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How Slack and Others Strategize for a Busy Communication Landscape
How some companies are communicating with employees without overwhelming them.
By Katharine Robertson
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5 minute read

From instant messaging features in multiple apps to video calls, there are more ways to communicate at work than ever.

“We're seeing the number of channels or the modes kind of exploding,” Maryanne O’Brien, a talent development consultant and the author of The Elevated Communicator, told The Org.

But without a well-defined communication strategy, employees can be left to their own devices, choosing the mode that they’re most comfortable with rather than what may be most effective. The consequences, according to O’Brien, can be tension between employees, and too many distractions that make getting through one’s to-do list efficiently difficult.

Seth Dovev, the director of customer success at inbound lead conversion and scheduling app Chili Piper, manages 19 employees across multiple time zones from Vancouver to Morocco. Founded in 2016, the company has always been remote. And in 2021, Chili Piper grew by 375%, which meant it became even more important to develop a communication strategy and new employee onboarding program designed to overcome isolation, encourage teamwork and make it possible to continue honoring the unlimited paid time off offered by the company.

“That means I need to be very strategic,” he said. “I need to be very quick. And I need to find the right avenue to deliver that message for that request or whatever it is, so that I get what I need to move forward.”

To do so, they created specific channels of communication for every possible use case, relying largely on their own tech, regular one-on-one meetings with each member of the team via video call, and well-defined Slack channels. Each new employee is given a Slack cheat sheet, and in addition to having a channel to escalate a particular priority or share photos of pets, there’s even a “Stupid Questions” channel that Dovev isn’t privy to, which allows the team to help each other without feeling like their being watched by a manager.

Dovev does use email, but uses the snooze button frequently, which reminds him to follow up on items with lower priority.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, employees at Slack almost never use email to communicate.

“And we’re not alone – email is losing its status as the default business communication tool,” Slack’s senior principal of product management Jaime DeLanghe told The Org. “In a recent Slack survey, half of IT decision-makers believe email will be replaced as the primary communications tool by 2024.”

The problem, according to DeLanghe, is that it can be difficult to assess which messages are relevant to a project or require immediate attention. Because some clients or candidates prefer email, they created an integration that pushes emails to Slack.

But recognizing that there are different communication styles that could be better-accommodated through the pandemic, Slack developed some new features to accommodate video and audio communication and Slack Huddles, which aims to replicate the ad-hoc deskside meetings formerly experienced in in-person office life. And for those who need quiet time and less interaction to concentrate, turning on the Do Not Disturb feature helps carve out that time.

“This has enabled a more inclusive, flexible, and connected future, regardless of where we all are physically,” DeLanghe said.

But relying heavily on instant messaging isn’t the right fit for every workplace, particularly those who do a lot of external outreach or client relationship-building. According to Jay Sullivan, a partner (and former managing partner) at Exec Comm and the author of Simply Said, the most important element in communicating at work is not to choose a mode of communication based on what’s most convenient for the sender, but in the preferred method of the recipient.

“So step one is you start by thinking about, ‘Who am I communicating with? And how do they like to be communicated with?’,” he said. That means an email might be the right way to go, but instead of sending it when it’s convenient for you, consider scheduling it for when the person is most likely to be at their desk during work hours.

It’s also important to consider the context, he said. In some instances, in-person, video or voice communication is necessary, such as when delivering constructive feedback or complicated ideas. It also brings elements like body language and tone of voice into the communication process, which makes it easier for the recipient to understand the meaning of the message.

Finally, it’s important not to forget how valuable in-person communication can be. Chili Piper, for example, hosts an annual team-building get-together, and last year’s destination was Tulum, Mexico. But it can also be especially valuable for creative or collaborative communication, where feeding off of each other’s energy can be so beneficial — if it can be safely done, that is, in light of the pandemic.

“Because you’re sensing what other people are feeling, right?” O’Brien said. “Anything to do with ideation or culture-building is best done in-person. Because there was no other way through the pandemic, people did Zoom happy hours. They tried to replicate it, but it was just not the same. It’s in that exchange of human connection.”

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