Cut Me Some Slack

I’ve taught my Personal Productivity class a dozen times this year – it is my most popular training offering. The course’s primary focus is email management, which invariably leads to discussions about instant messaging platforms such as Slack. Today I’ll share some thoughts about how to use them effectively.

I’ll refer to Slack for simplicity’s sake. However, these techniques apply equally to any messaging platform, including Microsoft Teams and Google Chat.

The Good

When leveraged effectively, Slack can dramatically reduce the number of emails in your organization and provide a much richer, collaborative way to collaborate and discuss in an asynchronous environment (meaning you should not assume that the respondent is present and responding in real-time, although that often happens).

It also serves as a much easier way for someone to track a discussion over time than trying to wade through convoluted email threads with the back-and-forth between multiple individuals.

One of my favorite ways to leverage Slack is to pivot an unproductive email thread over to Slack for resolution. You’ve probably seen this scenario:

  • An urgent issue arises, such as a client escalation, and someone notifies a group of people over email to raise awareness and start a discussion on how to solve the problem.
  • Multiple people respond with their thoughts, and in the process, add 3-5 additional people to the email thread to raise awareness.
  • Before long, you have a thread of 30+ people, likely including most of your executive team, with lots of inefficient communications and cluttered inboxes.

When this happens, here is how I like to leverage Slack:

  • I decide who is the best person to own the resolution.
  • I decide who the minimum required individuals are to participate in the resolution.
  • I respond to the thread with a specific request. I name the owner and the working team. I ask the owner to create a Slack channel with that working team and to continue to work on the issue in that channel rather than email (if they can meet live, that’s even better, of course).
  • I ask them to share the Slack channel with the email thread so anyone who wants to follow progress can join the channel.
  • I ask them to close the loop on the email thread once they have a resolution.

Every time I’ve used this tactic, communication around the issue has improved dramatically, and I get many thank yous from people who didn’t need to be in the weeds with all of the emails filling their inboxes.

The Bad

I mentioned above that Slack is intended to be asynchronous. An in-person meeting, Zoom call, or phone call is synchronous. Each participant is listening and responding to each other in real time. When you email or Slack someone (or send a text message), the recipient can read your message on their own time and may not respond immediately.

When we expect Slack to be synchronous, it becomes problematic. For example, many people feel compelled to read and respond to Slack messages when they are in meetings when their focus should be on the meeting. As I discussed in this blog post, a leader may send a late-night Slack message, expecting the recipient to respond in the morning, but the recipient may feel compelled to respond immediately to please their leader.

You can mitigate this issue by being clear about your communication style. When I work with a new team or new colleagues, I explain how best to communicate with me:

  • I do not constantly monitor email or Slack. When you send me emails or Slack, know that I’ll respond when I’m free and able to do so.
  • If my Slack status says I’m in a meeting, or notifications are paused, or I’m away, assume I won’t see your message quickly.
  • If there’s an urgent issue, the best way to get my attention is a text message or a phone call.
  • If you have more to communicate than you can in a text message, consider sending an email with the detail, then texting me and telling me you’ve sent a high-priority email.

Once you’ve communicated this, practice what you preach. Pause Slack notifications anytime you don’t want to be disturbed. Close it entirely in meetings or when you need to focus.

The Ugly

One of the worst features in Slack (not to mention Outlook) is the notification box that pops up, telling you you have a new message. I consider this ugly on multiple levels.

Primarily, it’s a focus-killer. Right now, I’m focused on writing this blog post. If notifications were popping up telling me I had new Slack messages or emails, each notification would impact my train of thought and pull me out of flow state. 

The other place this can get ugly is sharing your screen in a meeting or a presentation. You have probably seen this experience if not lived it – someone is sharing their screen, and someone else in the meeting sends an email or Slack, and the notification pops up for everyone to see. Awkward.

Turn these off, and leave them off. For Slack, I allow the icon to show me a green or red dot to let me know when I have a message, but that’s the extent of the notifications I allow. No pop-up windows. And when I’m doing something that requires complete focus, such as coaching, Slack is closed entirely. For Outlook, turn off the “New Mail Desktop Alert.” For Windows, that icon should be in your taskbar’s lower-right section; right-click it and uncheck the option. 

What’s your favorite Slack superpower?

Schedule time with Josh.

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