When organizations implement Slack, “Slack etiquette” plays a huge part in successful adoption. You could say that it’s 20% about getting the technology right, and 80% about governance – i.e. the “softer” aspects of using technology to collaborate, such as writing with clarity, respecting others’ working hours or time zones, and being aware of which conversations are appropriate for Slack (and which should have been a meeting instead).
If you are starting out with Slack, be thoughtful about how it will be used. Once the “cat is out of the bag” it’s hard to put it back – in other words, once users start communicating in Slack and forming habits (good or bad), it’ll be hard to pull your teams back to the starting point.
With Slack being so adaptable, as it molds to the way the organization socializes, there’s more to instant messaging than meets the eye. It’s up to you to establish ground rules that will help keep everyone’s relationship with Slack healthy, even in the most testing of times for your teams.
“Ding, ding, ding!” Sound familiar? At risk of ‘techno-exhaustion’, I wanted to get to the bottom of how organizations should design and moderate their Slack workspace. Over the past few months, I’ve been collecting insights from Slack product managers, enablement teams, ISVs, community group leaders, and of course, end users.
With the 20/80 rule in mind, let’s address Slack’s technology (the 20%) before tackling the larger, trickier topic of governance (the 80%). But first, reiterating Slack’s core principles is key.
Slack’s Core Principles
- Slack is asynchronous: The intention here is that communication does not need to happen in real time. Examples of asynchronous communication include recording a video or audio clip and posting it into a channel for others to view on their own schedule. We’ve found that this works well for daily stand-ups.
- Manage your own workspace: It’s every participant’s responsibility to manage their own workspace. Only participate in channels that you are required to. It’s acceptable to leave channels and come back again, and to only read messages that are within your remit and boundaries (more on this later).
- More of a “pull” than a “push”: Slack’s philosophy is if you need certain information, you pull it from Slack – as opposed to being constantly pushed information. Subscribe to channels you care about, and get notified.
- “Mentions and Reactions”: If someone @ mentions you because they need your eyes on something, this will appear in the “Mentions and Reactions” section at the top of the channel list. This helps you to maintain focus. If someone is annoyed that you didn’t get some information, you can ask “did you tag me?” – if they haven’t tagged you, you’re justified in not seeing the message.
Once you slowly begin this process of working, a significant proportion of the problem goes away.
Slack Admin – Role & Responsibilities
Slack Admins are responsible for moderating your Slack instance, including:
- Creating and archiving channels
- User permissions
- Designing and creating workflows
- Setting out guidelines for “how we collaborate” and what’s not tolerated
- Monitoring adoption and encouraging engagement
Make Slack’s Technology Work For You
Getting the technology right is around 20% of what it takes for a Slack instance to run smoothly. As it’s the easiest to implement, here’s how you can nail down some Slack structure and collaboration principles.
Channel Clean-Up (Slack “Hygiene”)
The more channels you have in your Slack workspace, the harder it is to keep track of messages…
- Auto-created channels: Some applications create channels automatically, for example, Slack App for Sales Cloud creates a new channel for every Opportunity created.
- User-created channels: Team members may have a habit of creating channels on a whim. These channels can go dormant, or cause confusion if the conversation on the same topic is split between channels.
Avoid your Slack workspace ‘growing wild’ with these tips for curbing channel undergrowth:
- Restrict who can create channels: As your organization grows, you don’t want everybody to have the ability to create channels. Take advantage of the “user approval” bot (details in the next point).
- Archive channels: Channels outlive their purpose. Either you notice it while scrolling through, or you can use:
- The “Request” bot: Streamlines requests for admins, including channel management. Users can request admins to archive channels and remove people from channels.
- The “Analytics dashboard”: Admins can get insight into Slack adoption, for example, this channel isn’t being used (and the opposite too, if a channel is highly active). Channel engagement data can be exported to CSV, or sent to another system via the API, so you can analyze behaviors further.
- Merge channels: Workflows enable you to automate multiple processes, including channel merge. Workflows matter to the flow of work. For example, with the Salesforce lead conversion process (when a lead is qualified, and an Account/Opportunity created) perhaps the Lead owner is not the same as the Opportunity owner. Slack admins need to ensure that this is maintained correctly. Don’t wait for the team members/s who are no longer required to leave the channel – move them out automatically.
At Salesforce Ben, we did our first Slack clean-up recently. In the space of six months, we’ve more than doubled our headcount, and people’s roles have adjusted over time. People who were removed from channels were quite surprised, but at the same time relieved that their Slack experience was becoming more focused.
