Internal Communications in the modern day: No, Slack hasn’t killed the workspace
Until I muted the notifications, Medium used to send me a daily article which it really thought I should read. I have no idea how it chooses them: the articles are ostensibly in areas of interest to me but are invariably almost completely incorrect (presumably annoying the user into writing a rebuttal is the point?). Anyway, one popped up the other day wittering about how Slack had “killed the workspace”. I’ve seen quite a few other articles on a similar theme, so I thought I should write an article explaining why they’re wrong.
So what’s wrong with email for internal comms?
Context switching kills productivity in pretty much all professions. The chief problem with email is that you have no control over whether an email enters your inbox. Sure, email clients have got very clever about filtering them once they’ve hit your mailbox: spam detection in particular is pretty good these days, and Gmail at least attempts to filter out update-style emails, but that’s about it.
The result is that users will find themselves at least glancing at the incoming email, just to know if it’s something that they care about (and there’s a special place in hell for people that leave their subjects blank - you know who you are).
The sender has all the control here: they can interrupt you any time they want. The only workable mechanism to avoid being interrupted is to look at your emails at predefined times, and then laboriously sort through them. Not ideal.
Of course most emails are utterly irrelevant to you, and the irrelevance percentage scales with company size. In my brief foray into a Large Company I used to receive well over 300 emails a day, and on most days absolutely none of them were useful to me: someone somewhere up in the hierarchy had decided that the whole company absolutely had to know about something. And of course there’s always the dreaded CC-chain-of-doom, that just gets longer and longer as more people are dragged into the whirlpool of misery.
IM in control….
An Instant Messaging system puts the control back into the hands of the receiver. I’m going to use Slack as an example here, as that’s what I know, but the same applies to Teams or Google Chat or even WhatsApp.
A Slack workspace consists of channels, to which people can be added as participants. Channels may be public (so anyone in the workspace can invite themselves), or private (invite-only). The crucial point here is that if you’re not in a channel, you don’t get any messages from that channel. You can leave a channel at any time, or you can mute notifications if you don’t want to leave, but don’t want to be interrupted by new messages. You’re back in control: you can just leave or mute channels you don’t care about.
When a message turns up in a channel, the channel name in the Slack sidebar is bolded. You can “mention” users directly using their tag (e.g “the build is broken @nick”) and they will get a little numbered badge next to the channel. You can notify everyone in the channel using @channel or @here and then everyone will get the badge. However Slack will even let you opt out of these mention notifications (although as I’m about to explain that’s probably a bad idea).
Email still has a role to play
Note that I’m assuming that we’re just talking about internal communications here. I wouldn’t advocate using Slack as a customer-facing tool: for that I would stick to email. That itself is a powerful win: emails will only ever be from outside the company. If you’re not in a customer-facing division, it’s a fair bet that they’ll mostly be spam (mine are mostly recruiters and eastern European software houses). Just poll your inbox once a day in case there’s anything important.
Like any tool Slack can be misused, but there are some fairly simple rules to follow to make your life easier:
Switch channels of interest to you to notify only on @mentions. That means that if someone really does want your attention, they’ll have to mention you directly or notify the channel. Mute all other channels.
Be sparing with @mentions, particularly the broadcast @channel. Only use it if everyone in the channel really needs to know what you’ve just posted (e.g “there’s a fire!”). Consider using @here as an alternative as that only notifies people during their specified “office hours”
Create channels often. Slack does let you create ad hoc anonymous channels but they’re hard to find in your sidebar as they’re only identified by the list of participants. You don’t get charged per channel, and you can always archive them later, so if you want to grab a bunch of people to talk about something, create a channel with a sensible name and description, and clean up when you’ve finished with it.
Channels are really just long-form meetings, and the same principles apply: only add the people that really need to be in the channel.
Set your office hours: Slack will automatically mute notifications outside of these hours.
And finally, don’t assume that just because something is important to you it’s important to the whole company. It almost certainly isn’t. And that includes the boss.
Remember: they can mute you.
About the Author
Nick has been writing software for nearly 40 years, and oddly enough is still enjoying it. He's worked on an alarmingly diverse array of languages and platforms, but is currently playing with Python, Angular and DevOps automation with Kubernetes.