Workplace Chat: Communication Doesn't Have to Mean Disruption

Collaboration at work is one of the most important values a successful team can embrace. I'd like to show you how to keep collaboration from getting in the way of productivity by setting up Best Practices for all of the tools your team is using.

You've seen well-meaning managers and helpful teammates who try to make themselves as available as possible to their team. They respond to email as it comes in, they are always available via chat, and they allow their day to be enveloped in meeting after meeting: all with the intent to receive as much input as possible and nurture this "culture of collaboration".

But at the end of the workday, people who spend their days "collaborating" in this way usually go home, open their laptops again, and start getting the real work done.
[Check out: You Don't Need Meetings to Collaborate with your Team]

Is this what Collaboration looks like?

I once walked into the office of a COO and watched while endless mini G-chat popups appeared and cluttered her screen. She was so accessible, and so intent on creating a "default to collaboration" culture, that she found herself answering questions via one siloed conversation after another.

And, of course, this meant she also had to answer the same questions over and over again since the entire team wasn't privy to the quick answers she sent to each individual employee.

Private messages are the equivalent of getting up from your desk, going into a private vestibule with one employee, and discussing something important to your company’s directives. And then repeating that with different coworkers, and the same coworkers, again and again.

I told her about Slack that very day, and within a week her team was onboarded.

But within just a month or so, this organization of roughly a dozen employees had surpassed Slack's 10,000 message limit on the free plan, and they had to make a decision about how to better use the tool or whether to start paying for the service.

It turned out that 6,000 of those 10,000 messages were private messages. That's right: the team had brought their previous bad habits to this new, more robust tool that the whole world is raving about.

I asked about this in one of my communities. Why do people still feel interrupted at work, even while using tools that were meant to create a better type of communication? "You can't design good habits for people," was one opinion shared. "I believe you can design good habits for people, but I'm biased," countered another. "It's easy to blame the user for not trying hard enough," challenges Nir Eyal. "But what blame rests with the designer?"

Why hasn't Slack solved all our problems?

Workplace communication tools are experiencing an enormous surge in popularity, and at the same time, this has caused a bit of a backlash: If I'm always available, when can I get any work done?

Whether it's HipChat, Slack, G-Chat, or any other form of IRC and instant messaging, workplace chat tools facilitate quick answers and instant gratification. But it's possible that getting instant input like this is doing more harm than good to the morale of your teammates and to overall company culture.

So what happened? The marketing for these products promises team unity and all gears of a well-oiled machine happily cranking away. Instead, we find ourselves blaming the tool for our bad habits:

  • We have FOMO: Someone might say something we don't want to miss, or a serendipitous and playful giphy war might break out.

  • We begin to believe that each message, each ping, and each request must be answered instantaneously.

  • We assume if we posted it to the chat channel, everyone has seen it and we're all on the same page.

  • We aren't careful to share thoughtful responses: We just start typing and share unsolicited brain dumps.

  • We don't bother with the search function: It's easier to just ask someone to re-upload a file.

  • We don't really even read what our peers are writing.

"The need for round-the-clock connection not only makes people more impatient, it also robs them of time for quiet reflection or deeper, more critical thinking." -Ron Alsop, "Instant Gratification & Its Dark Side"

Your team has to agree on Best Practices for every tool.

We have the ability to choose among hundreds of project management, communication, productivity, and collaboration tools. One by one, these tools each serve to solve a problem or challenge: organizing work, tracking progress, sharing information.

Often these tools help us support remote work and flexible schedules: those working in opposite time zones or out of the office can get just as much workplace intelligence as if they were sitting across from the team at a communal table. So, it's important to review the reasons you've chosen the tool you're using and arrive at a set of Best Practices so that the tool doesn't become the enemy and the team can achieve its goals.

1. Acceptable tagging practices

Whether or not each of your team members has set up their own notification preferences (see #3 in this section), it's important to agree on the ways you'll be summoning each other to your chat room or channel.

Example 1: Probably unnecessary tagging

Sarita: So, we will be packaging that entire list and sending it to the colo?
Ben: Yes, I spoke with @jennifer and she agreed that is the plan.
Sarita: OK, works for me! So, when do you arrive?
Ben: I'll be there at 4 PM. Let's grab a coffee really quick!

Ben was simply mentioning Jennifer, so it probably wasn't very helpful to actually use the @ command and tag her. Now, when Jennifer stops what she is doing and visits this conversation, she will find that it was swiftly handled and it has moved on... And she didn't need to check it out at all! That's disruptive, and now it's going to take Jennifer some adjustments to get back to what she was doing.

Example 2: Probably necessary tagging

Sarita: I don't think we ever figured out exactly what needs to be sent to the colo. @ben did you get a chance to work through the priorities?
Ben: Ah, you're right. We met about it, but we didn't end up getting to that. @jennifer were you able to finish the list on the items that need to go to colo?

Information is needed in order to move forward, so in this case, both Ben and Jennifer are able to open the conversation and figure out exactly why they were tagged and what is being asked of them.