“Make sure your default channels are selected in your workspace settings! This will give users a better understanding of what your Slack channel offers and where to post about certain topics. I found that most users don’t automatically search the channels in Slack, so before I configured Pardashian’s default channels, everything was just posted to #General.”– Erin Duncan, Chief Moderator, Pardashians.
Reduce Admin Requests
As we’ve seen, the “Request” bot streamlines requests for admins. Once you lock down channel management permissions for users, this bot becomes even more important. Users can request admins to create, rename, share, archive channels, or remove members from channels.
Requests meeting the criteria that you set can be auto-approved without manual intervention. Information is stored so you can keep track of how many requests have been made.
Bot and Workflow Design
While automation is essential to boosting productivity, with too much automation, you risk blowing up the number of “pings” users receive.
The Slack Enablement team design automation for Slack customers. There are “experience architects” on the team, who ask themselves the questions that, ultimately, ensures the bot works for the end users. Before activating workflows with notifications involved, we should take a “leaf out of their book”.
Designing the experience includes: Which questions do we want the bots to ask? Or, where should this specific group of users click to make an action? What input is required from the user? Or, what message should they see? Notifications should not be too frequent (and/or) chaotic (providing essential information).
Only after these questions are answered, should the Slack bot build begin.
Slack provides a foundation from which solutions can be built quickly, with a limited set of experiences you can produce. Compare this to building a web page where you need a lot of UX focused needs, HTML coding, etc. Bots can handle any kind of application/integration, with a faster time to value, thanks to the infrastructure foundation available.
Obviously, bots developed by the Slack Enablement team on behalf of organizations are well thought out. Is it concerning that now other admins can create notification workflows, and start spamming their users? This is why these planning principles of bot design are important.
Slack Governance – The “Softer” Side
The softer aspects of using technology to collaborate can be summarized as “governance”. This is 80% of what it takes for a Slack instance to run smoothly, including writing with clarity, respecting others’ working hours or time zones, and being aware of which conversations are appropriate for Slack (and which should have been scheduled as a meeting). These principles are more challenging to “nail down”, and transformation certainly won’t happen overnight.
Once you set etiquette, expectations, boundaries, and educate everyone around good Slack “hygiene”, everybody acclimatizes to a better collaboration culture.
Outlining guidelines from Day 1 will mean bad behavior can be pinpointed, and appropriate consequences served.
Pardashians, a 2000+ strong Slack community of Pardot (Account Engagement) enthusiasts, uses these ground rules:
- Users agree to share their PII with admins, this keeps you covered if any data privacy concerns ever arise.
- It’s made clear that racism, sexism, discrimination, hate speech, bullying, abuse, or harassment will never be tolerated.
- Members understand that they need to respect the privacy of other members and not share info or screenshots from the community without the user’s permission.
Chief Pardashian moderator, Erin Duncan, is convinced these guidelines work: “I am very pleased we’ve never had to kick someone out”.
While these guidelines seem most suited to public communities, they are also highly applicable for communities internal to organizations, too.
“Make sure the process of joining or adding new members to the Slack channel is clear. This will keep your channel growing and encourage members to invite their co-workers and friends in the industry. For the Pardashians Slack, I created a channel dedicated to inviting friends that outlines how to do so and gives users a place to ask admin questions if their friend is having issues joining.”– Erin Duncan, Chief Moderator, Pardashians.
When people join workspaces, you can send a direct message to them outlining the “How we collaborate” guidelines. Think how this would be useful for members from partner organizations joining your internal workspace.
Other forms of Slack etiquette include:
- @ Channel/@ here warning: Using these commands notifies everyone in the channel, regardless of whether their availability is set to active or away. There is a setting available to show a warning to users before they press send, which includes the impacts (number of users, which time zones) that will be impacted by the message.
“While using @channel or @here is effective in getting your member’s attention, I found this more often than not irritated members (myself included) when it wasn’t an urgent issue or announcement. I try to avoid using these tags at all costs.”– Erin Duncan, Chief Moderator, Pardashians.
You can enhance the notification with a workflow to inform people that they are “pinging” people who have muted the channel, and therefore aren’t interested.
- Response SLAs: SLA stands for “service level agreement”, a typical customer service metric that outlines the duration that they will receive a response from your organization. It’s a binding promise between two people that sets expectations. Applying this to Slack messages, SLAs can be worked into the way of working, for example, I could tell my team that on Mondays I will take longer to respond, especially when I have back-to-back meetings. There could be a blanket rule that between the hours of 10am-3pm everyone must aim to respond within an hour of receiving a message. You could include the expectation within the message, e.g. “Please respond to this by the end of the day”. To automate this, you can leverage the triage bot* which puts an SLA on the response, e.g. within 72 hours.
