Zen and the Art of Distraction: Chapter 1

In 2015 I completed my 200HR Yoga Instructor certification, which has become an incredibly valuable font of knowledge as a startup co-founder. During my time in yoga teacher training, we discussed the concept of attaining enlightenment, the ongoing process of understanding that starts over the moment you reach a form of it. Micah, my mentor, explained that achieving enlightenment is like a wheel. On the yoga-specific wheel are six types of yoga, which ancient yogis believed would help people work holistically on bettering themselves and become enlightened.

Likewise, there are key software tools that startups use that can lead to clear communication and direction in an organization – specifically Slack and Email. Unfortunately, these same tools can often lead to overwhelm, frustration, and total disconnect.

In this series, we want to look at the tools we use at Teem. From both a written understanding of why we use these tools and discussion of how we utilize them to lead our company towards our ongoing exploration of Enlightenment.

Chapter 1: Slack as the Center of Culture

If you wander the desks at Teem you will notice an interesting phenomenon — every individual’s screens usually have two apps open: 1) Their department’s source of truth (Sales = SalesForce, Dev = IDE/bug tracker, Marketing = Asana), and 2) Slack. This saturation of a communication utility is incredible, and the opportunity for supporting a transparent, open, culture at all times is astounding.

Early on I made a clear goal at the company level that if something was happening, it would be visible in Slack. This level of transparency hinges on Slack’s ability to facilitate communication and turn the archives of that conversation into a searchable, ever-expanding time capsule.

Communicating

Slack is arguably the primary method by which we internally communicate at Teem. It’s rivaled only by speaking, and even then you better send a Slack to ensure verbal promises are kept. Since it’s so pervasive, we rely on a strategy that includes many channels to segment and organize relevant conversations.

Channel Strategy

We have a lot of channels. So many that it can be intimidating at first, but what’s awesome is that instead of a handful of really noisy channels we have many channels with a specific theme of messages. Instead of maintaining a few channels with a high volume smattering of message topics, we have many channels with low volume, specific messaging surrounding projects, campaigns, clients, etc.

We’ve found that having hyper-focused channels lowers the noise and distraction of a channel. Few channels with a large population are often chaotic, noisy and stressful to keep up-to-date. An analogy to email is that you wouldn’t want all your conversations to happen in a single thread. Instead, you corral discussions on the topic relative to the subject. Slack is no different, the channel name and theme set the tone.

This strategy allows conversations to stay on-topic while helping prioritize messages for users. New Teem employees often suffer from a bit of FOMO and join dozens of vaguely interesting Slack channels, but quickly learn that it’s better to leave the mass of channels and tune into signals over noise.

Public vs Private Channels vs Direct Messages

A public channel operates similarly to a public thread on social media: anyone can hop in and offer an opinion. At the same time, hoards of individuals don’t participate, instead opting for being entertained by the public theater unfolding before their eyes. Not exactly the ideal situation for intra-departmental crises that don’t need onlookers interjecting needless commentary.

A private channel isn’t secretive; it’s just the most appropriate avenue for the communication housed therein. For example, a crisis channel for the IT team needs to remain low-noise, high-signal. It makes sense for this type of channel to be private and invitation-only — and not to serve as a form of weird theater drama for other teams. We think very carefully of which channels go public, but we work hard to keep communication as visible as possible. In the event critical information is shared in a private channel, we work to surface a response into the appropriate public channel.

Finally, a Group Direct Messages are great for quick, private conversations — but we ask our team to be mindful of the information shared. In the event another person needs to be aware of a part of a message in a Group DM — that information cannot migrate to newly added users. While this is a great feature, we do our best to avoid direct business conversations in small group messages.

Degrees of Formality: Channels at Teem

Our high-volume, narrow scope channel strategy also hinges on an underlying adherence to the formality, or informality, of a channel. To illustrate, let’s look at three channels at Teem that represent formal versus casual channels, as well as space in between.

#announcements and #teem-hq are two core channels that most of us at Teem stay subscribed to for necessary updates. In #announcements, only Slack Admins can post messages. It’s a low-volume channel, and we encourage admins to post sparingly on this channel – largely because we ask that every employee stay in the #announcements channel and keep notifications un-muted, so they don’t miss any critical info. Using Slack’s “Email Integration,” we also send emails addressed to a company-wide group drop into our #announcements channel.

#teem-hq is reserved for work-related conversations, by default Slack often labels this channel as #general. This channel serves as a directory point for questions, and is meant to serve as a more conversational foil to #announcements were everyone can post messages. The tone of the channel is not as formal as #announcements, but not as casual as the #mezz channel.
The #mezz channel is like Teem’s “water cooler” space, by default Slack labels this channel as #random. It’s named affectionately after the Mezzanine that acts as the heart of the Teem phsyical office; which is a place to take a break, fuel up, and indulge in nonsensical conversation. This channel is casual, and Teem employees can come and go as they please.

Another favorite channel at Teem is #gong. A bot drives content that relays specific information everytime someone closes a deal. What I love about this channel is that it shares the ultimate win (closing a deal) across every department. Folks in engineering that might not otherwise know when sales close a huge deal now can get updated and share props.

Searching

We frequently perceive one of Slacks biggest strengths as its biggest weakness: it’s a continually flowing stream of information. I often hear synchronous-loving employees complain that they can’t keep up with Slack. (Which usually comes down to utilization – we’ll get to that part later.) Consider Slack’s communication parallel: email. Without Slack, email is the place where conversations happen, problems are solved, and questions are answered.

All of that communication still happens, but the communication itself is available only to those whose email address is included on the thread. How many questions are answered repeatedly by HR or their departmental counterparts via email that could have been searchable in Slack? That’s the core problem with email, especially at a company like ours that’s growing fast, that there’s an immense amount of valuable information that remains unavailable to newly-created email addresses.

With Slack, any employee, regardless of tenure, can go all the way back to 2014 and read a complete unabridged history of the company. Our failures, our successes, conversations about customers, and so on. Slack is a living time capsule of our business.

And that’s why Slack is the center of culture at Teem. But, understanding the why is only the first step in discovering the Art of Slack. In part two of this series, you’ll learn how to become a Slack Master with actionable advice on reducing noise and taming chaos. Sign up for the WX Weekly newsletter below to read part two right now!

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