Last May, after the initial shock of the pandemic had subsided and it was clear we were going to be living this way for a while, I had conversations with a number of friends who were miserable at work. The problem wasn’t working from home exactly, but rather the way that work was happening. Despite the fact they were no longer occupying the same physical space as their coworkers, the long shadow of the office still loomed over every interaction. Calendars were just as full of useless meetings as they were before, only now they were entirely held over Zoom. Slack wasn’t a vibrant public forum, but rather a backchannel full of DMs asking for finished work. Not everyone was miserable, but those most fed up with work from home were in organizations that went remote while changing as little as possible about how they actually work.

There’s plenty of evidence those early feelings are still with many ten months later. Citi recently announced “Zoom-Free Fridays,” a case of treating the symptom not the problem if I ever heard one. And a recent Microsoft survey of 30,000 workers found 41% were considering leaving their jobs. What’s more, despite meetings already being the scourge of many workplaces, Microsoft also reported, “Time spent in Teams meetings has more than doubled and keeps rising, meetings are 10 minutes longer on average.” Is it any wonder people are unhappy? Instead of adapting to this new world of remote work, we’ve taken the worst of the office and amplified it.

When I see this pattern I can’t help but turn to media studies and Marshall McLuhan. In his classic book Understanding Media, McLuhan explained that a “new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.” The classic story is that when a new medium like television comes along, the first thing we do is recreate its predecessor in the new channel. That’s why the first shows on TV were essentially radio broadcasts in front of a camera. Eventually the new medium is recognized as its own unique thing and we create specifically for the channel. 

Debut of Today in 1952

Remote (and the technology that exists around it like Zoom and Slack) are a new medium. Those companies who recognize this are finding ways to more drastically adapt their work approach, and those who don’t are left doing the equivalent of radio broadcasts on television.

So what’s a company to do?

Well, on one side, Slack and Zoom are working hard to find better solutions for the problem. Slack, for instance, is trying to find more ways to allow for asynchronous work: recognizing the old rules of meetings no longer apply. 

An early look at new Slack features from Slack VP of Product Noah Weiss

But even just using the tools we already have available to us in better ways can make a huge difference. In the early days of fully remote working, I wrote up a guide to using Slack effectively at Variance. It’s not revolutionary, but it really helps keep us on track and ensure Slack is more than just a place for passive-aggressive DMs. Below is the guide in full. I hope it helps you move your organization to treat remote more like its own medium and less like an extension of the office.

Using Slack Effectively at Variance

First some very basic rules:

  • Use real names so it’s easy to know who you're talking to
  • Use real photos so it’s easier to find people in conversations

There are some general principles we follow on Slack:

  1. Public > Private: We are a remote-first company, even if you happen to be sitting next to someone, try to use Slack so everyone can see/participate.  This includes direct messages, which should be reserved for conversations that either a) need to be private or b) are wildly off-topic.
  2. Synchronous + Asynchronous: Slack is not just for real-time communication (though it can be great for that). It’s also a place to visibly ask others questions that they can reply to in their own time. Thinking of it in both ways is critical for success.
  3. More specific channels > fewer general channels: This is still up for debate, but it’s my opinion that it’s better to have more specific channels that people know exactly how to use than more general ones where people may feel anxious about saying something off-topic. With that said, it’s better to start general and go specific when a topic starts to overwhelm a channel.
  4. Archive > Keep: If a channel is dead, get rid of it. You can always bring it back if you need it. Part of this is also using apps like Dash, which set up temporary channels that expire.
  5. Move to calls when chat won’t due: Sometimes you just can’t communicate the thing you’re trying to communicate with messages. That’s fine. Just kick off a Slack call (or a Zoom call or a phone call). Again, here, if you can just offer it up publicly and others can join in if they want.
  6. Keep Everything Organized: Use prefixes religiously to keep it easy for people to understand what a channel is. Keep bots out of comms channels and label them appropriately.

Mentions

Moving to Slack means relying on it as your primary communication method. With that comes an expectation that people will respond when you communicate with them. Setting expectations around @ messages and DMs is critical. Similarly, not over-using @/here/channel is important for ensuring that mentions maintain a high signal to noise.

Prefixes

Every channel should have a prefix. This makes it much easier to find things. Ultimately this should reflect your own. Here’s what we have:

  • bot— For bots and automated messages
  • co— For all company-related channels
  • data—We use this in addition to #bot- as a way to stream in our product data from the Variance application
  • gtm— For all go-to-market (sales, marketing, services) related channels
  • misc— For all topic-based and random channels
  • prod— For all product-related channels
  • proj— For collaboration on and discussion about a project

For more on naming guidelines, check out Slack’s help article about creating guidelines for channel names.

Oh, and finally, use the remind feature (it’s in the More Actions menu on every message). It’s probably the least well-known, highly useful Slack feature that exists.

The right signals for growth

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