Whether you’ve been working from home for a decade or have been thrust into the remote office for the first time, navigating the minefield of text-only communication can be dense, difficult, and draining. Slack is the go-to communication program for many remote offices, but used improperly, you could end up unintentionally annoying all your coworkers.
“Digital communication is much more challenging than physical communication, because it lacks the ability to really transfer tone well,” explains Elaine Swann, etiquette expert and founder of the Swann School of Protocol. “The inflections in our voice get lost, and we're not able to hear or emphasize body language that sometimes speaks louder than words.” Couple that with notification overload and water cooler talk spamming your work channels, and you’re bound to get a little frustrated with your colleague’s Slack usage—or vice versa.
If you’re new to an organization, it helps to go through the Slack history to see what the style is—do people joke around a lot? Do casual conversations mix with work, or do people use a lot of emoji? That’ll get you a long way to feeling like part of the in crowd. But above all else, there are a few best practices you should follow to avoid driving people nuts.
Reply in Threads and Turn On Notifications
When the creative juices are flowing, you’ll likely have multiple conversations happening at once in a given channel. The Threads feature in Slack allows you to organize the chaos. “As someone who has a love/hate relationship with the red notification bubble, when colleagues properly use the Thread feature it reduces notifications for conversations that don't need my attention,” says Natalie Schoen, a senior media strategist at communications and marketing agency BAM. “Should my attention end up being needed in a specific thread, simply @ me in.” (This also cuts down on @here and @channel, one of the most oft-scorned tools in the Slack arsenal.) To start a thread, just hover over a message and click the Reply as Thread button.
Threads allow the conversation to continue without intermingling with other ongoing discussions, especially if only a few people are involved—or if some are in different time zones. Plus, they’re more searchable, since you can find the entire conversation attached to a keyword instead of just a single message. I find, however, that I often forget a thread exists if I don’t get notifications when new messages were posted in it. So head to Preferences > Notifications and check "Notify Me About Replies to Threads" if you find yourself falling behind.
One Long DM Is Better Than Many Short Ones
Speaking of notification spam, consider your direct messages more carefully. “We have a tendency, digitally, to speak in a more clipped manner,” says Swann. “Rather than sending five short messages back to back, take a moment, collect your thoughts, and say what you're going to say in one longer statement.” It’s easy to type as you think, but your recipient’s phone is going to start dinging off the hook, which is really distracting. Try to treat those initial DMs a bit more like you would an email—and be patient for your response, in case your coworker is busy.
Show Your Status With an Icon
On the surface, Slack seems like a synchronous communication tool, like the chat rooms and IM programs of old. But you can’t always expect a reply right away—if someone’s in a meeting or out of the office, you’ll end up distracting them with notifications and waiting for an answer that may not come.
Kay-Kay Clapp, director of content at the repair site iFixit, is very in-demand in her department—I know, I used to work with her. She helped manage expectations by keeping her status updated in Slack regularly. You can change your Slack status by clicking your workspace in the upper left corner and clicking the Update Your Status box—it has a few default options like “Out Sick” and “In a Meeting,” but you can create a status for anything you want. “We use food emojis to call out our lunch breaks, cameras to let people know when we’re busy filming, and so on,” she tells me. “If you use the Google Calendar plug-in, your Slack status emoji can even change automatically when you’re in meetings.”
Use Emoji for Short Approvals
I always debate whether to clutter up a conversation with short approvals like “OK” or “sounds good” instead of tacitly implying agreement with silence. Not everyone agrees on the best way to handle this over email, but Slack has you covered with emoji reactions. Just hover over a message and click the Add Reaction button on the right-hand side. “As a manager, nothing’s worse than dropping a perfectly crafted message into Slack and getting back crickets,” Clapp says. “A ✅ makes it easy for me to see that the team has read my administrative updates. As a human, emoji reactions are a nice reminder that your coworkers are still listening and engaged.” (Plus, you can create custom emoji reactions to keep things fun.)
There’s a fine line with emoji, though. While they can help replace some of that missing tone and body language, it’s also easy to go crazy. “A wink emoji or a simple smile can go a long way towards being clear, but I've known people who overdo it—sometimes with an emoji almost every other word in a long paragraph,” says Melanie Pinola, a staff writer at Wirecutter who used to manage a fully remote team at Zapier. “It's annoying, and it makes understanding the message harder.”
Fill Out Your Profile, Not Just Your Name
Without random office bump-ins, it’s harder to get to know coworkers outside your department—which is rough when you need their help. “Fill out your profile as much as possible,” says Pinola, “with your department and title, local time, phone number, work hours, pronouns, etc. This helps other people know when you can best be reached and make you seem less like a stranger.” And for heaven’s sake, use your real name and a profile image—it’s a lot easier on your coworkers if they aren’t messaging a squiggly line named c00ldawg76. Filling out profiles was a key part of Zapier’s Slack best practices, Pinola tells me, which they posted publicly and sent to every new hire—a great bonus tip if your organization doesn’t have a resource like this already.
Create, Join, and Mute Channels Liberally
If you only have a couple of channels, they’re destined to get cluttered with conversations your coworkers don’t want to see. Schoen notes that while her company has used Slack for a while, they obviously started using it a lot more when everyone went remote in March, which caused some growing pains. “In the beginning, we shared a lot of Covid-19 related news in the company-wide #IndustryNews channel, but over time the flood of pandemic news became too much for everyone’s mental health,” she explains. “As a result, we created a #Coronavirus channel that teammates could opt into if they wanted to be more on top of the news throughout the day.” You can mute any channel with a right-click, and then you won’t see when it has new messages unless someone specifically calls you out with @.
Your company may have its own rules when it comes to creating channels—who’s allowed to do so, under what circumstances you should, and whether they should stick to certain naming conventions that keep fun separated from work. So check your organization’s policies before creating channels willy-nilly. And if your company doesn’t lay these out, ask them if it’s OK to split a busy channel or delete ones that aren’t necessary anymore.
Stay Sane With “Do Not Disturb”
Sometimes I remember something at 8 pm and want to send it in case I forget in the morning—but I don’t want to bother the other person after hours. One of my previous employers stressed that everyone should use “Do Not Disturb” during nonwork hours, so the rest of us can feel free to message at any time—eliminating the need for email. You can set your Do Not Disturb settings from Preferences > Notifications > Notification Schedule—I allow notifications from 7 am to 7 pm, but you might opt to turn them off as soon as your workday is done. Slack still lets your coworkers push a notification through Do Not Disturb if it’s truly urgent.
Know When Not to Use Slack
While Slack bills itself as a one-stop-everything-shop for your company, some things are better left to other tools. While Swann notes that you can use text to convey tone when necessary—adding parentheticals like “(so and so is really on my back about this)” or “(I want to make sure we don't end up on the short end of the stick this time)”—sometimes it’s better to just hop on a call. A five-minute phone conversation can often be a lot easier than a 15-minute Slack conversation.
Finally, remember that some conversations shouldn’t be on a shared platform at all. “Be mindful of when you're sending messages, and who you're sending them to and who sees them,” says Swann. “It happens so often: Someone's complaining about another person, but it accidentally goes to every single person on the thread. Double-check yourself always.” Or better yet, she says, just stop talking about people behind their backs at work—especially in writing. Teamwork platforms have been hacked in the past, so treat your Slack as if all your messages might become public one day. It never hurts to be cautious.