One of the hottest new ideas in office automation—chat channels for real-time group discussions—is actually an update on a very old technology. Online chat goes back to at least 1973, with the Talkomatic program at the University of Illinois, but it took about 40 years for it to find serious footing in the business realm.
The market leader today is Slack, although several other companies (including WhatsApp) offer alternatives. Slack stands for Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge, which spells out the central feature: all messages are recorded on a server, so that they’re private to your company but recorded and searchable within it.
These programs allow you to create a number of different channels, which are like separate conversations. Channels can focus on a particular project, department, or client, and can include any number of people, from two coworkers to your entire company.
Online chat really shines in distributed work environments, where employees are in physically remote offices or working from home, but need to work together as if they were all in one meeting room. Max Wesman, the VP of product management at employment screening company GoodHire, relies on the software to seamlessly connect staffers at their Bay Area office with others working from home or at offices in Ukraine or Omaha, NE. He tells The FruitGuys Magazine, “I feel like I can get in touch with anyone, whether I’m physically in the office with them or not. It puts everyone on a level playing field.”
At its best, the technology allows brainstorming and quick collaboration, with the bonus of being able to come back later and look up exactly what someone said.
Shea Coakley, cofounder of FruitGuys partner LeanBox, says that “Slack has completely revolutionized the way my company communicates. My team has cut email communication in half while finding more efficient ways to communicate on specific topics or projects.”
Better yet, he adds, the software is simple and intuitive to use. “Slack is honestly one of those tools that anyone of any age uses for 48 hours and it clicks.”
Set the Right Tone
While online chat is a powerful tool for fast collaboration as a team, even one whose members are located on different continents, these kinds of tools are not without their problems. The biggest one is the risk of interrupting staff who need to focus. In addition, Slack and similar programs can encourage casual conversation—which is good for team bonding—but sometimes the talk can move from the casual to the inappropriate.
The key for you as a supervisor is to set clear expectations and policies. Who can create a channel or decide that people are wandering off-topic? How long are chats stored, and how quickly are dormant channels removed?
Because chat is more casual than email and everything is recorded, clear policies about offensive or abusive language and digressions into politics, sports, or pop culture are important. You can even create a Slackbot to warn users—or alert managers—when staff try to use forbidden words.
Even when people stay on topic, though, there are risks. The very promise of real-time chat is also its danger—the expectation of immediate response to whatever you say. An email can be checked or answered at any time, but Slack comments are like any live conversation—silence sends a message too, and if you wait too long to respond, the discussion will move on without you.
Another concern is the risk of being constantly interrupted. This can be a particular problem for technicians or programmers who need intense concentration to complete their tasks. Wesman tells The FruitGuys that “[our] engineers don’t love it, because it can be distracting. I know several engineers who won’t put the app on their phones, for example.”
Do Not Disturb
Every workplace that adopts this software should train employees on how to modify their notifications (for example, silencing dings or not having a flag appear on the home screen of your desktop or phone). Users can also change their status to Do Not Disturb, so that someone expecting a response can manage their expectations. Wesman says that GoodHire uses policies to minimize distractions.
“Part of our ground rules is that if anything can be done with face-to-face communication, [Slack] doesn’t replace that. If it’s better to walk over to someone’s desk and get that human interaction, go ahead and do so. Get up out of your chair,” Wesman says.
The fundamentals of online chat haven’t changed since the days of CompuServe and AOL Instant Messenger, but it’s taken 45 years for the rest of the tech world to catch up with it. Today, almost everyone has broadband internet access at home and work, which makes this kind of software both possible and necessary as work teams disperse. All that’s needed to make it productive is how you sell its importance to your staff and which policies you set on how to use it.
Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books, 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books, 2015). His work has appeared in Harvard Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Oregonian, as well as on his blog Taoish.org and on Warp, Weft, and Way, an academic blog about Chinese philosophy.