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The ubiquitous messaging tool is used to run many a software engineering team, but are you using it right?

Since it burst on the scene in 2014, messaging platform Slack has been adopted by hundreds of thousands of organizations, countless engineering teams, and millions of tech workers. It’s no exaggeration to say that many remote companies run on Slack. As such a powerful and pervasive part of our working lives, using Slack comes with plenty of pitfalls. Misread the company or team culture and you could commit some serious Slack faux pas, offend your boss, and even get fired.

To put together this guide on how to use Slack effectively we read a bunch of internal Slack guidelines, spoke to workplace communication experts, and canvassed the LeadDev community. Here’s what you need to know.

Sync or async?

Is Slack a chat app designed for immediate, synchronous communication, or an asynchronous collaboration tool? The problem is that it can be either, or both, depending on the company culture. 

For some teams, Slack is a fast-paced messaging app where instant replies are expected – sometimes even out of hours. When you’re working, Slack often sits open with notifications on. Your boss could ping you at any time. During a meeting or a deep work session you might be slow to respond, but everyone assumes you’ll get back to them as soon as you’re free.

For other teams, Slack is much slower and asynchronous. While it’s still a central communications tool, people are expected to reply when it suits them, much as they would with an email. Slack may still sit open when you’re at work, but you don’t have to constantly monitor it. If you’ve got coworkers in other time-zones, they’ll respond when you’re offline and it’s no big deal. You don’t have to log in to Slack late in the evening just to check.

While we feel that using Slack as a powerful asynchronous tool is a much healthier way to work, not everyone does. Others may treat Slack as an exclusively synchronous communication tool, and use other methods, such as email, for less urgent messages.

Regardless of personal opinion, the nature of Slack usage in your team and across your organization should be well understood and agreed upon to be used effectively.

Be open about your expectations and habits

A huge amount of Slack problems can be solved by being explicit about what you expect from your coworkers. When we chat face-to-face, there are dozens of small signals, from tone of voice to body language, that just aren’t available through Slack. “Can you get this done by Friday?” could be a command, or a genuine question about feasibility.

Instead, if you default to being extremely open about your expectations, requirements, and preferences, you can head off many issues before they crop up. If you need a response from someone by a certain time, put it in the message. If you are attending a meeting and won’t be available to reply to messages, set your Slack status to away, busy, or simply “at a meeting, back at 4pm”. If you are wondering if someone has the bandwidth to take on an extra project, don’t ask them an ambiguous question.

Max Brawer, formerly head of people analytics at the streaming platform Twitch, recommends writing and sharing personal user manuals – short documents that include details like your work hours, when you tend to respond to messages, and even the kind of feedback you prefer. Especially with remote teams where people only meet a handful of times per year, user manuals can make it easier to set clear expectations.

Never just say hello

One of the most common pet peeves about Slack usage is receiving messages that just say “hello”, “hey”, or otherwise don’t include anything but a greeting

While it can feel more polite to lead with a greeting instead of a request, these messages waste everyone’s time and put the onus to respond on the recipient. The sender has to wait for the recipient to reply, and then the recipient has to wait while the recipient gets round to sending the message they should have sent in the first place. Sure, send a greeting, but always combine it with your question or request.

Include everything the recipient needs in a single message

Slack messages should include all the information and context the recipient needs to take action. While this is true across the board, Brawer says it's especially important if you are working remotely with people in different time-zones.

Slack’s own guide to etiquette recommends making longer messages scan more easily using bullet lists, emoji, and text styling. You can also front load your message with the request, before adding the context afterwards.

Avoid direct messages and private channels where possible

While Slack feels like an instant messaging app and you can use it to send direct messages, in most cases you shouldn’t. According to Brawer’s research, “messengers work best at companies with the most channels and fewest DMs.” Information in public channels is visible to the rest of the organization so everyone can stay up-to-date on what their coworkers are doing and weigh in if necessary. 

Similarly, using public channels stops duplicate messages. If you organize a meeting in a public channel, you only need to send a single message about it. On the other hand, if you reach out to each participant individually, you have to send at least a few different messages. 

Public channels are also searchable. If someone has already asked about time off policies, the company retreat, or for a link to the slide deck template, anyone else can just search for the information and find what they need, without having to wait for other people to respond.

If you don’t want to clog up a general channel with a specific discussion, spin up a new channel. You can even make it a private channel, though that undermines some of the benefits of working in public as much as possible.

Threads keep things organized

With lots of channels on the go, things can get messy, fast. Threads are a vital way to organize conversations and keep all the relevant information in one place, without any important context getting lost. 

With that said, there are a few important things to remember with threads:

  • Slack’s etiquette guide recommends also sending any important decisions or major updates that are made in a thread to the main channel by checking the “also send to #channel” checkbox. This means that other people don’t need to dive into every thread to see what next steps have been decided on. 
  • If a conversation in a thread expands beyond its original scope, start a new thread in the main channel. Threads are great for keeping the channel discussion free from clutter, but if they’re not used carefully, they can hide important information.

Using @channel is a big deal

An @channel message notifies every user subscribed to a particular channel of your message. You should only use @channel if your message is legitimately relevant to everyone who is about to get a notification. If you don’t have a seat in the C-suite, this probably doesn’t apply to most things! An @channel message definitely shouldn’t be used if you just want a quick reply to an unimportant question. 

Consider using @here as an alternative to @channel, as it will only notify people who are actively on Slack. Realistically though, unless you use Slack as a high-speed synchronous tool, any kind of mass notification should be used carefully.

Respect other people

While Slack has plenty of quirks that necessitate bits of specific advice, just treating other people with respect can go a long way. Some of the things to keep in mind are:

  • Remember that you aren’t chatting to faceless AI bots (most of the time). You are in Slack channels with real people. 
  • Brawer recommends that you assume everyone is operating with positive intent. If you get a blunt or terse message, it’s better to assume that the other person is busy and not that they don’t like you or are being unnecessarily cruel.
  • Schedule direct messages to send during the recipients’ working hours. Not only will they see it when they need it, but it means that they won’t have to worry about getting any notifications while they are off.
  • Be careful with emojis. They can have unintended meanings, especially across generational boundaries.
  • Don’t @mention people unnecessarily. Slack isn’t email – sending a message to a channel keeps everyone in the loop.
  • Introduce yourself to new people. Joining a Slack instance can be pretty overwhelming, so say hi to welcome any newcomers.

A word for the leaders

Just as in an office environment, the actions and words of senior leaders carry additional weight on Slack. 

One senior executive at a large tech company liked to post a bunch of thoughts to Slack on a Friday afternoon after lunch. While this was intended as a nice way to provide context at the end of the week, they didn’t realize that this made Friday afternoons incredibly stressful for their direct reports, who all felt that they had to acknowledge and respond to the messages. If the executive had refrained from sending the messages until Monday – or even just scheduled them – they could have created a culture with a healthy rhythm to the week. Instead, they unconsciously made things more chaotic for their staff.

Whether you are leading a company or a small team, how you use Slack will heavily influence how everyone else uses the tool. If you are clear, assume the best, and respect other peoples’ time, your staff will learn to do the same. On the other hand, if you send demanding messages at all hours and expect your direct reports to respond immediately, you’ll create an incredibly unpleasant working environment that goes far beyond just Slack.