Developer

Tips: What are the best ways to use Slack for business?

Slack users offer practical advice on how to get the most out of the fast-growing platform for building corporate chatrooms.

With more than 2.5 million active users, Slack's platform for building corporate chatrooms is proving popular with more and more businesses each year.

Slack provides a platform for organizations to create group chat channels, as well as supporting messages from bots and integrating with custom-built apps.

But switching to Slack poses a challenge to businesses more used to communicating via email and IM, and unaware of the potential to automate information sharing using Slack bots and apps.

At an event in London, companies shared their experience of how to sell Slack to staff and the most effective ways of using the communications platform.

Sell change by fixing what's broken

Every organization could stand to improve the way they do certain things, with some behaviors persisting simply because it's the way it's always been done.

When looking to persuade an organization to move to a new communications platform like Slack, search out these sub-par practices and demonstrate how this new platform could do a better job.

A case in point is The Sunday Times. The newspaper has been in print for almost 200 years and, as such, has some firmly entrenched practices in its newsroom.

When looking for a way to introduce Slack to the editorial team, production editor Matthew Taylor saw what he regarded as an open goal in how reporters and editors shared ongoing stories.

"Every day they would post all the stories they wanted to follow into a Google document, then email that document around to everyone and have [a new] one every hour. It would just go on and on and on and the data was lost almost immediately. So I was like, 'That's insane, you're insane'. You have to find a better way to do this.

"So we just built a Slack channel up where all these links and Tweets are all posted. That's been fantastic."

Be patient, it'll change one person at a time

Don't expect everyone to start using Slack or another new collaboration platform overnight, it will take time for individuals to discover how it can benefit them.

"I'm slowly starting to see people use Slack further. It's very difficult to break a culture of 200-odd years of history," said The Sunday Times' Taylor.

"People are starting to realise, instead of email, that 'That guy must be in Slack, I can message him'. That's a huge success for me."

It'll take time to foster a collaborative attitude in your team, by building trust between team members and managers, giving staff autonomy to make meaningful decisions and encouraging cross-team working, said James Donkin, general manager of Ocado Technology,

Crack down on channel spam

While Slack offers a way to share information within a team, its chat channels can also get bogged down in messages that aren't relevant to the majority of members.

To avoid clogging up channels with irrelevant messages, The Sunday Times' Taylor recommends clamping down on channel spam.

"Channel spam was the worst aspect of how people use Slack. We had to inform people to @ individuals, not the channel," he said.

"A rule we have across our sites now is, if you send a message and you're @ing some people then you're expecting a response from that person. But if you're just posting something without @ing anyone then don't expect a response. That's worked well for us."

Let new channels evolve

In a similar vein, it's good to give general users the ability to create public and private channels, as these can provide an alternative space for discussions that don't belong in the general channel.

In his job overseeing technology for the retailer Ocado, James Donkin works with five developer centers spread across four different countries - so there is a limit to how much relevant information belongs in the general channel.

"Don't overload the general announcements channel with loads and loads of chat," he said.

Initially Ocado found "our general channels just got full of vast amounts of noise". Given the global nature of the teams, "posting that the sandwich wagon is coming past in [the English town] Hatfield isn't really helpful".

"Don't end up with one huge channel with 700 people posting in it, try and break off."

Donkin said that people had started to self-police over time, suggesting to other members that a message might be off-topic and be better posted in another channel.

Close down defunct channels

Equally, it's important to stay on top of what channels are still active and useful to your organization.

"Try to to close down old groups that are not getting used to avoid lots of channels propagating forever," said Ocado's Donkin.

"If something's not updated for a while and you're the owner of it, you can archive it off and close it down, to avoid channel confusion."

Don't lock down Slack

Avoid trying to establish centralised control over who can establish channels and integrate bots.

"If I'd tried to design all the channels we should have up front and someone had come to me for every single channel to ask permission, it would never have really taken off. There has to be a degree of freedom and trust within constraints to say 'Go and use it but here's some boundaries'," said Ocado's Donkin.

He also advised not locking down custom icons and other personalised features that allow people to "have a bit of fun".

Know when not to use Slack

As anyone who's attempted sarcasm in an online comment can tell you, text messages omit a lot of the verbal and non-verbal cues that are important for conveying meaning.

If you find your message isn't getting across using Slack, then sometimes it's better to ring that person or, if possible, go and see them directly.

"The one thing we all have to learn on Slack is that sometimes instantaneous [communication] isn't always the best thing," said Jo White who works in PR for the money transfer service TransferWise.

Make staff complete their profiles

Slack can help connect people with colleagues and teams, as well as useful information in channels.

But being able to find those individuals and information is dependent on Slack's search tool being able to identify them.

Make sure that staff have filled in their profiles detailing who they are, where they work and what they do.

Alun Coppack is responsible for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs' (HMRC) Digital Tax Platform, and works as part of a group that spans 50 teams, composed of 800 people spread over different locations.

Coppack said their group had created a software bot that checks if people have filled in their Slack profiles and, if not, reminds them to complete missing fields. The group also uses custom fields to detail their team and location.

"Being able to find someone's phone number from the team directory in Slack is incredibly helpful for us," he said.

Use Slack to share information hidden in different services

At The Sunday Times, developers wrote a script that parses public feedback about the newspaper's website and shares that information via a Slack bot. Previously, that information was kept on a Google spreadsheet and rarely viewed, said Taylor.

"Now we get daily requests to see that information. They say 'This qualitative data is really important to me and I just wouldn't have seen that otherwise'. The integrations and working out how we can use them to best open up our data has been really useful."

Build custom apps

One of the advantages of Slack is its ability to integrate with custom-built apps, which can pull information from or send messages to any number of online services.

At both Ocado and HMRC, developers use apps that work with tools such as Git and Jira. A more fun example from The Sunday Times is a bot that gathers information on the menu in the canteen for that day.

"We've built a bot that scrapes our canteen's website, finds the menu options and provides it to general channel, so everyone's aware," said Taylor.

"We call it the Canteen Bot. It's literally my boss' favourite thing."

Also see

slack-customer-panel.jpg
Companies revealed how they get the best out of Slack at an event in London.
Image: Colin Baldwin

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox