I gave a brief talk about Slack at our company meetup this year, but I thought it would be helpful to expand on this problem and share it publicly.
Slack (their open letter strategy notwithstanding) is one of the truly great work tools we’ve embraced inside Automattic. We’re a distributed company, which means there is no office and everyone works “remote” (we hate that word) from spots all around the world — 500+ employees across more than 50 countries.
Having real-time chat adds an important level of intimacy and energy to our daily work, and it makes it easier than ever for our teams to quickly discuss projects and ideas. Slack also adds some very smart layers of fun (GIFs, emoji, thoughtful messaging and copy) to differentiate itself from the cold, sterile world of work productivity.
But. Slack has its limits.
Despite what its marketing campaign suggests, Slack is not a replacement for email. Its usefulness hinges on employees knowing the difference between what’s appropriate for real-time chat, and what needs to be communicated in a more timeless forum. Slack can’t do everything, and teams should discuss best practices for using it.
Before we moved over to Slack in 2014, Automattic had five main tools for communicating and organizing. (We’ve never used internal email within the company.) They were:
- IRC for public real-time chat, across the company and across teams.
- Skype for small-team and private chat.
- WordPress p2 team blogs for sharing news, project updates, planning, organizing, meeting recaps. These team blogs are visible to everyone in the company.
- The Field Guide: A wiki-style WordPress site with updated documentation on how teams and products work inside Automattic.
- Google Hangouts for occasional video chats. (We now use Zoom for this.)
Slack’s arrival effectively killed #1 and #2. But it made #3 (our WordPress p2 blogs) and #4 (the Field Guide) more important than ever.
The real danger for teams — especially teams working across timezones — is assuming that Slack can replace these less time-sensitive channels. Slack can’t be both ephemeral and permanent.
So, What’s Slack Good For?
Slack is excellent for three things:
- Daily, non-urgent chatter with colleagues, in groups or privately.
- Urgent requests or all-company announcements.
- GIFs, emojis.
Slack Is NOT GOOD For:
- Organizing plans and projects.
- Sharing critical information across teams and timezones.
- Requesting help from other teams.
If you are trying to be an international company, you cannot use real-time chat as the centerpiece of your internal communication.
Using WordPress p2 Blogs Across Timezones and Teams
To bridge timezones and teams, the WordPress p2 works really well for us. These group blogs are transparent to everyone in the company, they’re easy to review and participate asynchronously, and projects often get “master threads” where everyone can review and comment. The p2 provides a permanent, easily searchable record of every project or topic. For anyone who uses Slack, I highly recommend trying p2s as a complement to your real-time chat. It’s even free!
But I’m seeing a tension between p2 and Slack. Slack is so addictive and inviting there can be a rush to go straight to Slack with every thought or problem. DMs are fun, but they can be dangerous for transparency and inefficient for proper planning. Employees feeling overwhelmed by Slack will increasingly turn on “Do Not Disturb” to get real work done. And for a company whose employees are mostly in the United States, real-time Slack conversations could disenfranchise employees who are in different timezones and feel left out of critical discussions.
This is why I’m encouraging my colleagues — and now all of you! — to think before you Slack. Is this an urgent problem? Would other people in other timezones benefit from what you are about to share?
I truly believe distributed work is the future of our creative and digital economy, and it’s thrilling to work at a company that’s leading the great experiment. The more we share with each other about what works (and what doesn’t), the better.
For more on distributed work and communication, check out the outstanding work of my colleague Erin Casali, who has studied this topic very closely:
- The Three Speeds of Collaboration: Tool Selection and Culture Fit (2015)
- Distributed Companies: the Importance of Meeting Face-to-Face (2015)
- Distributed Companies: A WordPress.com Team Perspective
And of course, our CEO and WordPress cofounder Matt Mullenweg:
Finally, Alice Truong at Quartz did a really thoughtful feature on Automattic’s work culture, which I’d recommend: