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Don’t slack in Slack. Use the tool to make your work life better.

“Have a great day at work today,” said Slack when I logged in on Monday.

“Don’t forget to get up and move around,” Slack reminded me yesterday.

“The mystery of life isn't a problem to solve, but a reality to experience,” Slack quoted today.

Who’s Slack, you ask? It may seem like Slack is my motivation buddy, my work wife, or my overly cheerful deskmate. Nope. This particular daily conversation—this relationship—isn’t with a person, it’s with a piece of software. And like every relationship, it comes with its share of highs and lows.

Slack is the handy collaboration tool my company “encourages” us to use. It’s a platform for random questions—“How do I get this survey to post?” or “Who knows why the elevator isn’t working?” and a place to disseminate announcements—"Bob and Gina had their baby!” and “The elevator in Building C is broken because some intern wedged the door open with his Macbook.” It’s meant for the sharing of ideas, documents, and links; it’s supposed to be a replacement for those annoying “reply-all” emails, and the endless threads you get mistakenly copied on.

Officially, Slack is “where work happens.” It’s a technology that brings together all the pieces of work and all the people needed to “get things done.” And for the most part,

Getting Slacked

Most conversations in Slack happen within public “channels” where anyone invited to the “team” can participate. Channels are created for every person and every interest—all employees, specific offices, teams and departments, projects, and hobbies. I’m personally following #running, #fitness, #announcements-corp, #book-club, #remote-workers, and #content-marketing. I’m also part of the pet (corgi-obsessed) channel and the specific floor of the San Francisco office that I visit a few times each quarter.

You can also chat privately—like IM or Google Hangouts—but the true power of Slack comes from having conversations everyone in the channel can see, regardless of where they are located and what role they play. It’s designed to be transparent and make it easy to digest all the information and conversations you need without actually getting up and tracking someone down. Slack’s surveyed users say it reduces the need for meetings by 25 percent and increases productivity by 32 percent.

The key to being productive in Slack is selecting the right channels. Too many channels can be overwhelming, and too few means you’re likely to experience debilitating FOMO.

The key to being productive in Slack is selecting the right channels. Too many channels can be overwhelming, and too few means you’re likely to experience debilitating FOMO.

Whether you are a new employee or Slack is a new application in your company, it’s worth exploring the tool, reading the Getting Started Guide, and cozying up to your Slack admin.

What’s in an admin?

A good Slack admin serves a few purposes: they keep the conversations rolling, they diffuse any touchy situations, and they set the standards for responsible corporate citizenship.

Hannah Lawrence is Zendesk’s Internal Communications Manager and one of the company’s Slack admins, alongside IT and key stakeholders in major teams. When asked about her responsibilities, Lawrence says it’s pretty simple. “I think it’s my role to moderate and inspire conversation and get people’s questions answered. You don’t want something to sit out there, so sometimes I jump into a conversation and find the right person to answer it.”

Lawrence says Slack has allowed her to engage with more employees—with people spread across the many global Zendesk offices and to learn more about the company and its products. “I chat with more people than I normally would have. I jump into conversations that I’m interested in and watch more conversations than I could without the tool. It’s like private conversations out in the open that allow others to follow and learn from.”

Lawrence also curates the information she sees for the monthly all-hands meeting. “There’s great stuff floating around in the channels. Some serious, a lot entertaining, but mostly just good work.”

Slack doesn’t always come up roses

Unquestionably, Slack can shield you from unwanted and unnecessary conversations. It can connect you with teammates across the world. It may even score you a free lunch (but only if you live in New York). But Slack can also increase frustration and diminish productivity, if not used properly.

There’s a common scenario bandied about on Slack boards: a question that you could have quickly answered through email or IM ends up languishing on a Slack channel, only to be incorrectly handled by an eager, but misguided colleague. Now you not only have to correct the error on Slack, you have to send follow-up emails, make calls, or have meetings to repair the second and third order effects of a wrong answer you didn’t give in the first place.

In “Slack, I’m Breaking Up with You,” writer and UX designer, Samuel Hulick chronicles his productivity decline. “I’m finding that ‘always on’ tendency to be a self-perpetuating feedback loop: the more everyone’s hanging out, the more conversations take place. The more conversations, the more everyone’s expected to participate. Lather, rinse, repeat.” Before Hulick knew it, he was spending more time working his Slack channels than actually working.

Before Hulick knew it, he was spending more time working his Slack channels than actually working.

