This can be a hard life. Sometimes you need a reminder to stop and appreciate the kittens.
At Austin's INK Public Relations, 26 team members use Slack, a powerful and increasingly popular group chat program that is meant to make communicating easier, faster, more searchable and less reliant on email. Team members such as INK assistant account executive Nicole Russell use Slack to tally up social media mentions, to keep track of whether employees are in the office or not, or simply to share an animated GIF of a mewling kitty.
"INK loves Slack!" Russell said an in email. "We actually recently had a discussion about Slack etiquette and best practices."
With Slack, teams can create channels to discuss specific projects or topics, message each other privately, and pull in information and files from services such as Dropbox, Google Calendar and Google Drive, Twitter and many others. INK now has 85 channels for its Slack team. Not all team members subscribe to all the channels, and since the company started using it in 2014, the way it's being used has evolved to keep employees from getting overwhelmed or drowned in notifications. The company regularly uses "Power hours," blackout periods where employees turn off Slack in order to finish projects without distraction. If you want to talk to that person, you'd better go do it face to face during a Power Hour.
When did Slack become such a big deal?
In November, when we wrote about Slack, it was becoming increasingly popular among startups and media companies, but this year, Slack appears to be going mainstream. A talk at South by Southwest Interactive with CEO Stewart Butterfield, one of the former founders of Flickr, drew a large crowd and as of this writing, Slack has 2.7 million daily active users, 800,000 of them paying to use the service, according to the company. It's free to use, but paid versions of it open up more powerful features.
If you work in a fast-paced media company or tech team, you might already be familiar with and using Slack. But if not, should you dive in?
The case for using Slack
In my own experience, I found Slack to be a little overwhelming at first when I began to experiment with the platform in late March. I set up teams for our "Statesman Shots" podcast as well as 512tech.com and while our teams are far from the bot-creating, super-customizing users at some Austin companies such as Spredfast, we've made strides in eliminating emails and text messaging and keeping archives of useful information (commonly used photos, planning documents), all in one place. As I've gotten more comfortable with Slack, it's become more fun to use and flexible to our needs. You get the feeling there's a lot of horsepower under the hood, but you don't have to rev up the engine all the time. Even a casual user with some group organization needs can probably get a lot out of it as long as team members are on board and willing to try it out.
Slack can be used as a very simple chat program, a way to take instant messages, phone texts and tons of emails and direct all that chatter to one place. If you've ever tried to manage an ongoing group conversation by text message or Facebook Messenger, Slack can be a good alternative. It works well on mobile phones, on the web or via downloadable apps for Mac and PC, so it can be accessed from pretty much anywhere.
But it can also be used as a searchable database for photos, documents, audio, video clips and project brainstorming sessions. It doesn't skimp on fun (for some, grating) features such as emojis, the ability to drop in a random animated GIF into a conversation and the ability to customize loading screens (with, for instance, inspirational quotes from writer Brené Brown) and programmable "bots" that can respond to questions from team members with a pre-set messages.
If you're a productivity geek, someone who likes "Getting Things Done" and labelmakers, Slack at first feels like the promised land, a place where conversations can be organized neatly into clearly designated categories and where reminders can be set for any piece of content posted there. It's inspired lots of tips-and-tricks blog posts on Slack's own blog and others and a cottage industry of add-on tools that can be integrated into Slack. It feels like there's a lot of community invested in Slack itself.
Mia Moore, an Austin marketer and blogger, belongs to four different Slack teams ranging from six members to more than 550 at her work, in an MBA program group, for a blogging course and a social group. "I started using Slack a few months ago for work and I instantly fell in love," Moore said. "My job is remote, so it's great for feeling like I am in contact with my team."
Moore says Slack feels more casual than email and that access to different channels at her company What Now? Exactly! have made her feel more in the loop. "It's nice to always have the option to know what's happening," she said.
Slack has made evangelists out of many users (me included). But it doesn't take long to figure out that Slack, like anything else involving people interacting with each other (and online!), can be a lot less than perfect in everyday practice.
The case against Slack
Noise. That might be Slack's biggest problem when it goes unchecked. As I spoke to Austin power users about how they're using Slack, those who have spent a few years on it say they've had to adopt strategies to cut down drastically on notifications (for instance, getting an alert anytime a team member posts on any channel), establish boundaries for team members who get a little too enthusiastic with GIFs or emojis, and archiving old, unused conversations.
Ben Hamill, an Austin software engineer at Under Armour, posted a useful set of guidelines for large Slack teams that suggests avoiding most private conversations, avoiding unnecessarily add-on bots and plug-ins, and limiting who can post to what channel to avoid conversational free-for-alls.
Hamill's current employer has about 630 people on its Slack team in five different time zones and he also belongs to a Slack team for users of the programming language Elixir that has more than 6,700 participants. That can require some major organizing.
Slack unchecked can bring out the worst in online chatterboxes and can be a huge time suck. If you've ever seen someone fall into a Facebook vortex for hours, Slack can be a pitfall of workplace gossip and online meetings that never, ever end.
Most importantly, though Slack is very powerful and has a friendly interface, it's not the only game in town and could fall out of favor as the standard in team chat software. Remember "Yammer," which was supposed to be like Twitter for the workplace? And Google Wave, which was also supposed to combine different communication channels to make one super chat tool?
One rival, Atlassian's HipChat, which has a large development team in Austin, does seem to be gaining traction. The rival software recently made a convert out of Uber, which dropped Slack in favor of HipChat for its employees.
Slack, in the end, might simply be overkill for people who don't spend a lot of time collaborating online with others and who don't want to be tethered to one more service that requires keeping track of chatter.
For curious people who like working online in groups, though, Slack feels like a treasure chest of tools waiting to be explored, and not just in the office.
Hamill says, "For small projects (whether software or not) I know it can be useful. I use a channel in one of my social Slack teams to organize fortnightly game nights at my house and it's proven far superior to texting or email."
RELATED: Check out tips from power users, whether you're new to Slack or an expert looking for some new hacks.