Slacking off: updating the way we communicate
Like many companies with, say, more than half a dozen employees, November Five was beginning to struggle with email, too. So we set out to bring the fun back into our communications.
There’s ample documentation on the negative side effects of too much mail – things get buried and forgotten, people spend far too much time just clearing out the clutter, and there’s nothing to enforce the Monday Blues like an after-weekend inbox with 243 unread emails. On top of that, people were already using several other chat applications – mostly Hangouts and Slack – for quick work-related messages, which occasionally caused confusion.
Because constant, constructive communication is one of the core values of our process, we felt that this situation had room for improvement. So we set out to cut back on email to the point where the only internal mails were Google Calendar meeting invites, and to centralise all work-related communications in one place.
Choosing an app
Chat apps for business use aren’t a new invention – solutions like Yammer and Lync have been around for a while – although they’ve gained traction in recent years. Buzzwords like “startup culture” and “millennial” come to mind. In any case, in a world where increasingly large amounts of adults use some form of chat app as their default mode of contacting their friends and family, it’s not surprising that company communications would follow suit.
For our own purposes, we made a basic checklist. Whatever app we would decide on would have to have a decent system for sending documents; it needed to be flexible and easy to organise in a way that made sense for our teams; and have good search possibilities. Most importantly, we wanted a solution with little to no learning curve: we wanted the transition to be as seamless as possible.
After a bit of research and discussion, we decided on trying out Slack for our team’s communication. Not because it’s the hype of the year, but simply because its combination of features – especially integrations with many of the services we use for project management and development – seemed to suit us best. On top of that, a number of our developers had already been using Slack and recommended it.
How November Five is using Slack
Today, I’d like to outline how we use Slack for our internal communications, and how we feel about the platform after a few months of using it.
For those of you who haven’t yet heard of Slack, a brief introduction. The business chat application was launched in 2013 and shot to fame immediately, thanks to a very loyal fanbase of early adopters. The app has got a decidedly modern and non-corporate design and copy, which helped to set it apart from its competitors.
Slack offers both a free and a paid version of its service. These are identical on first sight, and you can add an unlimited amount of users to the free version. The most important differences are the unlimited search and unlimited integrations you receive with a subscription – on the free plan, these are limited to 10.000 messages and 5 integrations. Because the integrations were one of Slack’s most promising features and an archive of 10.000 messages is only a few day’s worth of chatter from our 50-something team members, we decided on the paid plan.
Installing Slack is a breeze – there’s a web version, mobile applications and a Mac app (our office runs on Macbooks) that everyone just downloads individually. An admin creates an November Five team (you can be a member of different teams), and everyone receives the necessary credentials to log in. This process is very easy, including when adding new hires: there’s support for 2-factor authentication, you can have a link sent to your mobile device to avoid having to type your (randomly generated, long and complex) password manually, and admins can automatically add all new team members to certain channels.
Organisation is key
Slack has three “categories” to organise communications: channels, groups, and private messages. The latter requires little explanation; it’s simple chat messages between two people. The only difference between channels and groups is that channels are public – all employees can join them and read the messages in them – and groups are hidden.
We decided early on that we wanted to use channels, and minimize the use of closed groups. Groups are used sparingly and almost only for more practical arrangements, such as organising our monthly Café. The only exception are projects that are not ready to be announced to the whole team yet. For all other work-related talk, there are open channels.
Organising those channels was a bit of a challenge at first, but we figured out the most efficient way rather quickly. For starters, there is a channel for each team; one for each type of development, for the designers, the PM’s… You get the picture. Apart from those, there is a channel for every client or project. Because we use Toggl for timing everyone’s work, every (sub)project already had a abbreviation, which we now use as the names for their Slack channels. This makes project channels easy to find for everyone, including new hires or interns.
Finally, there’s a few “loose ends” channels – our company smokers have one to coordinate their breaks, for instance, and there are a number of channels devoted entirely to a certain integration (more on that later) – and two mandatory ones, dubbed Spam and Chitchat. The former was named for November Five’s company newsletter and contains important information about the company or the office. This ranges from the announcements of new coworkers or new clients and projects to the somewhat regular issues with our capricious coffee machine and oldtimer elevators. Chitchat, on the other hand, is exactly as its name advertises: our internal chatroom where people can share professionally interesting articles or bizarre videos.
One of the features that the team behind Slack often touts is the app’s elaborate integration options. Slack channels can be connected to a large amount of third-party services, which can then be triggered by actions in Slack or, in reverse, post in a Slack channel each team a certain event or action occurs.
Firstly, we have a few obvious candidates. The Chitchat channel has the Giphy integration enabled, so that a silly gif reply is never more than a quick command away; and several channels use the Dropbox and Google Drive integrations to create smart links to our shared folders.
Our different development teams also use a number of specific integrations in their channels, to make sure that no one misses the most important events. Certain Bitbucket repositories will post their commit messages in a channel for every push, Crashlytics posts app crashes, and Jenkins posts deployment information. We use JIRA to manage projects, so different channels and groups receive notifications when a ticket is created or edited. And to be on the safe side, New Relic warns the right people when things go wrong on the server side.
Of course, after only a few months of using Slack, we certainly haven’t exhausted all the possibilities of the app’s integrations, and the Slack team is constantly working on adding more third-party software to the list. Intelligent automation is always on our to-do list (we’re looking for reinforcements in this department, by the way), so there are ongoing experiments with IFTTT, web hooks, and RSS feeds to make sure everyone is kept in the loop.
Admittedly, the arrangement isn’t flawless. People sometimes still talk in our Spam channel when they’re not supposed to, and a few hard-headed team members turn off notifications and miss certain announcements (luckily, we still do talk at the lunch table). There’s also been concerns that the Chitchat channel is too much of a time suck, which would somewhat defeat the purpose of implementing Slack.
The integrations are also a work in progress – their exact setup is tinkered with on a regular basis, and new ones are added regularly. There’s a line to walk between keeping people in the know and flooding them with information, and we’re altering course whenever we veer towards the wrong side of that line.
On the whole, however, the system works nicely, and even the initial skeptics have mostly moved away from Hangouts. And email? Well, it’s not exactly become a thing of the past (yet), but everyone’s inboxes have become quite a bit more manageable — and that’s certainly something to be grateful for.