6 secrets to mastering Slack

Smarter communication isn’t magic. But with these tips, it’ll be hard to tell the difference

6 secrets to mastering Slack

Communication is the most important aspect of working on a team -- without it, there is no team. Slack is all about making that invaluable communication more efficient. Slack allows for public channels, private groups, and direct messaging, giving team members the options to communicate in the mode appropriate to the topic. Plus, the ability to join multiple teams makes it easy to switch between work, recreational, and topic-specific chats.

Slack is an extremely flexible chat app, but the endless possibilities make it hard to know where to start. The good news: You don’t have to dive all the way down the rabbit hole to get the most out of Slack. Follow these six tips to use Slack to maximum advantage, and build healthy Slack habits for better team communication.

1. Stick with public channels

Slack’s public channels, private groups, and direct messages offer great flexibility, but it’s not always clear when you should use which mode. I’ve seen many teams default to direct messages and private groups, sometimes to the point where 80 percent of all communication is private. Of course privacy has its place, but keep in mind that private communication is a black hole for information. Private groups and direct messages are where data goes to die or where it can only be recovered through a convoluted, high-tech game of telephone. Even worse, making private groups the default can stigmatize openness and discourage free communication of ideas. Avoid all of that by communicating in public channels all the time.

Fostering transparency will help teams grow a keener awareness of what’s going on and increase alignment. You’ll also be surprised by who ends up lending a helping hand. We make all communications public at Spantree (where I work), and when a question is asked or a problem surfaces, the whole team will swarm in and work together. As a group we make short work of most issues, and nothing brings our team together like inviting those experiences time after time throughout the day.

There are some exceptions to this approach, of course. For example, HR-related questions and candidate interview discussions belong in private groups. In general, though, if you value information sharing and want to encourage your teammates to ask for help when they need it, public communication is the way to go.

slack private

Almost 70 percent of the information in this Slack team is hidden. 

2. Choose channels carefully

Now that you’re defaulting to public communications, your public channels will get busier. You’ll need to structure them in such a way that channels are specific enough to have a purpose, but not so specific that you need 50 of them. The way you accomplish it will depend on the type of company you work with, but you want channels to promote intrateam communication as well as cross-pollination.

If several product teams comprise your organization, make sure you have a channel for each team. To facilitate cross-pollination, create a channel for shared roles across teams, like front-end or devops. All of the front-enders and devops folks can join these teams to share information across the organization. Have multiple offices? Create a team for each one. You get the picture.

Regardless of how you’ve laid out the channels described above, there are a few that can be prescribed more easily. First, you’ll want a general room where announcements can be made. This comes by default, so you won’t need to create a channel. The next is a “random” channel. Random is where all the non-work-related conversations can go. Look in our random channel and you’ll see pictures of the kitchen island I’m building, “Ambien Walrus” cartoons, and discussion of characters in Greek mythology.

You may have grand ideas about all the channels that would be perfect, but take my advice and start off small. It’s better to add a channel when you need it than to start out in a desolate wasteland.

3. Minimize announcements

There are three ways to reach a large group of people in Slack: @channel, @everyone, and @here. Never use them. Or if never isn’t feasible, lean toward almost never. Your teammates may have Slack on their computers, phones, and tablets, with email and push notifications sent on mentions. Is your message worth that sort of urgency? At Spantree, we used @channel twice in the entire month of February, once by accident.

The biggest problem with frequent use of far-reaching notifications is the “boy who cried wolf” scenario. When people get bugged all the time about every little thing, they become desensitized to the input. Then when something urgent happens, you may realize that half of your teammates have subconsciously screened the message. Minimizing announcements is especially important in the default channel because nobody can leave.

slack notifications

Killing co-workers softly with push notifications. 

4. Take advantage of custom integrations

Who says humans are the only ones who can participate in a chat? With custom integrations, you can have your core services post into channels inline with the conversation.

Hook up issue tracking software so that whenever an issue is created or closed, the whole channel will know. Then link up with your GitHub or Bitbucket account so that you can see when a pull request is ready to review. Once you’ve checked the pull request and merged it into your master branch, watch as your continuous integration tool posts build successes and failures. Configure the New Relic integration, and you’ll also see application monitoring alerts get neatly interjected into whatever conversation you were having before the application burped.

The point is you can have real-time information streaming into your conversation, enriching your understanding of what’s going on at the moment, and bringing the whole team together in an instant to resolve problems as they arise. If the information you need isn’t already offered in an integration, you can easily write your own.

slack integrations

Slack integrates with New Relic, among others, to interject monitoring alerts into your chat channel. 

5. Make use of slash commands

Not everything you type in Slack has to be a message to someone. In addition to sending text, you can initiate actions with slash commands. These include /leave, which removes you from whatever channel you’re in, and /invite_people, which sends Slack team invites to one or more email addresses.

One of the most useful commands that ships with Slack is /remind, as in /remind me to order new office slippers at 4PM today. When I first learned about /remind, I kept forgetting that it existed. Luckily, the solution was simple: /remind me that Slack reminders exist every day at 9 a.m. As soon as I started using reminders on my own accord, I canceled the reminder.

Some custom integrations add their own slash commands. For instance, the Screenhero integration lets you launch a screen-sharing session or a voice call directly from a chat. Typing /hero @roberto is a convenient way to start pairing, and the more roadblocks you remove from productivity the better. The combination of custom integrations and custom slash commands can lead to a practice called “chat ops,” where a team can monitor and interact with their infrastructure within the context of an ongoing conversation. Imagine NASA flight control, but for devops.

These commands don’t have to be all work and no play. You can also install fun integrations like Giphy or RightGif, which embed random GIFs inline based on search words you provide, like /giphy hamster eats burrito. As with custom integrations, you can write your own custom slash commands, so the opportunities are limitless.

slack slash commands

Some Slack integrations, such as Giphy, come with their own Slash commands.

6. Get the community involved

Did you know that for each Slack user you pay for you can have up to five single-channel guests for free? As consultants, we at Spantree invite our key stakeholders into client-specific channels so that they have a quick and direct way to hold conversations with us. How might you integrate the outside world into your Slack team? Ultimately, it’s up to you, but here are a few ideas:

  • Invite beta testers into a channel to get quick feedback for new product releases
  • Offer Slack access as a premium support feature
  • Create temporary accounts for potential hires to facilitate sharing resources during an interview

There are countless ways you can get more out of Slack, and these are a few of the starting points. Are you a power user with a mouse aversion? Check out the Quick Switcher. Need to work on an email collaboratively? Editable posts are perfect for that.

At my company, Slack is present in everything we do. Slack allows us to operate as a unit regardless of geographic distribution. We rely on it at every stage of the application development lifecycle, from gathering requirements to monitoring production. We use it to bring clients into our office with us.

How do you use Slack? Be sure to share your own tricks in the comments section below or continue the conversation with me on Twitter @freethejazz.

This story, "6 secrets to mastering Slack" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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