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How to make Slack work harder for you and your team
How to make Slack work harder for you and your team
Channels, user groups and welcome messages
I’ve been using Slack for a long time. A really long time – seven years in fact. Since then Slack has evolved into the super-powered chat app we all know today.
In that time I've run a handful of teams and have helped each of them to make the most of Slack, turning those “I don’t have time to check Slack”-ers into “I don’t know how I could work without Slack”-ers. In each case it came down to being clearer and more transparent about where messages should go, and where you can find them later.
Here are my tips to help you do the same for your team or organisation.
There’s an phrase I often think about that embodies how I think about Slack channels:
A place for everything and everything in its place.
In essence, in the context of Slack, meaning there should be an obvious home for each message, file or document you share, and it should be easy to find them later. Both creation and discovery should be simple for everyone in your organisation.
In order for this to work, it’s fundamental that the right channels exist, their purposes are clear, they are renamed when their working context changes, archived when no longer needed, and unarchived (not recreated!) if you ever need them again.
Avoid mysterious channel names like #project-gravy-train or #new-experience-swt. Think about someone new joining your organisation. Channel names should be self explanatory, and avoid acronyms unless absolutely necessary. Better examples would be #iphone-app-rebuild or #smart-water-technology-user-testing. This makes it easier for your colleagues to discover channels (through the channel list, or using the cmd/ctrl + K shortcut) and more obvious from the name what each channel's purpose is. Note: Slack increased the channel name character limit in 2019, so don’t be afraid of longer channel names!
Naming related channels with a consistent prefix can help discovery too. For example, your finance team might have:
- #finance-support: for colleagues who need support on finance issues
- #finance-operations: for the finance team to use internally for their own day-to-day operations
- #finance-workshop-july-21: a temporary channel for the finance and people teams to organise their upcoming three day workshop
When a project or team’s remit changes, consider renaming your channels to accommodate. For example, if you previously had a team responsible for the customer subscription journey (#subscriptions-team), and now they also look after profile management, you might rename that channel to #subscriptions-and-profiles-team. Something to consider: If you have a full team reorganisation, decide if you want to rename old channels (in order to keep the channel history in place) or archive them and start fresh. Remember, you can always get back to archived channels and their content using search, the channel list, or the cmd/ctrl + K shortcut.
Note: by default, not all Slack workspaces allow channel renaming without admin permissions. Ask your Slack owners about enabling this if it isn't already.
With all these channels, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking “how are me and my team keep on top of all this?!”. Below the user groups and welcome messages sections have some extra suggestions for helping with this.
In most teams it’s natural to have leavers and joiners over the course of their life. Slack can help making that process as smooth as possible for new and existing members of the team, as well as for your stakeholders, through user groups.
You might have found yourself in this situation, stakeholders and senior members of staff know one or two of the highest profile members of a given team. When there’s an issue or the stakeholder has a question or feature request, they send a direct message to those people, entirely skipping the team channel, or they do use the channel but they just tag a single person. This can be frustrating for visibility or alleviating the pressures created by single points of communication.
This is where user groups come in. You can create teams of Slack users with their very own @ handle. For example, the team that work on your payroll might be the @payroll-team. This means you can easily reach the Payroll team, without having to know who is in the team, or who is on holiday.
But user groups have another powerful feature, default channels. With these, you can set a user group to have a set of channels which every member of the group is automatically added to. Using the finance example from earlier, having a @finance-team user group with a default channel of #finance-operations makes onboarding new team members to Slack a breeze. If anyone wants to see who makes up the current Finance team, they can check the team membership and their profiles too – easy!
If you want to give it a go, you can follow this Slack guide for setting up a user group.
Note: the creation and management of user groups may be disabled in your Slack workspace. Speak to your Slack admins to get this enabled.
The final piece of the channel discovery puzzle is welcome messages. These are done with a straightforward implementation of Slack’s Workflow feature, that allows you to trigger behaviours from events in your workspace. Here we are looking at sending a message to new members of a given channel, helping to point them in the right direction and discover any additional channels they might be interested in. When paired with user groups and default channels, this can create a powerful workflow:
Invite your colleague to Slack ➡️ Add them to the right user groups ➡️ The user will automatically join the relevant channels through default channels ➡️ By joining certain channels, the user is sent a relevant welcome message 👋
With a custom welcome message you can introduce:
- Active projects and other channels they might want to join (you might have a #all-pets channel, for example 🐱)
- Any relevant sub-teams or user groups and their @ handles
- Regular or recurring events and calendar invite links (e.g. daily stand up or monthly team huddles)
- Links to useful documents like onboarding or the company strategy video
You can set up the workflow by yourself using the ⚡️icon next to the message box in the channel you want to welcome people to and searching "open workflow builder". From there, create a new workflow, giving it a name and using a "New channel member" trigger. From there, select the channel, click "Next", then select "Add Step" and "Send a message". Use the "Person who joined the channel" magic variable, and write your message.
I have also created a template workflow you can download here (call the file welcome_message.slackworkflow) and import directly into Workflow Builder using the "Import" button. For more on Workflow Builder, check out this guide from Slack.
Bonus: email integration
A bonus feature worthy of a mention is email-to-channel integrations. Even the most well-intentioned teams may still find they have regular company updates or integrations with third party services that only work through email. While you could set up a shared inbox, or auto forwarder to each of your team members, it might be easier for you to get those emails sent directly into a Slack channel.
To set up an email address for your channel take a look at this guide from Slack.
Note: to keep alerts and automated messages to a minimum and out of the critical path of your colleague’s discussions, you might want to set up an alerts channel, for example: #finance-alerts.
So there you have it, how to make Slack work harder for you and your team through clearer channel naming, user groups, and Slack Workflows to create automated welcome messages.
Do you have tips for helping empower your teams to work more openly and collaboratively in Slack? Tweet me your suggestions on @chrishutchinson, I’d love to hear them!
Chris is a Lead Engineer at Made Tech, improving digital services for UK citizens through better technology delivery. He also co-built and maintains The Operator, a Slack app for unleashing the knowledge in your private channels, improving discovery through knock-to-join private channels. He also maintains Slack Testing Library, an open source library for quickly writing powerful integration tests for your custom Slack apps.