For Abby and Devin: Slackers Gonna Slack

Being a Slacker
Being a Slacker in Sugarloaf, Maine.

Abby and Devin, like many of my friends, just started using Slack at work. Their team upgraded from the somewhat-functional gchat to the feature-rich Slack. While Automattic has been using a company-wide chat room since the beginning, for Abby, Devin, and many of my friends, Slack is the first time their companies have had a team-wide chat room.

I think about remote communication a lot. I work on a remote team that has 25+ people, and it’s growing. And, we’re starting to span time zones. I told Devin and Abby I’d share some Slacker tips, so here goes:

1. Treat chat as ephemeral

For most of us, we Slack like we talk. We use realtime chat to discuss things, figure things out, all the while dropping in emojis, gifs, and jokes. But once a decision is made, or an action is taken, it needs to be logged in a place away from chat. Why is it important to “log”?

  • There should not be an expectation to read chat history (also called backscroll). Chatrooms are noisy! If someone goes on vacation for a week, or steps away for a few hours, they shouldn’t need to read all of the day-to-day banter to catch up. They should be able to skim the synopsis in your logs.
  • You might be having an important discussion while a co-worker is out to lunch. Logging allows people who aren’t working at the same time as you to participate. Then, when your co-worker comes back online, they can catch-up and weigh in. My team spans EU/US time zones, so allowing for asynchronous reading is critical to ensuring that discussions continue across time zones.
  • Logs keep track of important decisions and actions so that they are not lost. At a quick glance, you can see what has made progress and what has not.

For my company, this “log” is an internal blog/message board system named P2. For your company, an email might be sufficient. Here’s what my log notes typically look like:

Logging a discussion [link to Slack archive] I had with @tomhanks @carlyrae, we decided that I really really really really really really like you. Here are the considerations we walked through:

  • Has anyone ever swiped left on Tom Hanks? (No.)
  • Is Justin Bieber detrimental to the music video? (Yes.)
  • Did you see the reference to Forrest Gump? (Where?)

2. Set up channels like conference rooms

  • Main channel. This is where all the work gets done. If you’re “at work,” you’re in this channel. It’s where you say good morning when you log in, and good night when you log out. It keeps work discussions focused in one place, and you’re not expected to read all of it unless you’re pinged. All conversations default to this room, unless…
  • Back channel. We have a private back channel with our team, which the rest of the company does not have access to. We use this mostly for watercooler discussions, but people also share personal news on there, like birthdays, babies, and pictures of epic snowstorms (that was mostly me). We also use this for @group announcements if there’s something everyone needs to know immediately.
  • Special projects channels. At any given time, we have special projects running on our team, and squads handling those projects. While we default most discussion to the main channel, these special projects get their own public channels so that the 5 or so people working on it have a place to collaborate. We try to keep these channels at a minimum, and wind them down when the project is complete.

For all intents and purposes, chatter defaults to the main channel. This means the channel is very noisy, which is what makes logging even more critical.

3. Log often and log well.

Good logging is important to effective online communication for teams. It means that all decisions, actions, and work is accounted for. It also establishes a base of documentation to help newer folks onboard. Good logging shows clarity of thought and action. Here are a few considerations for good logging:

  • Be concise and precise. I can’t take credit for this phrase, it comes from my friend Christian. Being concise means your message gets across – the more extraneous cruft you add to your post, the less people will see the important message in your post. Being precise means that you’ve thought through your action/decision clearly. Conversations in real life have a short feedback loop: you say something, your co-worker nods, asks you a question, and you move on. Asynchronous conversations online take hours, if not days, for a feedback loop. So if you’re precise, you leave less room for misunderstanding and wasted time.
  • Be outside football. I also can’t take credit for this phrase, it comes from my co-worker Josh. One day I asked him, “What’s the opposite of inside baseball?” His reply: “Outside football.” The thinking behind this is – whenever logging, add the necessary context. Don’t assume people know what you’re talking about, especially if there are new folks on your team. If you name a client or customer, share background or at least link to it. If you reference an ongoing project, summarize the history in a sentence or less, and link to a prevous post.
  • Log in the right place. For me, that means if I’m logging a conversation with a client, I’ll tag it with the client’s slug: #carly-rae. For you, that might mean logging on the correct email thread, or posting to the right basecamp board. Think to yourself: If a co-worker is trying to find this in a month’s time, where would they look?

4. Establish your communication culture

Everyone on my team understands which Slack rooms to use, what time to join our team call, where they should be reading/logging, and what tags to be using. This gives the team a baseline to work from, so that everyone knows what they should be reading, and no one is worried about missing communication.

We also have a little meme/hashtag on our team called #p2-or-it-didnt-happen. It’s a little reminder we give to each other whenever discussions or decisions happen in Slack, nudging us to P2 the work, otherwise the rest of the team won’t know that the discussion or action happened.

All of this baseline culture is documented and shared with any new folks who are joining our team. That document is constantly updated as our team culture shifts, but the underlying principles are core to how our team functions.

I hope this helps! :)