To little surprise, Slack had its widely successful public debut (NYSE: WORK). This application juggernaut has become the new standard for how tech startups communicate. While it's known for its rise to stardom, Slack is the protagonist of an incredible pivot story about ditching plan A for B--and never looking back. In its early days, Slack was merely an internal communication tool for Tiny Speck, whose main product was Glitch, a social MMORPG. The internal product was so useful and, given Glitch's limited audience appeal, the company successfully pivoted to become what we now know as Slack.
Slack has coined themselves the "email killer." The communication tool of the future which promises increased efficiency amongst teams by eliminating much of the friction around emails, excessive meetings, and phone calls. Slack is pushing us closer to a world where more companies can offer employee flexibility to work where they need to without painful commutes or without needing to live in suffocating overpriced metropolitan cities. While I am a huge fan and advocate of Slack, out of the box Slack can pose a communication woe if boundaries and some rules are not established.
Any time, anywhere
Slack's big advantage is its capability to open the lines of communication amongst team members no matter where they are. It's a quick and easy solution to connect and communicate without the formality of email and with more structure than pure chat. With various channels, team members can opt into different groups and be tagged when their response or attention is needed.
The future of workplace flexibility rides on the adoption of platforms like Slack. So long as there is WiFi, there is an opportunity to work, and Slack can be leveraged to catapult employees out of stale cubicles to their environments of choice. The idea of working where you please, even the beach if you wish, sounds all too appealing, but simultaneously boundaries quickly disappear. When questions can be asked and answers received at any hour, the pressure to always be plugged in is inevitable. You can be sucked into the vortex of communication overload.
The other day I found myself actively engaging in five different Slack conversations simultaneously without anyone knowing. If five different groups of people were standing at my desk, it may give them pause and it would be natural to ask them to wait for a response. But with Slack, no one knows what's going on behind the curtain. Our love of chat apps has created an expectation of immediacy. While it can inhibit faster flying information, it also can easily chain our fingers to our keyboards.
The remedy for management teams is to establish some internal communication boundaries. Managers should be encouraged to have an open dialog about communication expectations. Startup life, in particular, doesn't operate during traditional 9 to 5 business hours. Weekend work is common. Making sure your team knows when you need an immediate answer (the site is down) versus when a random thought manifested at 10 pm at night. Laying out your communication style is imperative so that not everything feels like a fire drill.
Not the Killer, the Ally
Playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, "The Single Biggest Problem in Communication is The Illusion That It Has Taken Place." Many people falsely assume that communication occurs when they deliver information to another person. In reality, communication only occurs when the person on the receiving end comprehend it.
With increased communication choices, teams need to figure out which platform they are using for each type of communication. Often, Slack power users use Slack for all communication. Sending over huge chunks of information tethered with multiple asks and amass with conversations about entirely unrelated topics leads to one elongated stream of consciousness.
When I first started at Affinity, one of its co-founders, Ray Zhou, loved maximizing Slack's communication efficiency. The issue arose that Slack was much more challenging for me and others to triage large asks and email was preferred. Email, for many, is easier to keep projects and asks separate so they can be prioritized. The resolve revolved around a conversation and understanding of how different leaders work. In turn, bigger projects were sent via email and I got a power-user's crash course in better utilizes some lesser known features. Using a combination of Slack and email for internal communication has been a total win.
So fun that it doesn't feel like work
Slack's simplicity and ease of use can not only spike productivity but also be enjoyable to use. It isn't complicated software. Its user interface is wonderfully well thought out. It is loaded with small features that can make a drab day at the office fun.
I recently chatted with an employment attorney whose job is to prevent workplace harassment. I was surprised to find out that Slack was now surfacing in a lot more cases as evidence. One reason stems from the disbelief that "private" channels or direct messages are indeed private.
The reality, just like with email, is that the communication is owned by the company and the conversations are accessible by the employers. Even deleted threads! Slack is so easy to use that some people forget about boundaries and appropriate workplace communication. The ability to respond with a funny GIF over standard text is an enjoyable feature, yet it seems all too easy to accidentally offend someone with your quirky response. Now, this is of course not Slack's fault, but the management at companies that adopt Slack need take responsibility to develop a framework for how it should be used and what is deemed appropriate.
Slack remains one of my favorite tools in my startup tech stack, yet with any new tool, adoption requires adaption. Changing how your company communicates can cause friction. Level setting exceptions and building frameworks for how best to use the tool at your company, especially during on-boarding, is essential. Don't treat Slack like email, don't treat it like SMS or chat. Understand its power and limitations to ensure your team is set up for success.