- Slack canvases: This will be a great addition to help lay out the ground rules; you can easily add a section called “How we collaborate” that is attached to the channel.
*Triage bot comes at an additional cost. Pricing is not available publicly. Talk to your Slack customer success manager for further details.
Slack Hygiene for Users
Even though people will create channels (providing they have the user permissions), other members can still choose what they receive. Here are techniques users can leverage to reduce Slack “noise”:
- Leaving channels: You can exit if the conversation is no longer relevant to your work.
- Silencing channels: Instead of leaving channels, you can still have a presence, minus the active “ding” that makes us feel anxious and as if we have to respond to the message. This is especially useful for team announcements, or if you have responded to a thread (which would enable notifications on responses to the thread), as you can always go back and mute the notifications. On the other hand, for channels that are active with work you’re constantly responding to, keep them open.
- Sections: Many channels make a long list, which can quickly feel chaotic. Create sections and add channels to the sections; not only are sections collapsible, but when there’s a new message in the section, you will see the red notification number appear. Examples include “Important”, “Projects”, and “Marketing”.
- Data shield: Communicate confidential information between people, even in a noisy channel. This helps keep the number of direct messages to a minimum.
This selective silencing isn’t possible on any other collaboration platform. Even with emails, you can either mute the whole inbox or open up all the emails.
Set Expectations and Boundaries
From speaking with multiple people about Slack governance, the advice (for admins, moderators, or users) kept coming back to this: “define your priorities”, or “define your boundaries”. The previous section on Slack Hygiene is, of course, relevant – but here are some additional tips for working with others:
- Status: Setting your status indicates your boundaries to others and shows your propensity to respond. Connecting Google Calendar with Slack will set your status to “in a meeting” on your behalf. When your status is set to “Away”, others are prompted if they still want to send the message.
- Treat it as asynchronous: Not all communication needs to happen in real-time. In fact, asynchronous communication is a big part of Slack’s philosophy, and certainly helps everyone maintain boundaries, and protect their time. The classic example is to record a short video to post in a channel as an alternative to daily stand-up meetings. Set the expectation for when these video updates are due by creating a workflow to remind the team.
- Priority messages: Can Slack create a toxic work environment, a culture of blame? “You didn’t see my message in Slack, I Slacked you!” is one that I’ve personally heard. Reframe the point of Slack, by asking: “Did you tag me?” @ mentions should be a way for others to indicate if they need your eyes on something. These will collect in the “Mentions and Reactions” at the top of your Slack workspace.
Slack Governance Challenges
Who’s Reading What?
Personally, I think it’s interesting (potentially troublesome) that users can leave channels as they wish. This adds inconsistency in the information people are receiving, with no guarantees the right people have seen the right message.
Imagine if you’re a manager, and one of your team leaves a channel; you may not realize, and you’d get annoyed if they deemed the information not a priority. As mentioned above, can Slack really create a toxic work environment and a culture of blame? “You didn’t see my message in Slack, I Slacked you!”
Or is it a case for reframing the function of Slack? After all, their philosophy is that Slack should be used more as an information pull than a push. If you need certain information, you pull it from Slack.
If someone needs your eyes on something, they should leverage the @ mention functionality to “tag” you. Otherwise, you should expect that some information isn’t going to get read and acknowledged, especially during busy periods.
Admins can get insight into Slack adoption using the “Analytics dashboard”, for example, this channel isn’t being used (and the opposite too, if a channel is highly active). Admins can also report back on message activity, for example, if the CEO sends a message, you can use message activity to see how it was received and interacted with.
Returning to Slack
There’s the dread of a bursting inbox when you return from time off. After a relaxed period, you now have to sift through hundreds of Slack messages, spread across multiple channels. This “log of all communication and knowledge” is suddenly problematic.
The fear of missing something important is real. Slack-to-Salesforce innovators, Centro, have stepped in with their product, Grok, which can summarize Slack conversations into daily digests, or on demand. A huge time-saver and anxiety-reducer!
This can be applied to reduce day-to-day anxiety. Should the average manager leave their laptop for an hour, they often return to hundreds of Slack messages. They may be missing key details in those messages, or is this a dump of surplus information? Grok could be the answer.
System of Record
Slack’s brand name is actually an acronym; S-L-A-C-K stands for “Searchable Log of All Communication and Knowledge”.
Slack communication is searchable – check! On each channel, you’ll find a log of all documentation, a feed of files and assets – again, check.