UPDATED: Example 3: Tagging for asynchronous conversation followup

Jen: What are some ways we can deliver more resources and education to our community?
Sarita: I've been chatting with some people who would be great co-hosts for a webinar!
Thomas: That's a great idea, Sarita. I'd love to do an internal hackathon to create some sort of open-source project as well.

Six hours go by, and many conversations occur in between

Ben: Hey @thomas count me in for that hackathon! I've been thinking about that too!

Asynchronous communication means that you can still take part in collaboration even if you're not present for a serendipitous conversation. You might copy and paste the original message that you're referring to, tag the folks who were a part of that conversation, or simply go back and add a reaction to the message that stands out to you the most.

Bonus tagging feature: By group.

Your chat app may have particular features that allow you to address a specific group of teammates. In this case, Ben could have asked the @data team for this information so that anyone could have answered, rather than waiting for Jennifer to make her way to the conversation.
[Check out: Introducing User Groups on Slack]

Whether you're tagging by group, room, "all", or "here", it's important to share Best Practices conversations with your whole team so that you can arrive at the best way to communicate online.
When they can answer is always another matter, which leads us to:

2. Expectation of responses

Availability requirements should be discussed at hiring and during one-on-ones. They may differ from role to role or even from issue to issue. Chat about these things. Be open about your expectations.

Equally, the written communication skills that your team possesses should be important when you are using web tools to facilitate collaboration. Chat often about how to respect each other's time and how to ask for input - or better yet, ask for a time when input will be available.

Decide when it's important to be available to your team by discussing questions like this:

  • Are there certain features and products that require an SOS-type response?

  • Have I provided my team with a list of who to ping based on the SOS scenario?

  • If I don't respond to this request, am I willing to take accountability for the delay?

If you decide to tag a coworker, consider adding a level of urgency to the mention. This way, they can briefly glance at the ping but immediately assess whether it can wait. Starting your request with @thomas [when you get a chance] or @colette [as soon as possible] or @julia [by the end of the day] could really go a long way in minimizing disruption for your coworkers.

Help your team respect each other's time by discussing questions like this:

  • Who is required to make a decision on this?

  • Is this information available in our stored data?

  • Have I spent 15 minutes trying to locate this answer through notes available?

  • Does the current time in this person's time zone fall in their regular work hours?

  • Who will be affected if I don't receive an answer within the next 30 minutes?

3. Manage your own notifications

Your coworkers might use central messaging as a place to brainstorm an idea, plan an event, or even nerd out about Star Wars. The conversations that might otherwise take place on a normal workday at a traditional office should be encouraged to take place on your team chat tool.

So, set up rooms and channels with accurate descriptions and appropriate team members. There should definitely be a space for random thoughts and personal updates like the ones that might take place in a break room (such as Star Wars chatter and how Justine is coming along in her triathlon training).

And maybe you'll want some industry-specific, but not work-specific, rooms or channels where employees can share industry news or learnings about personal growth.

The chat spaces for random or non-urgent conversation should probably never send you an alert. Provide accurate descriptions for each of these spaces, and encourage everyone to turn off notifications for channels like this.

You wouldn't want to be disturbed every time a coworker got up for coffee, so don't let casual conversation disrupt your work, either.

Then, create channels for each different team or each grouping of similar roles and projects. These rooms should still be open to the rest of the organization for transparency purposes, and not necessarily for input and alerts.

Think of it as a team conference room that has spectator seating. Watching your colleagues work once in awhile can give you insight on how your entire organization is working as a whole.

Team leaders and other members might consider being notified whenever a discussion starts happening in these team rooms, but it's really up to them. By all means, folks who are not members of the channel-specific team should never have notifications active for this channel.

I remember one night as my team and I (I worked for a different company then) continued to chat at 11 PM PT about some strategy-related topic within our own team channel. Our CEO jumped in the conversation, and we were having a good session.

Suddenly, a member from a completely different and unrelated part of the organization jumped in and admonished, "Some of us are trying to sleep!"
Yeah, don't ever do that. I can't stress enough how important this is: Manage your notifications properly.

Not only do you deserve some time to focus on your own life, your own interests, and your own loved ones, but your coworkers should also be allowed to carry on freely without the concern of waking you out of your sleep or disrupting your concentration.

By room or channel

Organizational transparency is something that gives every employee insight into what's happening in the company, even if it doesn't directly affect their roles and tasks. So, being able to take a look at what the marketing team is doing even though your responsibility lies in back-end development is still beneficial. Update the room or channel settings for each department and each topic accordingly.
[Check out: Customizable Room Notifications in HipChat or Channel Notification Preferences in Slack]

Every once in awhile, review the room descriptions and determine whether your company needs a new place to have certain conversations, or whether the room descriptions can be more clear. Your online workspace should be a dynamic tool that grows and adapts with your company.

By device

Do you want to enable pop-ups for certain messages? Do you want to hear that ping only if you currently have the desktop app open? Do you want to turn your smartphone into a company batphone? Use the app's Profile and Settings sections to make sure you've created the type of availability that works for your situation.

