TL;DR: Be deliberate and dedicate less attention to Slack. Turn off distracting features. It’s difficult to feel productive when you’re Slacking all day.
I spent a year as a developer working remotely, from a home office. I quickly learned to appreciate how much I could do when I focused on a problem without other folks around. I visited the office regularly, but Slack helped me feel closer to my team when I was 350 miles away.
Unfortunately, I used Slack constantly. It wasn’t great.
I am not a remote engineer anymore, but some of the tactics I learned and developed are still useful. Here goes:
This might be obvious, but you shouldn’t use text for everything. Nuance gets lost immediately, for starters. I’ve pissed off many people over the years with snarky messages, and I can’t be the only one!
Contentious and complicated topics make better discussions when you can see the other people involved or share a screen. It’s even more valuable when you’re talking with someone who doesn’t work in your office.
You can avoid ambiguity by walking over to someone’s desk, or giving them a video call. It’s usually best if you make sure they have time first! Yes, you can use Slack for that part. Slack has video chat and screen sharing built in, which can be convenient.
If you need to focus, stop communicating. Quit Slack. Find a quiet space. If you go this route, block your schedule, head offline, and get to work. If you’re a manager or lead, it might be wise to let your team know when you’ll be back, or provide a way for them to reach you in an emergency.
Being deliberate about when you’re focused and when you’re collaborating is important, and it’s not a bad thing. If you need to refer to a message or channel for work you’re doing, crack Slack open, find what you need, and quit it again.
If you are on Slack, remember that you don’t have to respond quickly, especially in channels. You also don’t have to respond to everything! You’re not your team’s only engineer. Check Slack less frequently, and you’ll likely reclaim time without harming communication. A recent study on workplace email habits showed that:
“the participants […] sent and received roughly the same number of emails during both weeks. [It took] approximately 20 percent less time during the week when they checked their email less frequently.”
You can change your behavior, which is hard, or you can leverage the tools Slack provides, which is easier:
- Snooze notifications (easiest)
- Set up reminders (okay)
- Try not to look at Slack (worst)
I strongly recommend snoozing notifications. If you do happen to look at a message, figure out when it needs a response and set a reminder for later. Deferring communication can help a lot.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t participate in big channels. One of the best things about Redfin Engineering is how helpful and supportive our team is. It’s important to spend some of your time giving back. Pick one or two support channels and be active in them, but set some boundaries around your response time. We don’t have a lot of fires, and it’s rarely the end of the world if someone waits 10 or 20 minutes for a response. Sometimes that’s enough time for them to solve the problem or find an answer on their own!
There’s another sidebar tweak that has helped immensely: show “My unreads, along with everything I’ve starred”. It sounds a bit backwards, but it really cuts down on noise. Slack actually recommends it in their help center; it’s weird that it’s not the default behavior.
You can also mute channels directly. I’ve found this really useful our release channel and others that have a lot of automation and status messages. If I’m mentioned—or if one of my highlight words is—I’ll get a notification.
Turning off unread badges and new-message sound effects might be worth it. If you’re vulnerable to shiny things, give it a shot. Another engineer mentioned that unticking “Show a badge on Slack’s icon to indicate new activity” was super useful to him:
“You’ll still see a red dot if you’ve got PMs / direction mentions, but won’t have the FOMO-inducing dot telling you somewhere, someone has sent a message and you haven’t read it yet.”
It isn’t always easy to know what channels to spend time in. Rather than deciding what channels to leave, it can help to decide which channels you need to be present in. Apply the Konmari method, or whatever. Pick a hangout channel (or two), your team channels, and a couple others, and start leaving the rest. You can always join them again!
If that sounds too extreme, you can always enable “Send me occasional channel suggestions via Slackbot”, which will prompt you with channels you should leave (or join!). Head to Preferences > Advanced > Other Options.
You’re part of a huge organization, but your team should (probably) usually come first. Their questions and problems will be easier for you to tackle, if nothing else, and more relevant to your own goals and expertise.
If you’ve got limited time, spend as much of it as possible helping those around you.
A lot of people hate Slack in comparison with other chat tools, including IRC, Matrix, Mattermost, etc. They have their advantages and disadvantages, but however you decide to chat with your team, you’ll need to figure out how to tune it out, so you can get your actual job done.
My formative years, for better or worse, involved a lot of time on IRC and online communities, and Slack has helped me build better relationships with my coworkers. Redfin has two engineering offices and dozens of teams, and being able to have serious (and non-serious!) conversations with any and all of them is something I would not want to lose.
How else would I see new gifs?