were able to gain feedback, rapidly prototype, and iterate on the updates and new features in real time. If this sounds interesting to you, you can read more about our product development process here.
In recent weeks, we’ve relied on shared channels to stay connected with our customers despite the need to maintain social distancing during the current pandemic. The direct connection to our customers allows us to share images, kudos, thanks, messages of encouragement and tips, and to help our customers when they get stuck.
The year ahead
As I kick off my second year, I can say for certain that I don’t miss my old email inbox. And there are exciting challenges ahead – from scaling and growing an organization to pushing the pace of Slack’s product innovation. That said, I feel safe in the knowledge that thanks to the increased agility and alignment that working in channels provides, it will all be made a little simpler, more pleasant, and more productive. 🙌
As I mentioned, many of us (the Slack Product team included), are currently adapting to remote working. If that’s also true for you and you’re looking for a few tips and tricks, we put together free resources that we hope might be helpful during this time.