In a response to Hulick’s post, Nathan Fleming counters, “In my experience, people only expect you to behave the way you always do. Stop participating compulsively and people will stop expecting you to be ‘always on.’ You’re in control.

Mandy, a self-described designer, gamer, and developer agrees. “It’s no different than putting on headphones or any other type of visible ‘Do Not Disturb’ signage to let people know you’re unavailable/in heads-down mode.”

But Lawrence acknowledges that for many employees, it’s not always easy to turn their back on Slack. That’s why, as the admin, she steps in to assist. Lawrence does a weekly round-up from across Slack and pins it to #zendesk-all. It’s one way to keep fellow employees from missing important information, and it helps enforce healthier behavior.

The meeting that never ends

Hulick, like Lawrence, views many of the Slack discussions as “private conversations out in the open.” But unlike Lawrence, he found most of them unproductive and likened them to meetings that never end. “All-day meetings every day of the week are substantially more ‘meetings’ than the ones you’re saving me from.” Hulick accuses people of hiding out in Slack and pushing off in-person meetings and IRL conversations in favor of “slack in Slack.”

“It leads to everyone having half-conversations all day long,” Hulick continues. “With people frequently rotating through one slow-drip discussion after another, never needing to officially check out because ‘hey! it’s asynchronous!’”

Working at the global water cooler

One of the common complaints (and appreciations) of Slack is the ability to share silly, funny, inspiring, or random things with a broad base of people. While humor can break up the work day, Hulick contests that the accessibility and transparency of Slack lowers the bar on message-worthy content. “Email may have had its flaws with its ‘FWD: FWD: CC: FWD You have to read this!!’ jokes sent from distant family members, but my god in heaven do those sound like the halcyon days of tranquility compared to the Diet-Coke-and-Mentos-like explosion of cat gifs, bot feeds, and emoji mashups you’ve [Slack] brought into my life.”

“Just because it’s fun to hang out at the water cooler at work,” Halick continues. “It doesn’t mean I want to work there.”

Almost 87 percent of surveyed Slack users say the platform has better connected them to their teams— Lawrence acknowledges that this is mostly true at Zendesk, but that Slack hasn’t entirely bridged the global gap. “Slack is really good for people within offices,” she says. “For example, our Melbourne office was historically chatty with each other, yet didn’t proactively go out to other offices.”

Almost 87 percent of surveyed Slack users say the platform has better connected them to their teams—in great part because of the ability to share the silly alongside the serious.

Some of this office-to-office disconnect is cultural. Even within the same organization, each group, each office, each city, each country, can have its own cultural nuances. And sometimes those nuances don’t translate well across borders, especially when it comes to “work appropriate” conversations and humor. “Sometimes groups form that could turn off new users,” Lawrence admits. “It’s taking a conversation that used to be exposed to 10 people in a pod and now it’s open to the whole office, the whole company.” But that’s where a good admin can step in and where training can help. With some encouragement, Lawrence has noticed people branching out from their location-based channels and chatting more with employees in topic-based ones.

“We have actually had to undergo company Slack Training, i.e. when an email should replace a slack message,” shares Jonathon Ende, CEO of SeamlessDocs. “Slack has been great for quickly updating the team and for having conversations BUT there are certain times where a specific call to action and or larger project is required. Since the training, we have found a nice balance…”

As in life, and work, it’s all about the fit

There it is: the elusive balance, the desire for “fit.” We look for it in life and work, we look for it in personal relationships, and we apparently look for it from Slack.

To make Slack work for you, is a conversation only you can have with Slack. Do you want it to be your voice of motivation each Monday morning? Is Slack the social life you never had in grammar school? Or do you want to use Slack as it was intended—as a way to reduce some meetings and email, and get you a little bit closer to your colleagues and productivity goals.

When in doubt, talk to your company’s admin, take advantage of training, and be prepared to set your own boundaries. “Part of the battle seems to be establishing these boundaries,” says Mandy. “And letting employees know they’re not being assholes by ignoring their colleagues when they need to focus for a couple hours.” Yes, the proverbial water cooler can wait.

When she's not packing suitcases or unpacking boxes, Sarah guides the editorial content for all Relate publications and events. Her favorite subjects are customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Sarah’s most difficult personal relationship is with collections—they make moving difficult—yet, she’s still managed to amass too many addresses, books, corgis, and gym clothes. Find her on Twitter at: @stealeyreed.