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Slack: Alchemizing FOMO into neurosis


At my research firm, we’ve finally caught up to c.2013 and adopted Slack for project communications and management. My initial (<2 weeks) impression is that I like it -- the command line, programmable bots, and API parts, in particular, are appealing (and I'm guessing that the utility of those will increase over time.)

There is a lot of conflicting advice out there about how to best use slack, so in this post I add to the noise with some guiding principals we’re following (at least initially).

The tl;dr version of this post is that
  • more channels with fewer conversations > fewer channels with more conversations (noise)
  • mute your notifications! Slack will let you know when you are needed (as long as others follow standard @ mentioning (tagging) conventions)
  • threading = good (but use it deliberately)
  • Reply with purpose, otherwise just React
  • don’t be a luddite-learn & use the Slack /slash commands.

Below are more details/notes/tips on how we are using Slack and some areas where we, as a company, are needing to form decision rules about common behaviors/norms. 

Hints & Tips

1. Mentions 

Mention someone if you want them to see it. Mention everyone in a channel by using @channel or @everyone. If everyone is properly muting (see # 2) and properly threading (see #3) then @ mentioning becomes more essential and more efficient since you'd only have to @mention someone once in a thread to draw their attention to subsequent messages. 

2. Making slack shut it's trap ..... or Muting. 

Slack can be selfish and demanding and rude. You can get your power back from slack by using your settings to selectively mute threads and set up notification preferences. You can even notify yourself if certain words or phrases are used (e.g., Stata , we wonqualtrics) in any thread, even if you dont follow it. Changing your muting habits/settings transforms Slack into an entirely different experience – and makes it infinitely less disruptive.

Here’s a comprehensive list of all the times you should get a notification:
  1. When someone @mentions you.
.End of list.

Slack wants you to think that every unread message actually deserves your attention; in reality, though, most of them just don’t. Show a little initiative and mute channels that aren't extremely relevant to your day-to-day work and catch up on random and general channels in downtime.

IF THERE’S SOMETHING SOMEBODY WANTS OR NEEDS YOU TO KNOW, IT’S THEIR RESPONSIBILITY TO MENTION YOU BY NAME AND BRING YOU INTO THE CONVERSATION.

If you wouldn’t sit in on a meeting taking place in a Slack channel, mute it. In this same sense, this encourages others to include you in channels that you dont need day-to-day updates (so projects where you only serve a limited role). At any point you can monitor the conversation & catch up on what's going on, or they can choose to @ mention you to draw attention, but you dont have to be fully excluded to avoid the distraction. In the Email world, it's the case that CCing everyone is overly distracting - this only true in slack if we let it be true (if we fail to properly mute and notify). 
  • Following threads. If you want to follow a message/thread without having to monitor it and without having to be @mentioned, just choose the action button for "follow thread" on the message. Voila!
Bonus tip: Including @channel in a message will notify everyone that’s in the chat room, but using @here will only notify the people that happen to be online at that moment. 

3. Threading and replying to conversations

This one probably requires some discussion/decision rules (it's on the list to discuss below). 
In general, slack resembles a chat room or group texting conversation. There's a lot to be gained by immediate, synchronous conversations. 
However, consider this proof:

Iff
# messages in convo ∝ noise
Then:
↑ noise ≃ ↓ concrete decisions made
QED, probably.
To reduce the noise, we can do a few things that are effective, but as with anything in slack...

DEFECTION (OFTEN) CAUSES FAILURE (...OR AT LEAST INEFFICIENCY)

  • Threading: When someone posts a new question or topic, instead of responding instantly to that post, use the threaded reply. This is especially useful/important in rooms where the conversation is about more than one topic (e.g., RFPs, random, general). If you are in a specific project channel (e.g., aisd-surveyadmin-tasks) then threading may make less sense (to be decided I guess) since the entire channel is, in a sense, a thread from a larger discussion/channel.
  • Quoting / sharing: If you quote someone's message that you are responding to, it helps create context. This is similar to quoting in a forum (like reddit) or retweeting something you want to respond to. This feature in slack is called 'sharing' and again you click on the Share button on the right side of a message to do this. Importantly, after you share the quoted message, someone (or you) can start a thread. 
    • This keeps conversations focused and efficient and easy to follow and find. 
    • This is useful (essential?) for replying to a thread/message started from the @mailclark app - such as in the #rfps-general channel -- instead of replying to it in a thread (and having to :mute: mute each reply), simply share/quote that initial message and then start a fresh thread. 
This is what sharing and then replying to a thread would look like:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/hvpubeahs62s7w6/thread.png
  • React, dont reply, to a message. Also, instead of chiming on a convo or thread with "yes", "agree", "lol", if you dont have anything extra to add, just 'React'. Reacting to a message rather than replying without substance maintains the usufruct nature of Slack. Click on the message action button on the right that says react and choose an emoji type reaction to indicate if you agree, disagree, etc. This saves scrolling space and protects against making threads/convos noisy. 

