We asked 50 fully-remote companies about how they managed their virtual office, Slack. These best practices stood out. Part of our ongoing series on building strong remote teams.
Among the fifty fully-remote companies we interviewed, over 80% used Slack as their main hub for communication. This trend echoes across the remote space as a whole as more companies realize they can accomplish as much in a Slack workspace as in a physical office. With channel segmentation, easy file sharing, and dozens of integrations, Slack has centralized company tool suites and real-time collaboration. It has transformed the way we conduct asynchronous work and for many, it’s impossible to talk about remote team communication without mentioning Slack.
Though Slack was built with fully-distributed teams in mind, it’s far from perfect. Ask any remote teammate and you’ll hear groans about distracting notifications, too many channels, and time-consuming miscommunication. Some of these issues have to do with Slack’s limitations for handling teams at scale, the consequences of associating Slack activity with productivity, or the natural faults of online communication. At its core though, these problems all stem from how we approach real-time messaging in a professional setting. The solution for happier teams is not to ditch Slack, but to hack it.
We talked to a variety of remote companies about how they used Slack. Some had workspaces a thousand teammates strong while others maintained a tight circle of less than ten. Regardless of their size, the most successful remote companies had Slack strategies that they were proud of. Here are some tips that really stood out:
Slack’s three-tap new message chime became background music to some of our interviews. It’s a familiar sound, signaling a roadblocking question or crucial announcement or maybe a funny cat GIF. Remote teams constantly hum with this activity; with international asynchronous work, ‘constantly’ is quite literal. Given everything passes through channels and direct messages, it’s up to remote workers to stay up to date with Slack. Unfortunately, this often translates to taming an overwhelming amount of notifications and the distraction that comes with it.
Three strategies emerged for wrangling Slack notifications:
A teammate from Cloudbeds, a partially-remote hospitality software company, mentioned her frustrating impulse to clear Slack notifications as they popped up on her phone or desktop app. It was near impossible to stay on top of every message while still knocking out her daily action items. Her solution was to prioritize role-specific channels and silence the rest until the end of the day. She spoke with her manager to confirm her top channels and saved the others for future reference.
Remote companies that prize async work and coworker trust often allow for more breathing room when it comes to writing responses. For a teammate at Knack, this meant setting aside fifteen minutes at the beginning and end of each day to catch up on Slack notifications. He kept all channels snoozed and only received updates on direct messages and mentions, in case of something urgent. He got to the rest of the messages in batches, allowing undisturbed hours for his deliverables.
A teammate at Bandcamp silenced all notifications entirely. This took us by surprise, what about urgent messages and potential bottlenecks? She wasn’t alone, however, as several other teams completely silenced their workspaces. It’s important to note that this was not the same as abandoning the company chat. Instead, it helped workers check notifications on their own terms. Eliminating notifications took away the five-second break of focus and lessened the pressure of the red dot when it was time to answer.
Many of the remote companies we talked to encouraged coworkers to post issues, customer questions, and projects in public Slack channels. Surprisingly, this was more common as companies got larger. Rather than viewing public channel message as company-wide spam, they were often seen as opportunities for collaboration and open discussion. In retrospect, this practice has a lot to do with fostering common remote culture values like transparency and trust.
Public channels are prime avenues for transparency. Thanks to Slack’s message history and easily accessible threads, coworkers can read through though processes and trace the root of decisions. For managers and contributors alike, this has a huge impact on developing understanding and trust.
At StackOverflow, one manager saw first-hand on a public Slack channel how the CEO valued remote work by working out accommodations for an important Zoom meeting. At Chess.com, an individual contributor mentioned his openness for posting questions on a public channel because he figured other coworkers may have the same issue. With a public channel, everyone in the company regardless of role can stay in the loop.
GitLab’s Remote Handbook delves into the downsides of private messages. Their handbook states:
Private messages discourage collaboration. You might actually be contacting the wrong person, and they cannot easily redirect you to the right person. If the person is unavailable at the moment, it is less efficient because other people cannot jump in and help. Use a public channel and mention the person or group you want to reach.
Keep in mind that GitLab’s public channels can be hundreds of people strong. Transparency at scale is preferred, they encourage their workers to message public channels or create one as necessary. By keeping everything out in the open, GitLab managers can encourage open dialogue and keep track of issues as they arise.
Our interviewees at Buffer, Cloudbeds, and Knack smiled widest while talking about their favorite Slack channels. These included delightful topics such as #dogs, #mycat, #whereImWorkingToday, #familynews, and more. The point was to share photos of pets, outlandish work settings, and personal milestones to build tight coworker relationships “outside the virtual office.” Some of the teammates we interviewed shared stories of long-distance friendships that had sprung a message on these fun channels!
Remote managers also saw a lot of value to “watercooler conversations” as a means for developing remote coworker relationships. We spent last week discussing loneliness and the need for deliberate social interaction, and fun channels provide a great solution. When coworkers found interests in common, they reported getting more buy-in for a decision and trusting their coworkers with tasks. In the long run, this created a more positive work environment and easy-going communication on Slack.
Slack’s app marketplace makes it easy to add integrations and features to existing workspaces. Among the users we interviewed, these were some favorites that got mentioned again and again:
Donut is a fun Slackbot for building team relationships. It connects a random pair of coworkers together for lunch or coffee to encourage non-work conversation.
HeyTaco! is a quirky rewards system that allows teammates to send taco emojis and nice messages to show appreciation for hard work. With a limit of five tacos per day, teams become closer by practicing gratitude.
TinyPulse measures employee engagement and feedback. Taking NPS scores and various other feedback, TinyPulse delivers continuous feedback on teams to take a pulse while miles apart.
I couldn’t talk about Slack bots, of course, without mentioning my team’s bot. Kona builds team understanding by delivering automated personalized insights based off how a teammate communicates on public Slack channels. With insights on work style, communication habits, and stressors, Kona helps bridge the gaps in online communication.