As Alley’s primary tool for communication, Slack provides numerous benefits.  It builds culture, rapport, and a sense of belonging – which is especially crucial for remote teams. Perhaps more importantly, Slack enables spontaneous collaboration, allows team members to give or receive critical feedback in realtime and address emergencies immediately.

However, using Slack as a synchronous communication tool like Instant Messenger has plenty of downsides. Slack can be a source of constant interruption and context switching. It can feel like an all day meeting. It can build unnecessary stress, a sense of implied urgency, an ASAP culture, and an implied 24/7 availability. Worst of all, it can promote shallow work. With one eye always on Slack, tasks are completed half-distractedly. Work is organized around not just meetings, but also around the rabbit holes of Slack!

At Alley, we aim to set expectations around using Slack as an asynchronous tool. In this way, deep work becomes the default and team members can more easily achieve a flow state in which to work. Aside from deep work, communication itself can be improved when moving toward a more asynchronous culture. It can lead to higher quality, more thoughtful, and better-written responses in Slack (and therefore better documentation as well!) And of course, it fosters time zone equality which is especially important to Alley as a fully-distributed company.

At Alley’s company-wide team retreat in Cancun, Mexico this past January, Susan Finkelpearl, Vice President of User Experience, and I led a breakout session on this very topic – how we can reap the benefits of Slack while promoting a more asynchronous culture of communication. After discussing the various pros and cons of Slack, we invited participants to come up with a “Slack Detox” plan. At the beginning of the exercise, participants were given the following directions:

  • Take a moment to write down what you like most about Slack.
  • Then write down your biggest struggles with Slack.
  • Write down what steps will you take to keep what you like in Slack, while shedding what is causing you problems?
  • Challenge yourself to really detox for two weeks! (Can you live without desktop notifications? Probably yes!).

We then asked participants to employ the strategies they came up with for two weeks. At the end of the two week period we held a Retrospective, where we asked the following questions:

  • What specific strategies did you employ during the detox to treat Slack more asynchronously?
  • What were the benefits?
  • What were the drawbacks?
  • How might we adopt these strategies in the long term? Are there any other strategies we might try next?

The ensuing conversation was thoughtful and surfaced many suggestions, tips and  tricks. Many responses to these suggestions fell along the lines of “I didn’t know I could do that!” and even “I didn’t know we were allowed to do that.” The surprise team members expressed at some of the suggestions confirmed to us that creating space for this “Slack Detox” was really useful. We stressed that team members are encouraged to make Slack work for them and their teams, not the other way around. Moving forward, we’re working on – individually and team-wide – further ways to use Slack as a tool and not as a place to live. We’re making sure we communicate asynchronously whenever possible, both being patient when awaiting responses, and being self-aware when replying.

Here are many of the suggestions we came up with for using Slack as an asynchronous communication tool. We hope they can work for you too, especially as we’re all depending more and more on remote communication tools like Slack!

  • Set expectations with your teammates that it is OK to be unavailable some of the time and establish long uninterrupted stretches of time to get work done, on a daily basis.
  • When you DO ping, over-communicate!
    • The ideal async post contains enough information and context to stand alone. A clear request, with a detailed explanation, screenshots and links if applicable, and a deadline.
  • Plan ahead! Give people time to respond to your message. Don’t always expect an immediate response.
  • Limit “Urgent” requests for true emergencies.
  • Teams can use Basecamp (or other similar tools) to engage in less immediate conversation on important topics.
  • Establish a dedicated emergency channel for your team.
  • Leave channels you’re no longer active in, but use your judgment and consult with your team when in doubt.
  • Mute channels you don’t need to be active in on a daily basis.
  • Disable desktop notifications during flow time, at night, and perhaps even all the time – provided this does not become an impediment to you or your team.
  • Use the “Show Activity” feature to never miss a ping or mention when “backscrolling” (catching up on the conversation from when you were away).
  • Mark messages as unread to act as a reminder, or use Slackbot’s built-in reminders.
  • Set statuses to inform others when you’re heads down, on a call, or otherwise in or out of commission.
  • Use @here or @channel sparingly if at all, and be mindful of your @ mentions in general.

Do you have any more tips and tricks? Please share them with us on Twitter at @alleyco with the hashtag #AsyncNotNSync.

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