Slack doesn’t have to be a maelstrom.

Slack and its ilk have come to dominate communications in the business world—truer still for companies with a remote workforce. The ease of communication comes with some noisy downsides.

For people starved for time and attention (especially managers!), its features can enable more than mere communication. For me, Slack is a significant driver for accountability, clarity, and asynchronous communication.

Creating accountability.

I’m an “inbox zero” sort of person. I prefer to avoid keeping email around that I can’t quickly do something with—I either delete everything or add it to my to-do list. You might then correctly guess that I compulsively read every new Slack message. Others like me say that this behavior in themselves often causes messages to get lost. I don’t share this problem, however, because one of my favorite coworkers has my back: Slackbot.

You see, when I view an unread message that in any way needs my attention and I don’t have that attention available (which is frequent as an engineering manager on account of meetings), I’ll leave it read, but I’ll right-click on it and tell Slackbot to remind me about the message later. When that reminder triggers, well… I’m likely still deeply involved elsewhere, but Slackbot retains the list of things I need to follow up on. This list of messages then constitutes a sort of to-do list that I can handle as I find time for it. It even has a “Mark as Complete” button for each follow-up, making it more of a proper to-do list than would mere unread messages.

This works great for keeping track of incoming messages, but the real secret here is in keeping track of your own messages. Managers spend a lot of their attention making or relaying requests, and we need a way to enable follow-ups—not everyone is going to have as mature of an approach to managing commitments as we do, so one of the ways we support our organizations is by maintaining accountability. When I send a message that I want to ensure gets answered, especially where I don’t think a conclusion is going to come immediately, like in the case of a request for a change or some other action, I’ll right-click my message and ask Slackbot to remind me about my request on some reasonable timeline. Often, I will have gotten what I need long before the reminder, but this practice is made worthwhile in the cases where I don’t (in which case I may have lost track of my request).

Improving signal.

I’ve found a few structural practices in Slack increase the signal-to-noise ratio, both for incoming and outgoing messages. We can organize information better for ourselves and clarify our communications for others.

Channels can form channel groups, which can direct one’s attention toward things that are of high interest while also grouping channels/DMs that are of lesser relevance. For myself, I maintain groups for my most critical partnerships (including Slackbot), my core team, other teams, working groups, alerts, company-wide communications, and a handful of others.

One of the best noise reduction practices I’ve seen is temporary channels. For conversations that are larger yet finite and include a cross-functional group, a dedicated channel separates focus on the matter from the simmering activity in more permanent channels. Consider an example channel #tmp-2023-02-20-site-outage: temporary, urgent, almost certainly needs the attention of people from across the company, but the discussion is poorly suited for other company channels like #general.

Temporary channels work best when operated like a well-run meeting, with a stated purpose and goal, clear expectations for participants—and a definite end. They can sometimes replace meetings, accomplishing more (or just enough) discussion with notes coming built-in with the approach; the tradeoff it accepts is in enabling asynchronous communication but moving slower to achieve its goals with less ability to make demands on people’s attention. With how my calendar tends to fill, this tradeoff is often (but not always!) beneficial. This approach does not address communication problems within the groups, however—best to avoid this tool where it makes existing communication issues worse.

Shouting into the future.

The last class of Slack features worth discussing here are those that aid future communication.

An underappreciated feature of Slack is the humble draft message. Often in (verbal) conversation, I will find I need to talk to someone else to ask a question, issue a reminder, or share some appreciation. In these moments, it’s convenient to start a message with a few keywords resembling the topic, so I neither lose the subject nor abandon my current conversation. I do this when I want to send the complete message as soon as possible, but this is a poor solution for managing a list of topics for upcoming discussions—those should go into a shared meeting agenda document instead.

I’ll sometimes remember something that needs to be said while I’m thinking outside of team working hours. I don’t want to use drafts in these cases because, like unread messages, drafts constitute a sort of inbox for me, and I’m driven to clear them as quickly as possible. In these cases, I’ll write my message and schedule it for the next workday. I want to support a culture that disconnects and recharges, so sending messages outside of reasonable hours is something I avoid. This helps me protect my own time too!

Coming full circle, our last tool for speaking from the past is a more common one: recurring Slackbot reminders. These are useful for creating a little repeatability in some async processes—reminders to the team to write standup messages, monthly requests to maintain bits of documentation, or the morning message announcing “Sustainability Saturday” (our cheeky team commitment to support some slight improvement to our engineering sustainability each Friday).

Slack has a reasonably simple set of behaviors, but they can be used creatively and interestingly. This list doesn’t even scratch the surface of what can be done with its base features, let alone the ecosystem of plugins and bots available. With just a few minor tweaks to your approach, you, too, can foster clearer signals, improve accountability for yourself and others, and reduce intrusions into your coworkers’ (and your own) personal lives.