Building Community with Slack

Whenever I talk to people about being a remote company, they will often ask how we replicate the “water cooler conversations” that happen organically in a standard office setting. (Sidenote: I’ve only ever worked at one company that had an actual water cooler.) The conversations they are referring to are the ones where employees talk about their families and their hobbies and many of their non-work interests. They also might talk about things that are happening both inside the company and outside the company that are tangentially related to their jobs. Sprinkled into those conversations are often times some of the “outside the box” brainstorming and problem solving that usually aren’t factored explicitly into employees’ schedules.

I believe that when people ask about replicating “water cooler conversations”, what they are really asking about is how to build a sense of community and trust among employees who are rarely in the same physical location. How do they create an environment where people feel like they know each other well enough to share a crazy, hair-brained idea? How do they trust each other well enough to talk about a potential pitfall that nobody else has noticed yet?

I don’t purport to have all the answers, but I can tell you that at Silverpine, we lean heavily on Slack to help build trust and community on a day-to-day basis. If you don’t know what Slack is, it is a software communication tool that feels a little like group instant messaging, but has a few differences that increase its utility immensely for people and groups who aren’t co-located. (I’ve also listed out a number of our regular tools that we use for remote work here.)

To help build a sense of community, there are a few specific approaches that we employ in our Slack instance:

  1. Create channels that serve an explicit, well communicated purpose
  2. Have a well defined strategy for populating channels
  3. Archive unused, unneeded channels to limit confusion
  4. Model the behavior you want to see

Because we are a technology company with heavy dose of design, some of the ways that we utilize Slack won’t be applicable to everyone, but I believe that in general, these 4 strategies can be applied to any organization that uses Slack.

So how exactly do we use these strategies?

Create Channels With Purpose

Our strategy for Slack channels is heavily influenced by our staffing model. We employ a decent number of sub-contractors in addition to our employees so we have a few categories of different channels.

General Purpose Channels

We have two general purpose channels that are work related: “#general” and “#internal”. In the #general channel (which is a default Slack channel that every user gets added to), content that is posted is generally restricted to work-related things that apply to everyone whether they are an employee, a contractor, an engineer a designer or whatever role they might have. An example of that might be an announcement about a project launch that both employees and contractors worked on. The second general purpose channel is our “internal” channel which is only for employees. This is sort of the inner circle where we talk about things like health insurance policy changes or company strategy. If you want to know more, you’ll have to apply and join us!

Project Specific Channels

This is a very common strategy and somewhat obvious, but for every project that is active within our company, there is a corresponding Slack channel populated with all the relevant project members. This ensures that the majority of the conversations about a particular project can all be found in one place. It also makes it clear where someone needs to go if they need to talk about their work. Again, this is a common strategy, but it’s definitely a good one.

Topic Specific Work Channels

We also create channels created for conversations about tangential related work topics, but that aren’t necessarily for a specific project. For example, since we build iOS and Android apps, we have a channel dedicated to iOS development and a channel dedicated to Android development. What is discussed in these channels isn’t specific to any particular Silverpine effort, but it’s a place where we can cross-pollinate ideas and have conversations about some of the building-blocks of our business. It’s very common for our developers to both ask for suggestions on solving a problem but also to post interesting solutions to things they have learned.

Non Sequitur Channels

Finally, we have a few channels for topics that aren’t related to projects and aren’t really related to work at all that I refer to as “non sequitur” channels. For example, we have the default #random channel, but we also have a #basketball channel where a few of us who enjoy the sports-balls discuss matters of the day. I am part of other Slack communities that have a number of non-work channels, like #photography and # travel. My only caution when making hobby and non-work channels is that it’s very easy to overdo it and end up with a list so large that it paralyzes would-be communicators. It should always be clear what channel someone should use if they feel like talking and having too many channels can erode that feeling of comfort.

Archive Unused Channels

Some administrators treat Slack as immutable and that channels, once created, should exist indefinitely. I strongly disagree with that for the same reasons why I feel it’s important to have a limited number non-work channels.

When a project wraps up, we keep the project Slack channel around for a couple months and then archive it. We will generally send a last message to the @channel to make sure everyone is ok with archiving it, but usually, if nobody has posted for a few months, it’s a good indicator that it’s time to wrap it up. (If you have a paid plan, you can always unarchive it if needed, but in practice, I’ve never had to do this.)

Second, if you have created non-work channels that aren’t being used, that’s ok! Just admit that people might not care about whatever the topic of that channel is, and archive it. As I mentioned before, having too many choices can lead to paralysis and erode the very trust you’re trying to build.

Be Smart Populating Channels

In Slack, there are a number of ways that people can become a member of a channel. But the most important time to think about adding people to a new channel is at the time of creation. When you invite someone to a channel when it is first created you are communicating to them that you feel their voice is valuable, that they belong. If you wait for people go search the channel list and join on their own, not only do they miss out on some of the earlier conversations, but they can sometimes feel like they are outsiders trying to break into a clique.

Also make sure to take a few extra seconds when you are creating the channel to decide if the channel should be public or private. This can make a big difference in terms of both information overload (if users have too many channels available to them to join) as well as that sense of belonging. If you stumble on a channel that you weren’t explicitly invited to, it’s hard to not feel somewhat left out.

Model Behavior

Finally, perhaps the most critical element in building community via Slack is to model the behavior you want to see. If you want people to engage and communicate regularly, show them how you do that. If you want people to talk 1:1 as well as in group channels, make sure you’re talking to your team in the direct channels.

Also, be smart about using channel @mentions. Don’t be afraid to use @here and @channel mentions, but be aware of the dangers of overuse. They are powerful in that they notify large groups of people with a few keystrokes, but if you used too often, it can lead to people ignoring channel notifications altogether.

Similarly, try to get in a habit of using someone’s @handle rather than just their name to make sure they know they are being talked about. For example, don’t type

“I’m not sure about that, but we should probably ask Jon what he thinks”

but instead write

“I’m not sure about that, but we should probably ask @jon what he thinks.” 

And whatever you do, don’t underestimate how much other people on your team look at how you are using Slack, yourself. If you are frequently joking, you will find that much of your channel content will be filled with joking. If you frequently write simple, terse comments, the rest of your team will consciously or unconsciously mimic your behavior. And most importantly of all, if you don’t communicate often, your team will reciprocate.




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