We started using Slack in August 2014, right when it came out of beta, with 44 users. Less than two years later, today, we are at 80 paid users. It’s no secret that we have spent quite a significant amount to Slack to date. What we got in return is a significant productivity gain plus an irreplaceable tool that blends perfectly into our unique culture supporting and reinforcing how we run the team.
Despite its incredible value-add to our process, very often when I recommended paying for Slack to some small-medium start-up teams, the reaction I got is mostly skeptical: “Why do I have to pay for something that can be used for free!”.
So here’s my attempt to put down some thoughts on how Slack has brought us a lot more value than what we paid for its use in cash. From a non-technical perspective:
The whole team is in one place that includes clients
By going with the premium plan, we can create and restrict access for our guests/clients to be in the same IM tool. Of course, some clients are skeptical at first. But when they actually get on the platform and are able to get in touch directly with the PM/Designer/Developer without needing to know their email addresses or their phone numbers, all the doubts disappear. The friction of communication suddenly becomes minimal.
Even between ourselves, Slack is being used to replace most of the other OTT services (Whatsapp, Viber, Line, FB Messenger). Simply, because everyone has Slack on their smartphone, and it works exactly like any other OTT, if not better. During non-work events like group road trips or weekend casual chatter, people are also using Slack to chat with co-workers instead of other IM platforms.
At the moment, we have more than 60 guests for free! Considering that’s more than half of the number of full team members, and we don’t have to pay for them to enjoy the same productivity as our full-timers, I think we got a damn good deal. You can argue though as some more conservative minds told me, that Skype or Lync could do the same. Not quite, because…
We integrated a whole lot of shit
Skype and Lync and other similar tools don’t offer quite the same openness. In order for this article to not be a sales pitch, I’m not going to go into the regular services you can find on the website. Currently, we are at 52 integrations.
When we say Slack is a big part of our process, it is mostly because we added a lot of cool services as part of daily communication.
Starting with email
Way before Slack had email integration as a standard service, we wrote our own custom email push-to-Slack bot. Using an easy-to-remember syntax with a prefix of ss-[groupname]@siliconstraits.com, we were able to hook up a lot of external communications into one place conveniently.
That means when a PM goes back and forth with clients, the whole team can see the email thread but doesn’t need to be cc’d. That also means all our billing notifications are pushed into one place and the whole finance department is aware of the charges.
This email automation is more than just convenience. It allows us to keep the flat culture whereby nobody is accidentally left out of the loop.
Subconsciously, all members of a team feel like they know as much as the others and, more importantly, they have all the data points to work with. Minimizing office-politics and saving us from a real hassle and time-sink of context syncing.
Notifications make the whole difference
Like other teams who have been using Slack, the regular stuff helps tremendously. Notifications for when someone is being assigned a task, when a CI build failed, when a bug is detected, when someone pushes code, etc., basically pretty much all the events you can think of can be pushed to Slack.
Here is where Skype and Lync fall short: the flexibility to customize notifications. Personally, I’m in pretty much every private group there is, yet I rarely got overwhelmed by the information stream. I can change my settings separately for phone and laptop to reflect exactly my reading speed on each device.
Whenever a group starts to become too noisy, I re-set the notification such that I only get alerted for certain important keywords, or when my name got mentioned. I can stay on top of things that way and don’t get buried.
We try to make full use of notifications and set some hard rules for people to be productive. For instance, after 8 pm, no one is supposed to use @group alerting in channels unless it’s emergency or the private group has a consensus. The @here tag is also super convenient for smaller groups, quickly disseminating important messages to online users and not being intrusive to offline/resting users.
And then we added more crazy shit
We cater lunch every day. It used to be a piece of paper menu being passed around. Sometimes it got lost, as you could imagine, sometimes people couldn’t order because they came in late. Now it’s all in Slack.
There is an additional simple back-end page that our admin lady accesses to get the consolidated view before lunch and then places the order manually over the phone.
[brag] It took me only one day to develop this integration yet the value it has brought to the team and the time saved is simply priceless.[/brag]
Slack’s openness leads to really interesting and creative usage. The tool enables us to convert quite a number of our offline to online processes.
Performance appraisal over Slack
At one point in time, for almost a year, we even had a simple peer-review mini-system over Slack. How it works was very simple. One types “/rate [1–10] [username]” at the end of the calendar month. The system would consolidate the ratings and showed color-coded differences. This immediately allowed management team to identify unspoken issues between two individuals. Again, it is really easy to implement such value-added tools for a team of developers like us. The mini-system has worked so well for us that the data we’ve learned over the short period allowed us to build a much more comprehensive performance review framework specifically catered to the way we work (we hope to release this framework soon).
The perfect replacement for offices’ water-coolers
If you are unfamiliar with the water-cooler concept, here is a quick definition: it is a common place where impromptu discussions or gossip happens, as people have to bump to one another (to get water).
With a giant public channel, where everyone is in, including our Alumni, no work-related discussion happens, it’s just pure nonsense — the good kind.
Anyone can say anything, and everyone can see. It helps greatly given our flat structure: when there are newcomers, a simple announcement makes everybody come to greet and meet the new guys. It makes everyone equal.
There are other team-focused and work-focus water-coolers, in which team members don’t necessarily have to discuss work but still somehow relevant to the projects they are in. Usually, these exclude management team members so that people can freely speak their mind and get help from others.
And of course, just like any other IM tools, anyone can directly message someone via 1–1 channel — these different levels nicely reflect our open culture.
Adding the personal touch
As our headcount grew quickly, the challenge was how to maintain and facilitate offline personal interactions between so many people.
Initially, we discovered bonus.ly, a SaaS service with Slack integration. It helps one user to reward another user virtually for anything and for whatever reason. The idea was great and we used it for a while. But as the cost started to scale up, we found that it was time for us to write our own system.
We learned a lot from bonus.ly and we made several small tweaks to the way reward system works. Instead of a full-flesh web interface, we streamlined everything to command lines. We changed the way messages are defined, remove even more friction to reward someone than before. We reset the allowance every month, and offer conversion to real cash for any team-bonding purpose.
We saved a bit of subscription fee, and we have a perfect system that shapes how people are getting rewarded for their offline interaction.
It is amazing to observe that when a kind action is awarded publicly in our common channel, not only it brings recognition to the awardee, but also let others know more about his/her personalities. Personally I didn’t think any online tool could do that but Slack did.
Sum it up
There are other functional utilities to the way we use Slack daily, but the ones above are some highlights on how it has helped us build and maintain the cultural dimensions we believe in of the team. I believe as organizations are moving towards a flatter and more open configuration, any small/medium team can benefit greatly by adopting Slack. Whether on a free plan or paid plan, there are ways you can maximize what you get from the service, it just takes a bit of tinkering and creativity.