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.
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 💜
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:
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 💅
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:
I confess I’m a geek for all things language and human subtext. So, I genuinely had fun putting this puzzle together 🙈
Talking to people, we identified 8 frequent use cases, plus 7 occasional ones.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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 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.
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 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 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 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.
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:
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:
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.
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!