4. Learn to use Do Not Disturb

If your team collectively agrees to put some form of DND into practice, you can be that much more rest assured your discussions or mentions won't disrupt your coworker. It's OK if it's 2 AM where Jackie is, because when she starts her work day, she will see this mention and she will be able to handle it at an appropriate time.

But seriously. If you say you're going to use DND, then you've got to use it.

By device

Your smartphone likely has a Sleep setting, or another customizable Do Not Disturb function. If you're worried about missing something really important from your family or from a site outage, you can add various types of exceptions to this setting.
[Check out: How to set up and customize Do Not Disturb for iPhone]

Try to schedule DND times on your device. Otherwise, if you hear a ping at 4 AM, remember that it was you who forgot to turn on the silencer and don't hold it against your team. (And try to go back to sleep.)

By app

Slack recently released their own Do Not Disturb option. This is absolutely amazing, because the important items you miss while you're away are gathered and presented to you when you return to work. No more hunting down all of your mentions and getting distracted by the various discussions that took place.

It really is possible to be more productive

Utilizing a team chat app doesn't mean that you suddenly have to adopt - and expect - synchronous communication. At one point in time, SMS text and email allowed us the freedom to answer when we could, rather than being summoned by a phone call.

Now, all of our project management tools and chat communication platforms make collaboration, data sharing, and productive communication so much easier. So don't revert to the belief that every conversation is timely and urgent.

1. More productivity through fewer meetings

Give your coworkers a heads-up that you're going to be needing their input on something. Share it in the appropriate channel, and allow them to weigh in as they come available. Magically, you just saved the company at least 4 man-hours because you didn't have to schedule a meeting (and then fill an hour with conversation and spurious details just to to make you feel better about calling a meeting).

I used to conduct "Lightning Slack Meetings" with my team on Slack that would last just 15 minutes and be full of all kinds of ideas and project assignments. There's no need to be polite and wait for someone to finish talking, only to forget your idea, when everyone is welcome to type their ideas all at once. The ideas generated in these sessions would get moved over to our project board, so that constructive followup could occur. Members of other teams always loved watching our flash meetings and would cheer us on after we wrapped.

2. Move important data to a Team Wiki

Do not presume that just because a handful of coworkers chatted publicly online and resolved to change a procedure or start a particular project, that the entire team or organization is duly informed. Whether this is actually a Team Wiki or simply a related Trello board, the point is the same: Use the chat tool as a place to collaborate, but use another tool as a place to gather knowledge.


  • Margot from Sales notices that the exit popup is not working properly on the site. She alerts the team in the Dev channel about this. Now, the next step is to ensure this moves to something actionable. Is it the Dev team lead or is it Margot who needs to create a story in Pivotal Tracker for this fix? Be consistent about this process.

  • David can't remember which holidays the company observes this month, so he queries no one in particular in the General chat room. People Ops answers David and then checks the Team Hackpad, where policy and procedure is documented, and makes sure that this information is clear there.

  • Fran can't find the ad assets for an upcoming campaign, so she asks her fellow team members within the Marketing channel. George happily shares the designs by uploading them in response. But wait - someone needs to make sure they are also uploaded to the Asana project that directs Fran on the campaign guidelines.

3. More team transparency through open communication

Knowledge sharing is vastly improved when conversations can happen at any time. You know the feeling, because this has happened to you dozens of times: You are ready to bring something up at the next team meeting, but so many tangents and other focus derailment occurred that you're just ready to get off the call and back to work.

Buffer CEO Joel Gascoigne has shared how important it is to have open and transparent conversations, especially on a distributed team:

“Generally, we have no private rooms in Hipchat, and we have almost no private messaging going on within Hipchat. That really helps us to be fully transparent, which is really important as a distributed team.” - Joel Gascoigne, Buffer [VIDEO]

Think of all the things you might never have shared with your coworkers, and all of the times you had to ride out being stuck on something by yourself. Sharing your wins and your challenges allows everyone to participate and learn from them, and really helps each teammate be a better coworker. Advice and experience could come from anyone on your team, so take advantage of the opportunity to welcome diverse responses.

4. Take advantage of integrations

Most of the top chat platforms, including Slack, HipChat, and Flowdock, can make your life easier and your work more automatic through the use of integrations.

These integrations help your team manage a single centerpiece for communication and alerts, despite the ever-growing number of tools you might use. You can create integration-specific channels, so that the alerts don't disrupt other conversations.

For instance, your team - or the appropriate team member - can be alerted every time someone makes a purchase, mentions you on Twitter, fills out a survey, signs up for the newsletter, adds a task in Trello, saves something to Pocket, commits a change to GitHub... The options are really endless.

[Check out: Flowdock integrations]

[Check out: HipChat Launches Connect API for Deeper Integrations]

[Check out: Slack App Directory proves it's more than just a Chat Room]

What say you? Does chat enhance or disrupt your workday? How will you make the best use of your team's suite of tools, and protect both your productivity and your team culture? What are your SOS procedures?

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