Could your company Slack use a glow-up?

Culture
February 2, 2022
Amanda Quintero
Ops Lead
Could your company Slack use a glow-up?
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Like many organizations, Orbit uses Slack as the primary way to communicate on a day-to-day basis.

Still, when I first joined I had only used Slack a few times. This was my first time using it to replace internal emails and calendar notifications.

How big can the gap be? –I asked myself while the gods of the internet smiled mischievously.

I soon learned I could be conditioned in the most pavlovian fashion by the seemingly innocuous knock brush sound, feeling constantly run over by the glut of notifications and at the same time growing increasingly dependent on them.

I thought if I wasn’t careful, I would end up reenacting Calvin Kasulke’s Several People are Typing, an absurd and hilarious novel about a guy whose consciousness is uploaded to Slack by accident and goes through the surreal experience of living inside the app.

Fun times.

Now, because reading someone else’s experience can spark ideas, save time and –why not– provide cathartic relief to those who find themselves in a situation that resonates, I’ve decided to share with you all how we’ve coped with Slack overload.

I sincerely hope it makes your life a little easier 💜

Too much noise, so what?

Bo Burnham brilliantly captures how overwhelming connected life can be in Welcome to the Internet. His poignant song mocks how we are all drowning in a vortex of content that is 24/7 competing for our eyeballs.

The circusy tune delivered by a villain-like character exposes a harsh truth. Unhedged digital connection constantly begs Could I interest you in everything all of the time?

We tend to think this is most problematic for our spare time.

Instead of doing sports, cooking, or learning a new skill, we spend hours on social media, entertainment platforms, and so on. TBH, that’s a whole other conversation.

The point is, information overload is also a problem at work. And, if your communication architecture is not a good fit for the organization, you inadvertently create friction that results in:

  • An explosion of irrelevant content: resulting in team members wading through mountains of communications to find the few messages that are relevant to them.
  • Annoyance: people become irritated by company messages because there is too much noise.
  • Difficulty to complete tasks that require longer attention spans.
  • Teams ignore messages: who has the time to sort the CTAs, FYIs, FAQs, etc.? If people are living in distraction, it becomes impossible to align around common goals.
  • Ghosting: someone asks for something and doesn’t receive the desired response.
  • Inefficiencies and delays: if messages are going into a dark pit and people aren’t getting the input they need from colleagues, ultimately things don’t get done.

Circa summer 2021, Orbit was heading in this direction. We had grown from 3 to 20 in less than 6 months and we were all “participating” in 30+ channels. We wanted to tackle this headfirst, trusting that improving the way we organize and talk to each other would remove friction and free-up energy for creativity.

Decision: Slack makeover. Ok, we actually called it revamp, but this is how I choose to tell the story 💅

Observe what people are doing

It was tempting to go read Slack’s entire help center, but I had a feeling that it would only render a catalog of their features and general good practices.

Instead, we decided to start where most researchers would: observing what was happening.

We did this in three steps:

  1. Passive reading: browsing every channel and seeing what kind of messages are posted.
  2. Survey: interviewing people about their pain points and what they were missing in their Slack experience.
  3. Synthesize: summarizing what we saw in 1 and 2.

What we found

I confess I’m a geek for all things language and human subtext. So, I genuinely had fun putting this puzzle together 🙈

Most frequent Slack uses

Talking to people, we identified 8 frequent use cases, plus 7 occasional ones.

  1. DMs
  2. Intra-team communication
  3. Cross-functional communication
  4. Learning how Orbit operates
  5. Staying informed about company activities
  6. Asking questions for which people didn’t know who to address
  7. Fun, relationship building, and bonding
  8. Broadcasting compliance-related instructions

Other uses:

  1. Sharing interesting content
  2. Sharing user feedback about product or business
  3. Sharing internal feedback about product or business
  4. Sharing news about clients, partners, stakeholders, competitors, market trends
  5. Sharing client love
  6. Celebrating wins
  7. Ad hoc channels per team-x, topic-x, small groups of people that need to be in the same room for a moment

Common struggles

People were:

  1. Nervous about missing important information, notably CTAs
  2. Anxious about answering asap vs. async
  3. Frustrated by info published in channels that were not intended for such content
  4. Grappling with where to post a message or ask a question
  5. Confused by unclear channel names, not sure what to expect
  6. Bothered by not knowing what to prioritize (read urgent, read later or discard)
  7. Saturated from having to piece together scattered info
  8. Being unable to find past discussions
  9. Disappointed about their messages falling flat

In a nutshell, expectations, protocol, and etiquette were unclear. All peppered with some good-old cross-cultural confusion. ​All typical issues during a team's storming phase, but we wanted to stay on top of it nonetheless.

Troubleshooting

We recognised the swing of the pendulum described by Josh in Move fast and fix things.

In the beginning, our focus had been to remain open and keep everyone in the loop. Now, we had overdone the sharing and it was time to separate groups and classify info.

Must-reads vs Optionals

The first thing was to separate the Must-reads from the Optional content by groups of people.

To do so, I created a Miro board with four sub-groups: general, tech, client-facing, and ops, and asked the team to give feedback. The idea was to validate what emerged from my desk research.

For each channel, I wanted to find consensus on 5 questions:

  1. What is this channel for?
  2. Who belongs in the channel?
  3. When should the channel be used?
  4. What to expect from the channel?
  5. Is it a Must-read OR Optional channel?

Here is an example of the General channels outline:


Once feedback was gathered and processed, Josh, Patrick, and I sat down to draft the new chances. Their thinking was that facilitating communication and information architecture is always a leadership job.

