How to use persistent communication (Slack et al) properly

Company Communications. 15 years of learning condensed into 10 minutes.

We’ve been using persistent communication systems for 15 years. We’ve learned a lot about how to and how not to use these systems.

No doubt you’ve heard of Slack, you may even have used it. If you work in the digital space we cannot fail yo have been bombarded by this “new breed” of “email killers” and “workplace reimagining” tools. It can all get a bit too much at times.

The hype surrounding these applications and the convergence of cloud computing and nomad working is driving a lot of I’ll-prepared companies down the persistent chat route. Like most tools, if persistent chat is used incorrectly it will cause far more problems than it fixes. You gotta be cute.

What is persistent chat?

Persistent chat lets you typically create topic-based discussion rooms that persist forever. Within the confines of these rooms you can communicate and collaborate with an ad-hoc group of people, share information and ideas search old content. Typically, the threads are informal, conversational in nature and can be searched forever more.

Today, we use Slack and have extensive experience of Skype, Podio, Yammer, Forums, Campfire and Basecamp. We have 3 decade of experience of chat applications in the workplace.

The best bits

We all mostly like to belong, so if you have remote teams then a common place where relationships are encouraged is a good thing. The absence of hierarchy and the conversational nature encourage interaction (mostly) and ad-hoc chatting without the constraints of agendas or conventional thinking.

A real email killer. We have been able to dispense nearly 100% with internal email. That alone is worth it’s weight in gold, it’s nice not to live under Email’s sword of Damocles! Email is fine in it’s place but long threads are a nightmare.

It’s a fabulous place to kick around ideas and get quick gut feels of what people think before formal resource is committed. We find we get wider contributions in the less formal setting and consensus is reached very quickly and without politics.

On the move, its device independent platform and light data requirement means it brilliant for staying in touch with the team and colleagues. Staying connected when we’re moving across the country and the globe is vitally important.

Slack, like many others, is a great place to scream for help. We used to have a dedicated “Ring the Bell” application that called everyone together when the world went grey. Now we use Slack with a simple @ sign.

Fun. It’s a great place to share a joke, a funny picture, discuss the news, organise social stuff and generally lark about.

Searching. As a support company we deal with thousands of issues every year and many of them are discussed on Slack. It acts as a neat, searchable and referencable knowledge base.

But it’s not all roses. Group chat has some pretty major downsides if it’s not used properly. In many ways, if abused, it can be a lot worse than Email.

What’s not so good about group chat

The always-on approach might seem appealing and flexible but it can pressure folks into “being online” and contributing. Much like the burnout you see on Facebook, group chat can burn out your colleagues unless you have enforced rests and sensible alert policies.

Chat works a line at a time, and that’s not very considered when you’re working on deep problems or at a detail level. As a result it can be too superficial and might lack intellectual gravitas and authority. We make sure that quick chats are converted into solid tasks and projects on Basecamp and quickly stop threads if they get into too much depth.

As a result of the instantaneous nature, unstructured thinking can divert the crowd and can skew the opinion to those that think the fastest, not those with the best ideas.

A call-to-arms is easy to fire off, and that can get resource hungry unless you quickly liberate this not needed back to their day jobs. Pulling 10 folks in for just 15 mins of discussion burns 2.5hrs of resource faster than you can say “help”. In our company, that resource cost would total over £150. To use it sparingly, select who you yell for and release anyone not needed as soon as viable.

Over the last few years we’ve been able to rationalise how we communicate internally and have found a lovely balance using Slack for real-time stuff, Basecamp 3 for projects and considered thinking and Zendesk for task-based ticket communication.

It’s that simple for us, but it’s taken a 20 year journey to get here…

Our history with persistent chat

We founded in the late 90s and the only chat was on the phone, and maybe the odd email. By 2001 we had expanded to have 7 people in the company spread across 4 locations – 1 office and 3 homeworkers (that what we called them then!).

Whilst we used email, and appreciate it’s versatility and pervasiveness, we know first hand how destructive and disabling it can be. For us, it’s right up there with toxic meetings in terms of disruption and waste of time and effort.

So, nearly 20 years ago we got into using chat-type applications. We’ve been around group chat longer than most and have contributed millions of chat threads over the last three decades. It’s taught us a lot. But let’s go back to the beginning of our journey.

To help glue our fledgling company together we installed an open source forum, XMBForum, on a server and used that to share work, ideas, jokes and opinions across the physical boundaries the company had. Altough fabulously successful, it suffered from a “those that did and those that didn’t” scenario.

It wasn’t very real-time as it required the user to refresh the forum to get the updates, so a natural migration to Skype chat rooms occurred when it appeared in the mid noughties.

But, this was worse, the constant “pinging” was disruptive, and the transient nature of the messages meant that valuable stuff was lost. Some folks also got addicted to “being online” and we’re spending 3+ hours per day just chatting – and not on work related stuff.

By late 2007 we started using Basecamp, and this came with an add-on called Campfire. It was better, it had discrete rooms, was less invasive but lacked decent features. The hunt was on and by the turn of the century we were using a whole host of applications and it was clear it needed tidying up.

Skype got the chop, as did the decade-old forum and Campfire.

In early 2010 we found Yammer. As part of our move to becoming a remote-first company, we early adopted it and soon found it has limitations, mainly to do with it looking and behaving too much like Facebook. But it was a promising attempt and creating an internal social network with searching, relationship management and chat.

When Yammer was bought by Microsoft (2012) we moved to using Podio – it was brilliant at file and process management but lacked long-term engagement for the team and the chat side was very poor.

It did, however, prove that we could operate the company. It also refined our thinking in terms of what we needed. In late 2013, we came across Slack (in beta at the time) and it fitted 85% of what we needed.

Slack gives us the important sense of belonging, great searching, device independence, good file management, reliability.