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How Slack uses Slack

From hacking the search tool to giving friendly feedback, Slack's employees share their secrets — just be ready for plenty of emoji.

How Slack uses Slack

Slack's internal workflows all point to how the company itself uses its offerings to prioritize actions over words.

Image: Slack and Protocol

How many engineers does it take to turn on a lightbulb? At Slack, the answer is one — and they can do it with an emoji.

In the Slack offices, before the pandemic hit, reacting to a message with a specific lightbulb emoji anywhere within the company's massive network of internal channels would turn on a lamp housed in the legal department. For the lawyers on the team, this was called the "Pat Signal," and it meant there was a new patent idea in the queue that would need a legal review.

It's a custom function the company built on top of the Reacji Channeler, an integration Slack rolled out in 2017 to more efficiently move information across channels when people react to messages. In this particular case, once the reaction is applied, the information about the patent idea is transferred from whichever channel it originated in to a more streamlined one populated with the lawyers who could consult on the next steps. In the process, an API lit up the lamp.

But kitschy fun aside, the existence of the Pat Signal speaks more broadly to how Slack the company uses Slack the product. If the common knock (brush) on Slack from companies using the product is that message volume can hinder actual productivity in favor of extraneous communication, Slack's internal workflows all point to how the company itself uses its offerings to prioritize actions over words.

We spoke to team members across Slack to learn how they use their own product. Here are some of the highlights.

Use search smarter (and look for the shrimp)

In the 17th century Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher and mathematician, wrote: "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time." Simplicity, after all, is difficult to master.

When Slack rolled out its major redesign in March, CEO Stewart Butterfield told Protocol that many of the new features were created to elicit a "progressive reveal of functionality," suggesting that Slack knows it can be an intimidating product to new users and that simplicity was a priority as they expand into the casual use demographic. But as Pascal and director of product management Jaime DeLanghe, who oversaw that redesign, could attest, making something simpler usually requires understanding all the complexities within a system.

For DeLanghe that meant using Slack's search tools as a way to streamline the overwhelming amount of information coming through each of the channels related to the project. And the solution was a fried shrimp emoji.

"We would have a long debate in thread, and then we would 'shrimp it' when we found the solution," DeLanghe said. "Then you can search for that emoji reaction and filter by 'has shrimp,' and see all of the decisions we made. It's a way of using reacting to things as a way of tagging."

Instead of taking the time to closely read hundreds of messages to find out how a problem was solved — or, worse, asking all the participants in that conversation to relitigate their positions — DeLanghe could easily find the messages that indicated a consensus among the stakeholders and keep the redesign moving.

Automate whatever you can

Using Slack for the redesign wasn't limited to internal productivity hacks. In the lead-up to the rollout, DeLanghe's team assembled a group of superusers from their large- and medium-sized customers that beta tested those green-lit, "shrimped" decisions before the new UI went live. With Connect, Slack's intercompany communication product, the company was able to securely test elements and features among its customers and build a feedback loop.

"We basically had a constant line of feedback where we could turn on features for them — turn on the features of the people who were in that channel — and then try things out before they hit the market," DeLanghe said. "I think it's really helped us to be much more customer-centric as a product organization"

To manage how those tests were being administered, Slack utilized Workflow Builder, the ticketing-style tool it offers, to automate some of the scheduling and determine which versions of the design to share when. The process, she notes, worked so well in the redesign that there's now a standing channel for whatever the next wave of testing will be.

"Now there's a separate channel where if you want to test something with these external participants, you can submit a request using Workflow Builder," DeLanghe said. "From there, we can coordinate and figure out the scheduling, and eventually it goes into the customer channel as well."



So. Many. Channels. (Just use good names.)

If you think your company has a lot of Slack channels, think again.

"We're not very afraid of creating new channels so that we can separate out some of that structured work from the bigger, more public work," DeLanghe said. "I think the way that we at Slack use Slack involves maybe a lot more channels than if you were just at a small company."

