Promoting asynchronous communication in Slack

Young woman wearing headphones while working on her desktop at night.

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, allowing team members to give or receive critical feedback in real time and address emergencies immediately.

However, using Slack as a synchronous communication tool 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!

Managing expectations

At Alley, we aim to set expectations around using Slack as an asynchronous tool, where teammates exercise autonomy in when and how they address issues brought to them in Slack. That 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 equity which is especially important to Alley as a fully-remote company with team members all over the world.

Assessing your team’s needs

At Alley, we seek to take an evidence-based approach in everything we do. So when we set out to improve our Slack culture, we started by gathering information at the source: our team. We conducted a session focused on reaping the benefits of Slack while promoting a more asynchronous culture of communication.

Creating a Slack detox plan

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:

  1. Write down what you like most about Slack.
  2. Write down your biggest struggles with Slack.
  3. Outline steps you can take to keep what you like in Slack, while shedding what you don’t. (Can you live without desktop notifications? Probably yes!)
  4. Commit to these steps for a two-week detox! 

Retrospecting the results

At the end of the two weeks we held a Retrospective, where we discussed the different strategies our team used during their detox, the benefits and drawbacks, and how we could adopt these strategies in the long term.

The ensuing conversation was thoughtful — surfacing many suggestions, tips, and tricks around improving our culture around Slack. Many reactions and responses fell along the lines of “I didn’t know I could do that!” or “I didn’t know we were allowed to do that.” The exercise confirmed that creating space for this “Slack Detox” had true value. 

Strategies for Slack detoxing

  • Set team norms: Establish that it’s okay to be unavailable for periods of time to promote focus and flow states on work in progress.  
  • Overcommunicate: When you do ping, include all pertinent information and context to ensure your request is clear and detailed. Don’t forget 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.
  • Triage: Limit “urgent” requests for true emergencies.
  • Compartmentalize your tools: Use alternative tools (like project management systems) to engage in less immediate discussion around important topics.
  • Create specialized channels: Establish a dedicated emergency channel for your team.
  • Opt out: Leave channels where you’re no longer active. (Use your judgment and when in doubt, consult with your team first).
  • Hit the snooze: Mute channels where you’re not active on a daily basis.
  • Manage your notifications: Disable desktop notifications during focus time, at night, and perhaps even all the time – provided this does not become an impediment to you or your team.
  • Make the most of your settings: Use the “Show Activity” feature to never miss a direct message or mention when “backscrolling” (catching up on the conversation from when you were away).
  • Set reminders: Use Slackbot’s built-in reminders such as “Add to saved items,” “Remind me about this,” or “Mark as unread” so you can return to them when you’re ready. 
  • Update your status: Inform others when you’re heads down, on a call, or otherwise in or out of commission.
  • Mind your mentions: Use @here or @channel sparingly (if at all) and be mindful of your @mentions in general.

At Alley, we want our teams to feel empowered to make Slack work for them, 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.

Looking for more ways to manage expectations and increase team productivity? Check out these ideas for setting boundaries when working from home.