Slack helps teams collaborate with efficiency and transparency. It’s a great place to share pet pics, too. However, Slack also has the potential to overwhelm with the constant stream of new posts, polls, and direct messages. How is anyone supposed to get into true Deep Work with thirty-seven channel updates?
At Uplevel, we’ve applied our productivity research toward some best practices that have renewed our relationship with Slack. It’s undoubtedly a powerful tool—one which deserves some thoughtfulness to prevent notification burnout. It’s time to create a culture of sustainable collaboration to reduce multitasking and enable Deep Work.
Best Practices for Slack Channels
- Use channels for everything that isn’t sensitive. Yes, we mean the vast majority of work communication. Slack channels are visible to all relevant team members, can add new members anytime, and are easily searchable in the future. If it might maybe someday be useful context for someone else, post it in a relevant channel. Direct messages are like long email threads: helpful in the moment, but difficult to reference after the fact. Plus, they’re clunky to share with others. Since it’s hard to judge the value of conversations while they’re happening, default to public.
- Create a variety of channels, general and specific. A common misconception is that Slack channels are for big topics, while DMs are for smaller topics. Instead, we encourage channels (see above) for nearly everything, ranging from broad to deep. Those that provide “FYI” updates or speak to entire departments might be considered “broad channels,” like #engineering or #foodtrucks. Others that feel “in the weeds” are considered “deep channels,” which serve specific projects, features, or issues, like #q4-townhall-agenda or #3rd-floor-cookie-bakeoff. Deep channels may only have two or three people and be very active—or have twenty people that post monthly. Either way, they are indexed, searchable, and easy for others to join (with retroactive visibility to past conversations, if needed). Averse to a cluttered channel menu? Channels can always be archived, which clears up your menu while still maintaining searchability.
- Break up big channels. If a channel’s purpose becomes multifaceted (read: infinite-scroll messy), consider breaking it into two or three functionally specific channels. This makes notifications more acutely relevant to the audience (or more obviously irrelevant). Channels are free, so there’s little reason to limit their numbers.
- Standardize channel naming conventions. Common name structures allow for organized channel menus and simple identification of a channel’s purpose. Think of Slack channel names like prefixes and nouns, starting with a recognizable term to describe the type of channel and adding relevant terms after to give full context. Within a function, you could have #eng-xyz or #sales-xyz to designate a “sub” channel. Of course, you can also “stack” these blocks. Information about a company’s pricing model might be found on #sales-proj-pricing. Conversations regarding the SSO authentication feature might be found in #eng-feat-sso-auth. Common building blocks make it easier to swim through the ocean of channels, especially at larger companies. For example:
- #proj- (for projects)
- #feat- (for features)
- #xyz-team (for teams/departments)
- #accounts- (for prospects)
- #customer- (for customers)
- Use descriptive channel topics and descriptions. People often join Slack channels while alone at their computer, so it helps to provide some guidance upfront. Get detailed with the channel’s description—it should only take a few seconds to know if someone is in the right place.
Best Practices for Slack Users
- Don’t try to read everything. Seriously, don’t. We all know the fresh feeling of reaching Inbox Zero (or Slack Zero), but the multitude of channels and DMs will become an impossible demand on your time. This is a primary difference between Slack and email. You might consider choosing times to check Slack, like the top of the hour, or whenever you make a cup of coffee or tea.
- Star important channels and people. Some channels need to be frequently checked. (These are the exceptions! Only choose those that are important to your job, or fall under your area of expertise.) “Star” those channels and DMs, which will send them to the top of your Slack menu, giving instant visibility and easy prioritization.
- @-mention directly relevant users. If you need a specific person to read your message, include an @-mention of their username in that message. We can’t assume that a person will read posts just because the channel name is bold. (Broken record here, but we don’t recommend instant checks like this.) Need a fast response from the group? Add a shout out by tagging @here (all channel members currently active) or @channel (all channel members, both active and away). If it’s less urgent, or can be answered by anyone, there’s no need for a specific @-mention.
- “/mute” channels. Post the command “/mute” to any channel to silence general notifications. You will only be alerted if you’re specifically mentioned, or if someone shouts out to @here or @channel. This is great for channels like #netflix-recs or those most frequently updated by bots.
- “/leave” channels. Any channel that doesn’t provide value to you doesn’t need to take your attention. Post the command “/leave” to exit the channel. If someone @-mentions you in the future, you’ll be notified and sent back into the channel.
- Use threads. Slack channels are most effective when they’re easy to scan. If there is more than one conversation happening, respond to specific posts in a thread format. That way, interested users can dive into the thread to follow that conversation, while others can quickly scroll past. If a question will prompt a healthy back-and-forth to reach a decision, use the thread to keep the conversation contained, rather than taking over the whole channel (and pushing previous messages out of view).
- Pause notifications. Oh hello, Deep Work! Preventing interruptions is absolutely critical to staying in the focus zone. Pause your notifications for anywhere from 30 minutes to “Tomorrow”—or set a custom schedule to protect quiet hours. You can designate certain users that bypass the “do not disturb” setting, so you’re always reachable by those that matter.
- Respect—and expect—asynchronous communication. Allowing Slack users to respond on their schedule works two ways: they are relieved of the need to immediately respond, and so are you. Don’t feel like you need to reply right away, nor should you expect immediate responses. Having empathy for different schedules and embracing the flexibility of asynchronous work make all the difference.
- Help your reader prioritize. Have an urgent message? Include an appropriate emoji at the start of a message, like a red circle 🔴 or lightning bolt ⚡. Conversely, be upfront about less-than-critical messages (or those sent after-hours), starting with “no rush…” or a thought bubble emoji 💭.
Slack is such a dynamic tool that every company develops a unique user culture. Starting with a simple, organized foundation can support effective use—and prevent communication burnout.