Prefixes and types of channels

We came up with our own taxonomy of the types of channels we needed, keeping in mind that these virtual spaces were mirroring different types of room IRL.

Here are some examples:

All-hands channels

All-hands channels are like town halls where the whole company is present. Usually, this is where announcements, call-to-actions (CTAs), and high-level info is shared.

#all- channels are used sparingly, mostly by founders, People, Security, and Ops teams.

Functional channels

Functional Units work under the same organizational structure, e.g, a company department. You can think of this channel as the same open space.

#func- channels are used by Functional Units to communicate on an ongoing basis.

Group channels

A group is a cluster of people that work under multiple Functional Units but collaborate closely on specific topics. These channels act like meeting rooms where folks from different parts of the company get together to align or make decisions.

#group- channels are used by groups to communicate on an ongoing basis.

Social channels

#social- channels are common spaces where anyone in the company is welcome to socialize, bond, and have informal conversations ranging from random to personal. They contain information that is not necessarily work-related.

These channels are like the kitchen, cafeteria, hallways, etc.

Some examples are: #social-cute, #social-coffee, #social-parenting, #social-music.

Help channels

#help- channels are hotlines where folks can ask questions or share feedback about a specific part of the business, e.g. #help-it, #help-support, #help-product

Short-lived channels

Short-lived channels are created for (1) a specific purpose, during (2) a finite period of time.

In other words, they are ad hoc, temporary channels dedicated to carrying out a particular body of work, e.g. projects, epics, sprints, events.

They are named using the corresponding prefix, e.g. #project-, #epic-, #sprint-, #event-, etc.

Channel guide and shepherding

For each channel, we added a section to the Employee Handbook outlining the appropriate use for each type of channel. This reading material is now part of the onboarding resources.

As we were implementing new rules, we thought it would be good to have an element of leadership and supervision to oversee acceptable uses during the life of each channel.

We introduced the concept of Channel Lead, a good shepherd if you will 🐑  

The Channel Lead is the owner of the channel and is responsible for:

  • Keeping an updated description of the channel, including identifying themselves as the owner of the channel in the description box
  • Making sure that conversations match the description of the channel, or else pointing people in the right direction
  • Usher folks out of the channel if they don’t belong

Handy conventions and Slack etiquette

  • Default is to public/group channels whenever possible: part of the meeting and in-office mentality is to circulate info 1-to-1. Instead, sharing the message once with the whole relevant group creates room for questions and conversations that otherwise cannot happen in remote environments.
  • Always share context: whether that is a short sentence or a link to a reference doc, frame the convo/request assuming the reader has no idea of why you are addressing them, or have forgotten since last you spoke about it. It helps everyone bring focus to the message in front of them.
  • Visit but don't stay in other #team- or #func- channels: people may temporarily join a group-specific channel but shouldn’t stick around.
  • Let everyone manage their own notifications. When folks read messages or whether they like to be notified should be the responsibility of each person, as opposed to asking teammates to, for example, avoid sending messages during their nighttime.
  • Document and model ways to leverage async work using Slack as your milieu.

The new order

Luckily, the Orbit crowd is full of flexible people with an entrepreneurial spirit, always willing to try new things that can birth improvements. So, the transition felt smooth.

Some of the things we immediately observed were:

  1. CTAs were followed: once people were able to easily identify requests from other info, they were happy to participate. This was especially important to keep up with ops and compliance, but also for things like asking the whole company to share marketing content on social media, or re-post job reqs.
  2. Higher engagement in social channels: with activity being clearly optional, we saw an increase in shares of all things #social-, probably because it’s a clear space where folks can stop by to decompress.
  3. Improved input flows: folks asking straightforward for what they need, and getting answers.
  4. Increased use of threads and emoji codes: everyone generally trying to keep common spaces tidy.
  5. Community shepherding: with clear rules laid out, we started to see people freely jumping in to nudge others to stick to the convention, which demonstrates a sense of ownership. Of course, you still need the Channel Lead to keep an eye out.
  6. Dramatic reduction of misplaced info: the prefixes and straightforward names help avoid confusion. For example, our #love channel gave way to #all-wins, #all-celebration, and #customer-love.
  7. Reduced noise: by giving everyone the permission to let go of FOMO, we could all focus more attention on notifications that required our input.

Evolving needs

Since our last Slack makeover, our workspace and use cases have remained stable. Yet, we know that as the company grows we’ll have to adapt to the size and needs of the moment.

Ideally, we can repeat this exercise every few months and update accordingly.

What the team said

I’d like to call on some Orbit team members to share with you their view on what happened after rolling out these changes.

Ulrich - Engineering Manager - said…

“Our Slack makeover revealed how the channel's organization impacted collaboration.

One unexpected result was that we could react to customers’ demands way faster with better communication between customer-facing and product-engineering teams.

We learned that a virtual office layout has the same level of influence on company productivity and culture as a physical office layout.”

Abby - Chief of Staff to the CTO - said…

“I joined Orbit as the Slack revamp was getting underway, and while it did take some getting used to, it grew on me quickly! Having an intentional system where everyone is following the same conventions (which are well documented!) helped me understand what’s expected of me and what I could expect from my new teammates.”

And btw [shameless promotion coming up], if you can’t resist the urge to work with a team that has their Slack act together go check out our open positions!

💫  Orbit is Hiring Engineers in US/EMEA

Orbit helps grow and measure thousands of communities like Kubernetes and CircleCI. We're a remote-first company with a product-driven, empathetic engineering team that enjoys the occasional space pun! Check out our careers page for open opportunities.

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