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Eight Ways We Slack at GovEx

I wasn’t a Slack's logo from the iTunes app storeSlacker until I joined GovEx, though plenty of people in my network were raving about it. I love text chat and used various instant messaging and online presence tools over the years. I was excited to join an organization which prefers communication tools beyond e-mail. Here’s how we make it work.

Start with clear expectations

The first day for a new GovEx colleague involves setting expectations for a variety of things, communications included. We set them up on our Slack team (often more quickly than we can arrange an email address), and we strongly and overtly encourage them to share their views. We do not expect anyone to be online all the time, nor do we demand immediate responses — especially outside of working hours. We have a strong get-it-done work ethic and great camaraderie, but we certainly need our personal spaces. Our team is often out of the office, on conference calls, intentionally trying to work without distractions, or on vacation. We try hard to respect these principles in Slack, but happily appreciate the advantages of asynchronous communication.

Recommendation: when you begin using slack, develop and openly share clear expectations for how team members should behave. Update those expectations periodically as your organizational culture evolves.

Make it a routine

Modern tech tools compete heavily for our attention. Stickiness — the likelihood that someone will keep using a product — is a delicate balance of providing enough value to be habit-forming without being overly intrusive. For us, stickiness stems from the reality that anyone who doesn’t check it often enough will feel uninformed in other contexts, such as in-person conversations.

A poll of team members on their use of the web, mobile, or desktop app versions of slack. Mobile and Desktop were used twice as much as web.
Fun tip: informal polling in Slack is really easy.

One of the key ways we make it routine is by using the mobile and desktop apps to connect. I was a little surprised to learn that one of our team members — who shall remain nameless — didn’t use the desktop version at all! Tapping a smartphone icon or leaving the desktop app running in the background means that Slack is always handy. E-mail and push notifications (on all three platforms) can be configured to intrude when we want — or not.

Recommendation: install the desktop or mobile apps to reduce the friction of checking in on slack messages. Configure Slack to send you emails if you miss messages.

Communicate in public channels

Nearly all important decisions and plenty of unimportant messages end up in one of our 44 public channels, even if our team statistics suggest otherwise. Our channels tend to be topic- or purpose-focused, and channel membership is almost always voluntary. Most of the channels are related to the work we do, but there are a few for social purposes. I periodically encourage my colleagues, both on Slack and in-person to “default to open” because years of research tell us that successful collaborative work environments depend heavily on open and extensive communication. I’m in 90% of our public channels.

A graph with shows 124,000 total messages, 14% in public channels, 4% in private channels, and 82% are direct messagesOur teammates are often in different locations, so Slack is also a great tool to have conversations that don’t need to be in public channels — for example, making travel arrangements. But if a few people in the same DM thread realize that the discussion is always about a certain topic, it’s time to convert that thread to a channel. That’s how a channel about logistics for our Performance Analytics course got started.

Recommendation: Choose public channels which center on specific topics. Convert group DMs to private channels, and private channels to public channels to foster more open discussion.

Backchannel internal meetings

Whether we convene in person or virtually, we use Slack as a backchannel. In its most overt form, we share documents or resources we are discussing on the spot so that the rest of the team doesn’t have to dig around for them. (Pro tip: meeting agendas are also a great place to include relevant links.) Perhaps more insidiously distracting, it’s common for messages to flow during larger team meetings, allowing quick sidebar conversations for follow-up or to reach consensus. Be respectful of outsiders, though. You wouldn’t pull out your typewriter and start writing a letter during a meeting would you?

Recommendation: Use Slack to augment, but not replace, face-to-face meetings.

Search and star

a screenshot of the slack desktop app's search interfaceBecause we spend a lot of time putting content in Slack, it’s natural that we also want to get it out. Scrolling back through hundreds, if not thousands, of messages to find something is impractical. Thankfully, Slack has a few built-in ways to make that easier. I don’t find pinning messages in channels to be very helpful, but saving a message to handle a little later is easily done by starring it. The search capabilities are excellent, making it easy to find messages from long ago without much effort.

Recommendation: Star important messages, and use the search mechanism to recall past discussions.

Create reminders

Since we spend so much time with Slack, it makes sense to have it help us with managing some to-dos — especially repeating ones. For example, one reminder tells everyone to prepare for a weekly meeting, with a link to the relevant document. Other reminders are shorter-term nudges, such as prompting to check in with someone next Thursday, or making sure we discuss something important during our weekly all-staff meeting.

Recommendation: Use the /remind command to tell Slack to send you a message at a future date and time.

Integrate other tools

2-second video of a sleeping puppy that wakes up in surprise and turns its head to face the camera
Every message notification makes me do this.

If you’ve read anything about the upcoming chatbot revolution, you’ll know that platforms like Slack can connect to other tools that you use. We connected GitHub first, because we maintain quite a few guides and other resources there, and it’s helpful to know when colleagues are updating them. For a while we used Zapier to feed in tweets from interesting people, allowing those of us who don’t spend a lot of time on social media to hear the conversations. We’re experimenting with a connection to so we can quickly add, view, and update tasks. And of course, we enjoy some animated GIFs occasionally, though we’ve found the /giphy responses to be very hit-or-miss.

Recommendation: Explore the Slack app directory and connect in other online tools you use.

Join multiple teams

GovEx Slack isn’t the only island. We are all members of at least three Slack teams: our own; one for all of our What Works Cities partner organizations so we can coordinate; and one which includes people from all the cities we work with. The third one is especially important, because a goal of our work is to encourage city-to-city connections. However, we also understand that our government colleagues have different cultural environments which mean they aren’t on Slack as habitually as we are.

Finally, we’ve expanded well beyond participation in these three teams as our work has connected us to other organizations and networks. This makes it even more important to manage how much time we dedicate to Slacking with those other groups.

(Pro tip to my colleague who doesn’t use the desktop app: it is much harder to switch between multiple teams using just the browser-based version.)

Recommendation: Join other Slack teams, and if appropriate, allow others to join yours.

If you’re a government organization, before you start using Slack, consider the applicability of Freedom of Information laws. Also the U.S. Federal Government has negotiated a Terms of Service Addendum for Federal agencies. Slack isn’t right for every team or every office culture, but given our desire to be paperless and our aversion to long e-mail chains full of one-sentence replies popping up in 15 different inboxes, it makes sense for us.