4. Follow threads of interest

You can then use the follow feature (click the message feature button (the [...] button on the right of a message and choose to follow the thread/message to get notifications later after the conversation has scrolled down the screen and your thread of interest has disappeared into the ether). 
  • Everyone can see a thread in a public channel, but you can alert them to it by using @ mentions.
  • You can even remind yourself to follow up on a message/thread. This is useful for making sure a task doesnt get lost. You can right click on the message/thread and choose "Remind me about this in ... " to get a message to come back to this later in the day or next week or whenever (you can also use the /remind command, see # 6 below). 
Bonus tip: You can see who is typing a message but it just lures you into watching the screen instead of working and coming back to the message later (much like those [...] typing bubbles in iMessage on the phone). If you dont want to catch yourself slack-jawed about who is typing a message then live:
Preferences -> Messages & Media -> Display Options -> "Display information about who is currently typing a message

5. Long messages can be kept in posts to save space

Press the [ + ] button on the right of a message to craft a post in lieu of a message. A post is a document that can be embedded into a channel without being so long to hijack or overwhelm a thread. It can be commented on directly, edited by others (if you wish) , and shared publically with a unique link. Examples for using these:  You can use these for FAQ type of posts, collaborating on a document like writing a memo or email, or for creating a running/in-progress to do list for project management in a channel. Spoiler: this document is a post -- you are reading one now. 

6. Don't get caught slacking! Getting things done in Slack. 

A few tips about doing things from the command line or elsewhere: 
  • The power behind slack is in the / commands. Type forward slash to see them /
Important ones include:
  • using /remind me or /remind @user to remind them of something. You can even remind yourself to do things at times. So /remind me to drink water every weekday at 2pm.  /remind me to put in my time each day at 4pm
  • For quick access to quidnunckery, you can direct msg someone from any channel, use /dm @user [my message] or /msg @user.
  • You can also task someone to do something with bot I included in slack called busybot. Type /busybot quarterly memo September 28 @Dan tells dan to send a quarterly memo on SEpt 28. or /busybot @Dan Do something smart today by 5pm will task him to do smart things by 5pm and he can check it off when he's done.
  • Insert files from your computer or from your google drive (we also have a Gibson Google drive account) by clicking that [+] button to the right of a message. 

7. Creating and naming channels.

Start channel names with something to indicate their type, for example: projects start with p_ to keep group projects from things like 
  • quantpd_
  • rfps_
  • admin_
  • bd_ (business development) 
  • data_
  • mkting_
  • conferences_
  • hiring_
  • website_
  • etc. 
This helps channels get grouped or sorted by type.
Then the next part of the channel name is the project title followed by a dash and any modifier so, a group of smu project discussions could be:
  • p_smu-general
  • p_smu-analysis-surveys
  • p_smu-finalreport

(I’ve created a grouping of quantpd_ channels with this type of naming convention).

We also want to avoid bogarting common project clients. So “tea” is a good example, we’d at least want something like  p_teacharters2017 but keep in mind that the longer the stem of the channel, the less room there is for any modifier. For example,  p_teacharters2017-admin is too long by 2 characters. So maybe p_teachart17-admin is better. Regardless, keep the stem consistent.
And for the main or general channel for any given project just name it with the stem or with the term general to help differentiate it as the primary thread for a project channel group (example: p_smu-general or p_smu is the primary channel as opposed to other channels in that group like p_smu_surveyadmin)

Finally, from what I’ve read, it’s better to start more threads rather than make any given channel too noisy with cross talk, so feel free to start new channels — keep in mind that though the channel list will get long 
 (1) you can mute channels you arent routinely following (which is why its a good idea to add most everyone to every (non private) channel to keep them in the loop or so that you can loop them in with an @ mention) and 
 (2) you can quickly switch and search for channels at anytime by pressing Ctrl + k.

We’d want to think about whether it makes sense to peel off into another channel to discuss more specific topics or whether we’d want to stay within a channel. A good example for this is rfps_. We may want to start all rfp discussions in rfps_general but then once we decide to definitely go for one, maybe we cordon it off into rfps_illinois-survey17 or rfps_nsfhurricane-1, etc. Once an RFP is done/abandoned we can archive them.

Tip: you can start a private channel that is just for yourself or for you and a few people, like a group chat, but please use your initials or something else to differentiate it (and prevent you taking up a channel name). For example, one of our staff wanted a private channel to put his to do list. If he names it    todo  then no one else can. Instead, he should name this  myname_todo or something like that.

_________________________________________________________

Decision Rules we are working on….




  1. How to properly reply or thread conversations, especially in the RFP channel. How to quote/share messages to start conversation threads.
  2. How to reply or thread in reaction to a @mailclark email into a thread (probably share / quore it first and then thread reply)
  3. Rules for mentioning others (@ user vs. @ here vs. @channel vs. @ everyone)
  4. Polls and their uses. 
  5. Using Busybot to send tasks/reminders(?) or just /remind feature.
  6. Sharing filepaths on slack (vs. sharing files). 
  7. ???

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