Should team team members be switched out, they can get up to speed on key moments versus scrolling through long email chains (plus, we all know what it’s like when forwarded emails are missing the attachments).
But really, Slack shouldn’t be your company’s true repository for documentation. Yes, it’s a convenient place to surface information (and have a conversation around it), but for the sake of document management and everyone’s sanity, there needs to be a solid document repository, e.g. Google Drive.
My thoughts are, as long as things are recorded in Salesforce and Asana, I’m happy for conversations to flow in Slack. Slack is not a task management solution. Salesforce is making Slack into an interface for picking up task workload, not to report on workload.
The same goes for Salesforce. The Slack apps for Sales Cloud, Service Cloud, and Marketing Cloud are not designed to replace these essential tools – the apps are designed to pull records from Salesforce, and update records from Slack.
You can integrate Slack with any APIs, and even use bots to update other systems of record. The Slack enablement team “use Slack for everything” but place importance on other systems of records. For example, if you need access to Jira, they have a “Help desk”, where one would @ mention the bot, which will listen and present a list of available services that match your query. After you confirm, the bot sends the request to Jira, ready for the Jira admin team to action.
To conclude this point – Slack should not be treated as a system of record. Instead, it can enhance the ways that anyone can interact with other systems, such as document repositories, Salesforce, Asana, Jira, etc. Otherwise, expect chaos to ensue.
Defying Established Processes
Following on from the previous point, Slack’s direct line to anyone in the organization can be taken advantage of – in the wrong way. I have friends who work in support roles – Salesforce Admins, Sales Ops, Consultants – who can find others attempting to “jump the queue” and not follow support processes, a point of contention. Fending off these rogue requests only adds to the stress level of these professionals, who are working at full capacity already.
To nip this bad behavior ‘in the bud’ there needs to be:
- Rules communicated that could, for example, state that it’s perfectly reasonable for anyone not following the process to not receive a response.
- A formalized process for support escalation via Slack. New requests, and escalating existing requests, can be handled by a bot. For teams that use Jira, the Assist App by Atlassan comes recommended.
Collaboration vs. Focus Time
For those of us who need a balance between collaboration and quiet, Slack can become somewhat problematic. The constant swarm of notifications – the “always on” way of working – quickly becomes overwhelming. You’re always on the back foot, despite the benefits that rapid collaboration brings (you may soon even begin to substitute “anxiety” for “rapidness”).
And it’s not just individuals being overly sensitive. There are known statistics about the impact of interruptions – for example, it takes a developer between 10-15 minutes to resume coding following an interruption (source).
In the book “How the Future Works”, written in collaboration with Slack’s executive team, the authors outline the benefits of “core collaboration hours” and the steps to implement this way of working in your organization. This isn’t a simple exercise; these hours must be established at the team-level, which could include members who need flexibility in their schedules with other commitments, such as the school run. The team-level proposals then roll up to be whole organization-level. This means, as you might expect, that the first set of proposals may not align. It’s a case of trial and error until everyone is comfortable and can work effectively in unison.
With Slack being so adaptable, and molding to the way the organization socializes, Slack governance is more important than ever before. Remember the earlier warning – once the “cat is out of the bag” it’s hard to put it back; once users start communicating in Slack and forming habits (good or bad), it’ll be hard to pull your teams back.
Slack’s Enterprise tier includes functional support from the “experience team”, customer success managers who will support in designing your experiences.
If you’re too far down the wrong path with your Slack instance, or you would like to explore bot automation further, you could turn to one of the Slack consultancies popping up to meet this demand. One example is 21B, a Slack Certified consulting partner, who can help implement Slack, Salesforce, and all integrations required to run your business effectively.
Slack’s popularity skyrocketed as an intuitive collaboration platform for organizations. Since being acquired by Salesforce, Slack has adopted the tagline: “the Digital HQ”. These two companies coming together was interesting when you consider that one (Salesforce) enforces highly structured collaboration, and the other is based on unstructured collaboration (Slack).
I want to emphasize that this article is not at all a dig at Slack. We use Slack at Salesforce Ben, and our team certainly wouldn’t be able to move as fast without it. With Slack being so adaptable, and molding to the way the organization socializes, it’s therefore up to you to establish ground rules. Governance is all about promoting Slack collaboration in a more sustainable (stress-free) way.
Digital Minimalism (popularized by one of my favorite books) is an uprising against the “Attention Economy”. Digital Minimalism does not reject app usage or social networking but instead, it advocates a healthier way in which we allow digital into our real lives. By claiming back the attention that is rightfully ours, we can return to living an intentional life, and avoid the trappings of “techno-exhaustion”.