There are many tools that claim to help teams work better together. But a tool is just a tool, and just because something is successful in one company, doesn’t mean it will work for yours. Remember that before implementing a tool, you need to know the problem this tool should solve. Today I’m reviewing why Slack can be a great tool for your team, basing my recommendations on evidence from team research. I’ll also tell you when you shouldn’t be using slack.
The key elements of Slack
Slack offers groups (companies, communities) an online place for their conversation. Topic-based private and public channels can be created. Many applications have been built to integrate with Slack to help team members collaborate. For example, for my Futurizing Business School project, we used Slack for team collaboration, and I integrated Bitbucket, a repository similar to git for code sharing and development, and Asana , a project management tool, into it. In this way every time someone changed a file and uploaded it (pushed it, using git terminology) to Bitbucket, a notification was sent to Slack and appeared in a specific Bitbucket channel. This helped team members know when a change was done. In a similar fashion, I was able to create tasks, assign tasks, and mark them as complete in Slack.
According to Slack, it’s key selling points are:
- It is a place for your team to communicate, about everything that it wants to talk about.
- You can integrate it with your favorite apps.
- All communication are logged and searchable.
To understand better what Slack is, it is helpful to check the values the people at Slack adhere to (or should adhere to. Cultural values aren’t just the value statement, but also the symbols used throughout the company
- Default Slack colors of purple, pink, teal, are the colors of 90’s movies and malls.
- Their slogan is “Work hard, go home”
- Diligence: To go the extra mile, beyond ‘this is good enough’
- Curiosity: To not be happy with the status quo and discover the problem customers face
- Empathy: To build a useful product for others requires understanding all the potential customers
I’m skeptical about their value of empathy. This is simply because I have read it so often. On the Slack HQ blog empathy is also connected to hiring a diverse workforce. This raises a flag: You don’t need a diverse workforce to have empathetic employees. It helps, but is not a necessary criteria. Empathy is the willingness and ability to understand people who are different. Your company can be diverse, with employees only being empathic towards the plight of customers and colleagues who are similar to them. If Slack would focus on an inclusive work climate, then this is a step closer towards making a diverse workforce empathetic towards the problems and values of other people.
The values of diligence and curiosity could easily create a workforce that is always working. Going the extra mile requires extra effort. Now, Slack has a default setting for turning off notifications. I appreciate that this setting by default turns off notifications when I should be sleeping. However, I think Slack could do more. For Slack to go the extra mile, the default ‘Do not disturb’ time (now from 22h until 8h), should be more something like 21h until 8h30.
Based on the cultural values Slack is a tool that wants to help employees be more productive through increased communication and information sharing.
Slack helps teams if …
…they are used to talk openly. The fact that you can create private channels gives safety in some situations, but it can also strengthen existing silos. For example, in one of my Slack communities, Method Data Science, I decided to create a woman-only community. The reason was that it is a male-dominated community (data science) and I wanted to create a safe space for us woman to talk about whatever we want. However, in another Slack community, workfrom.co, such a private channel is not needed and would undermine the open nature of the community. In fact, it’s private VIP channel is hardly used.
If your problem is a lack of transparent communication, using Slack will only help if no private channels are created.
Tip: Find out why communication is not transparent.
The underlying problem with using Slack to solve a communication problem is that you need to move your employee from their current communication space to a new space. Changing behavior is difficult, especially if they do not see an issue with their current behavior. If your company lacks efficient information flows, Slack will not solve your problems. Slack could help, if you use the electronic communication to map information flow and use this analysis as a basis to improve communication.
One advantage of Slack is that different apps can be integrated. If teams make use of these apps, then Slack can create a better workflow. It can reduce communication frequency, in the sense that team members need to ask less often for status updates, or that files can be open directly from the Slack channel. This reduces the negative consequences of task switching.
The biggest advantage of Slack is that it documents communication and makes it easy to search through it. As all communication can be transparent, if it happens in public channels, everyone can join and read the discussions that occur at other part of the companies or team. In teams which still need to build up trust between each other, this level of documentation has a positive impact on team performance. Where trust already exists, this level of documentation does no harm.
Slack does not help if …
… the team is working in the same physical location, has low technical skills, or uses few office tools. Let’s face it, spreadsheets, word documents, and presentations are still very common tools. In some cases, these are also the only tools that people need to use for work. Couple this with a well functioning email communication system and physical co-location and the usefulness of Slack diminishes. I do not mean to say that Slack would be useless in those situation, but that the benefits of implementing Slack and making people change their behavior is lower. I also know of people whose work computer do not allow for Slack to be installed due to security risks.
Slack’s key feature based on team research
I have to come back to the issue of transparent communication Slack enables. For me, this is the key benefit Slack offers. A lot of team problems can be traced back to miscommunication. The reason for this is that people do not make it explicit what is in their head. Think about it: Your actions are driven by your assumptions and your values. Assuming that your team members share them, is dangerous. Slack offers a way to discuss these assumptions in a way that is open to all team members. Everyone can benefit from it. In this sense, Slack helps teams to create a shared mental model about their tasks.
1. Use Slack for informal, social talk to get to know each other better. The Slack App Icebreaker can help.
2. Do not be afraid to start threads and dig into each others assumptions. Ask ‘why’ questions. Be frank that you only want to understand. Managers should lead in explaining their actions, without being asked.