Adam Hansrod
Adam Hansrod Consultant and Principal Engineer

Our Thinking Fri 20th September, 2019

How we cultivate Slack to help us communicate better

At Equal Experts, we’re pretty heavy users of Slack. As a widely distributed network we’ve also spent a lot of time working on how we communicate with one another.

In recent years we’ve used some of our experience in this area to help several large clients transform the way they communicate using Slack, too.

I’ve recently been spending some time working on the communication patterns and practices we use internally, to further improve the way we share information. This blog will share some of those patterns; you may well find that adopting them could improve the communication experience (and amplify the positive impact of any changes you make) within your own organisation.

Note that while this post refers to Slack terminology (eg. channels), the patterns and practices are transferable to other communication tools with some adaptation.

Communication patterns

Here’s a rundown of the patterns we use:

Dual Team Channels

What: Create a pair of public and private channels for Product/Service teams.

Why: The public team channel helps to reinforce team-based ownership over individual ownership – as it provides a space for people to talk to the team – while the private channel provides a space for the team to talk internally.

Community Channels

What: Create a public channel for the communities of people within your organisation.

Why: It provides a space for the community to talk within itself, and for people to talk to the group. It also allows any interested party to follow the lifecycle of a community from Forming to Adjourning.

Within Equal Experts, community channels are formed around various areas, including client; business unit (eg. Lisbon); office; specific technologies or tools; and specific areas of practice (eg.UX).

Topic Channels

What: Provide a space to centralise a discussion around specific topics. These channels can be short or long lived.

Why: To track and centralise the discussion around solving an issue. Eg. an example of a short lived topic might be support issues with a specific problem.

Combinations of patterns

Combinations of these patterns exist, but when combining patterns, you must ensure that both patterns are represented within the final channel purpose.

An example of a popular combination is that of a team and a topic channel. We call these ‘Ask channels’ (also known as help channels); and they’re organised around specific topics that a team (or person) has ownership of, and is required to answer queries.

An Ask channel must have a designated group of people who are responsible for answering the questions asked about a particular topic, or provide help if required (much like a public team channel). If an Ask channel is set up without a clear designated owner (whether person or team), it will create frustration for the person asking for help.

Within Equal Experts, these channels are used for people to ask questions to internal operational teams about specific topics (eg. #ask-timesheets is responded to by our network services team).

Writing your own Slack usage guide

Communication patterns like those above are only part of the story; getting the best out of a new comms tool also requires guidance, so that users know how to get the most benefit from it.

One of the ways you can help shape the communication within your organisation’s Slack is to create a usage guide. This allows you to guide the experience of Slack to help create the most value, while minimising any negative impact. Creating your own guide (as opposed to just sharing a link to someone else’s) sends a signal: it shows your users that you care deeply about how people communicate in and gain value from the tool.

One of the challenges you’ll face when writing your Slack usage guide is to decide what guidance you want to give to your users – the advice will shape your organisation’s experience of Slack, as well as the communication that happens within your organisation. Don’t underestimate how important it is!

Focus on the principles you want to use to shape communication

Spend some time on thinking about the experience that your organisation needs, then use that to form some principles. These will guide decisions on what to include in your Slack usage guide.

These are the principles we use to ensure everybody gets the most shared benefit from Slack, and which ensure it remains an evolving body of information:

  • Give everyone the bigger picture by making information and conversations public
    • Ensure people can widen their context
    • Make channels public by default – it provides the greatest opportunity for others to learn from any discussion, and documents tribal knowledge.
  • Increase the signal to noise ratio of the information and conversations
    • Narrow people’s focus
    • Ensure people are reading information that is relevant and useful to them
    • Use people’s time efficiently
  • Respect the amount of information anyone can tolerate reading
    • Do not overwhelm people with a high volume of messages that they are expected to read
    • Avoid communication burnout
  • Optimise for the whole of the organisation rather than local optimisations for parts of the organisation
    • Avoid creating a disjointed experience for people by focusing on overall simplicity rather than local simplicity

A starting point, courtesy of Equal Experts

You can find Equal Experts’ full Slack Usage Guide on github. Feel free to take a copy and modify it for your own needs.

Bear in mind that the guide reflects the principles that we use for our context; the most effective ones for your context may be different.

Introducing Slack Gardener: prune your Slack for optimal usage

Good communication isn’t a case of ‘set-and-forget’ – it’s important to maintain Slack (or any other communication tool) to ensure you continue to have a good experience.

The good news is that this doesn’t need to be an onerous process. It’s possible to automate some of the common problems people face, such as enforcing channel naming standards or ensuring profiles are filled out to a standard (we’ve helped several of our clients in this area).

One such common problem is a profusion of inactive, small membership channels. This can lead to a negative user experience when people search for a channel to ask a question or share information with, as they have to sift through many smaller inactive channels to find the right one.

We created ‘Slack Gardener’ to help address this problem. The Gardener is a Slack integration/bot that scans through all public channels in a Slack instance on a set schedule. If a channel has been inactive for the last three months, the Gardener will prompt the channel’s members to respond if they feel the channel should continue. If there’s still no activity on the channel after a week, it’s automatically archived

This means that we’re able to automatically prune away inactive channels to improve people’s experience of Slack. Archived channels can always be unarchived later if needed, of course, but they rarely are.

Install The Gardener in your own Slack

We’ve open-sourced The Gardener, because we believe it adds a lot of value to any organisation’s Slack. Feel free to contribute or install it in your own Slack instance.

Get in touch!

If you have any thoughts on the above – whether you’d like to share your own communication patterns or combination, or have feedback on the Gardener – do get in touch.