Slack Cultures

Many years ago I grew up hanging out in IRC. These days I spend a lot of time in four different Slack teams, and the cultures are not only different between each other but so very different to the culture of IRC.

We used to have an internal IRC server in our main office. Understandably only the technical teams used it, and only during office hours (a VPN connection was required from outside the office). When we introduced Slack it made it very easy for the entire company to connect and start discussing everything from ongoing incidents to cycling, photography, and which vending machines have the best flapjack. Entire business processes started forming around Slack as a communication medium, and because many people came from a non-technical background they didn’t have any hangups from the era of IRC.

As well as the IRC users there are now people from two distinct post-IRC eras, and the cultures are very different.

There’s a group of people who are very used to email as the primary means of communication within the office environment. These are the people less likely to complete their profile because profiles aren’t something that they even consider. Introduce these people to Slack and they’ll use @here on every message because it’s the only way to get email-like notifications to everyone. In some teams this has led to @here being disabled, in others it causes a long discussion every single time it happens, and in others flashing @here emojis get used passively-aggressively in response.

There’s a group of people who are very comfortable using social media, who grew up with Twitter, and use Slack in a similar fashion. They can be very talkative, sometimes drowning out the main conversations. To a certain extent the introduction of threads and adequate policing of using the correct channels has somewhat solved this problem though. These are also the group of people most likely to have private channels and use DMs, sometimes hiding conversations that the wider team should be interested in and occasionally having rather inappropriate conversations.

Finally there’s those IRC users who are feeling a little overwhelmed with all the new people on their not-IRC server. Some of them will insist on using the IRC gateway and thus miss out on threads, gifs and emojis. Some of them will complain about the copious use of @here and DMs by the previous two groups invading their personal space.

Solutions

Slack depends on users being good at communicating and adjusting to local cultures. This is a highly important part of working with colleagues anyway, so things generally seem to work out. One or two people may need less-gentle encouragement in doing the right thing, but in a large enough team these things sometimes happen regardless of the communication medium.

That said, there are some things which have improved the way some of my teams work.

Consider default channels carefully. A channel that nobody can leave but everybody can post to will sometimes get misused; consider either accepting this or making it so only admins can post to it. A default channel called #introductions is a great way of welcoming new people, and if you “have enough friends” you can always leave it.

Consider a canned welcome message from Slackbot. Related to the above, this can be useful to give new people some hints. Fill your profile in, say hello, here’s how to get help, etc.

Make Slack an official method of communication. So many conversations end up happening on Slack that people not on it will miss out. And the people who dislike change will avoid Slack until they are told to use it.

Pay for it. Free teams build a culture around the limitations of the free tier, and whilst this generally works it’s more problematic in an enterprise setting. That code snippet you shared last week? That conversation about how to fix the error you just got? Gone unless you are paying for Slack.

Have a code of conduct. For a business you probably don’t need a separate one for Slack (existing HR policies should be enough), but for any other context you need a clear way of dealing with problems. There will be a group of people who complain about having a code of conduct imposed on them, these are the people you don’t want to work with anyway.

Have meta channels. Channels to discuss the use of Slack itself which are clearly signposted makes it easier for people to get the most out of your team.

Set limits. Particularly in an enterprise setting, you don’t want just anybody creating a bot which can (inadvertently) annoy everyone. And if there aren’t strict limits, carefully consider what you are doing before you add a custom Slackbot response or the millionth custom emoji.