As a result, a critical piece of Slack's internal usage comes with how it names channels and organizes the messages and the participants therein to control the flow of information. Within the marketing and event planning teams, for example, the life cycle of a channel becomes a major determinant of how the channel will be named and used. A year before Slack Frontiers, the company's annual customer conference, a set of small channels sharing the same prefix are created to brainstorm ideas on content or speech themes. Six months before the event, those channels are complemented by larger ones that include more senior staff, allowing visibility without the inundation of messages that comes from daily decision-making. Finally, in the weeks leading up to an event, more channels sharing that same prefix are created, solely focused on coordinating with the employees working on or attending the event to ensure that a message is sent only to the relevant people.

That concept of channel proliferation is organization-wide, and even beyond. The communications and executive teams have standing channels named for each executive as a way to field media requests. In each channel is the executive or their assistant, a representative of Slack's outside PR agency and members of Slack's communications team.

Whenever a request comes in, Slack uses these channels as a clearinghouse, standardizing each request with a Workflow Builder integration. Functioning like a prescreening, that integration asks for a description of what the scope of the story is, whether or not they recommend the opportunity to the executive and the timeline. As is customary within most of Slack's channels, the executive can then use the eyes emoji to indicate whether or not he or she has seen it or a green check mark to confirm the details.

To keep on-message, embrace the off-topic raccoon

The flip side to having a lot of channels with very specific purposes is that it only takes a few off-topic messages to derail a conversation or leave the channel's members wondering what the actual purpose of the channel is. When that does happen, Slack employees mark offending messages with a raccoon emoji to let the person who posted it know that the message would fit better in another channel — a kind of gentle telling off.

What happens if an inordinate number of raccoons make an appearance? "Maybe it's time to rename the channel," DeLanghe said with a laugh.



Make friends with the bots

If Slack's overall mission is to become the "central nervous system" of businesses, the raccoon emoji internally functions like a white blood cell, filtering out what's bad for the health of a channel. Sticking with medical metaphors, the company's use of bots and integrations works more like a prefrontal cortex: It helps users focus their attention during repetitive processes.

For the engineering team, that means building workflows that could be enhanced by automation and live data. Recently, the team moved to a scheduled deploy model, appointing a "deploy commander" for each of the roughly eight rollouts that happen per day. That point person is working alongside a bot that's reporting within Slack on the state of each of the deploys in real time to cut down on the labor of switching back and forth between systems.

"Instead of having to go check on your email and then come back into Slack or go check on a dashboard and come back into Slack, we're piping all that stuff in," DeLanghe said. "Everything is very centralized, and people who are participating in the deploy can also go into that channel to see what's going on with their code, in case their code is the problem."

The company's BizTech team also employs a similar strategy with a tool they call AskBot to automate IT service requests. Within Slack, employees can open tickets and interact with the requests inside the platform, avoiding the need to switch systems. The company says their AskBot has a ticket resolution rate of more than 30%.

And sometimes, use the old-fashioned approach

Not all of Slack's centralization is tied to bots or even automation though. Its sales team, for instance, uses a more low-tech solution, maximizing the amount of information available to them the old-fashioned way: through actual human relationships.

With Connect, the company's platform for intercompany communication, Slack will put people working across their sales, legal or engineering teams in a channel with representatives from a client. By offering up more access points, Slack attempts to improve the customer experience. Practically it also means that the sales team is, for instance, armed with enough information to decide if it should hold off on pushing to get a new contract signed on a day when that client is having issues with Slack functionality.

* * *

Regardless of whether it's a low-tech or a high-tech solution, Slack's internal use of the product points to how Slack can be used when there's full buy-in to the service across an organization. Using smart infrastructure, wringing every last drop of performance from tools and resources at hand, and gathering regular feedback from customers aren't concepts foreign to any organization — and it turns out they're there for the taking in Slack.

But Slack obviously has an added benefit of relying so heavily on its own product internally: If the company can't find a way to get users inside the company to adopt something new, it's a dead giveaway that less-resourced organizations won't find a way to use them either. On the flip side, the pain points they feel internally are the ones they know to prioritize fixing for their customers.

Like any tool, Slack is a learned skill. DeLanghe says Slack has employees who start without prior experience of the software, or who are used to using desk phones. And while much of the company's informal policies and tricks are covered during the onboarding process, she always recommends having a safeguard as well.

"Have somebody who you trust, who can help you, who already understands it," she said. "So if you feel nervous posting to a public channel, you can have a buddy and get social proof [beforehand]."

After all, nobody wants to find themselves with too many raccoons.

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