The Golden Rules of Slack Etiquette

Max Brawer
6 min readOct 4, 2023

How HR & IT teams can build successful hybrid and remote organizations through better use of Slack and less use of meetings

As the world tries to return to normal after lockdown, many CEOs I know fear that “remote work isn’t working” and look to return to office plans and meeting deleters to solve their productivity paranoia. The tragedy, I fear, is calling remote work a failure without ever doing it right and investing time into building and training on a strong virtual culture.

With the majority of our day driven by digital apps, the quality of work and quality of life we have are intimately tied to the etiquette and skill with which we use the tool. Here are some tips and tricks I recommend based on primary and secondary research into successful businesses and collaborators over 3 decades, even pre-Slack. Give them a shot!

1 — Be kind & assume positive intent

This is the Slack company’s Golden Rule #1. Work is hard. Life is hard. Work at a startup is hard. Everyone has their own work problems and life problems. Empathy and compassion will raise every single possible outcome of life on Slack. A terse, unkind or harmful message will derail someone’s entire day, week or career. So please lead with empathy.

2 — User with the fewest DMs wins

You may be thinking “why am I being told not to DM in an IM app?” so allow us to explain: we conducted research with 5 heads of IT on their experience with work messaging programs dating back to the early 2000s (pre-Slack) and stumbled into this verified path to success: messengers work best at companies with the most channels and fewest DMs. Why?

  • Firstly, it is great to work in public so that you maximize the probability the right audience/stakeholder sees your message
  • Second, a nice #searchable channel is easy to find using Cmd + K, whereas a ton of names separated by commas will get messy. If you want to discuss payroll, you should be able to search “payroll” as a topic, not remember the exact list of DM’d folks who discussed it with you last!
  • Third, this helps with posterity for future users who have the same questions. If you solve someones quesiton in a DM, you will solve it the next time in another DM. If you solve it in public, you can always reference the original response too!

So next time you want to discuss a particular subject or project with the right folks, don’t just smash them all into a thread — try #temp-project-projectkeyword and bring in the best guess of members, allowing them to add people until your project channel is staffed up for the right discussion! And if in a week or a day that topic is done, Slack will sweep it away with the tides (but it may be searchable for all time).

3 — Write requests as if your battery were at 1%

A famous piece of advice from Slack itself is to avoid incomplete messages that lead to undue stress:

dot, dot, dot

Sometimes, yes, Slack is just an instant messenger- a place to say hello and catch up with a colleague. But more often, it is a replacement for email that we are using for structured reminders and requests. To be respectful of the person you are working with, please ensure your businessy Slacks give them all the information they need as if it is the only message you get to send them. That likely means including:

  • Time-oriented language and deadlines
  • The “why” or background for your question to minimize guessing
  • Resources or instructions they may need to follow on their own. Like this:

Why it works: imagine you are working cross-functionally across time zones and you write an incomplete message. The responder then cannot get back to you until the next day (or worse, at a meeting at the next available day). By saving a few characters, you have lost one whole day on your timelines at a minimum! Not only is this practice respectful and organized, it makes the work better (it can more easily meet the true goal), it makes the work go faster (the recipient can get right to what they need), and it reduces burnout and meeting fatigue.

4 — Start conversations, not meetings

This is really a piece of meeting etiquette, but Slack is the medium through which we reduce ineffective meetings (when used properly) so let’s add it here: in one Meeting Effectiveness study run by the author, participants replied to Slacks of “let’s sync” with “can you tell me more about what you want to discuss?”. As a result, 78% of sync requests did not result in meetings because 1) the question was easily solved asynchronously or 2) the recipient wasn’t the right person for the question.

This is in many ways a reaffirmation of rule 3 — when you clearly engage someone on the full picture information you need and why (and when), you can earn back hours of your working life and achieve more impactful work outcomes to boot. Remember, a meeting generally only becomes effective in cases where you want to Do/Learn something (working meeting), Bond (social focus), Brainstorm, or Debate/Decide (reach a conclusion to conflict), not just for updates or answers.

See: Adam Grant: “Time in meetings has more than tripled since Feb 2020. Nearly a third of meetings are unnecessary — wasting $25M a year for every 1k people. There are 4 reasons to meet: to decide, learn, bond, and do. If it doesn’t serve one of those purposes, cancel it. https://t.co/wtSVZO56cY" / X (twitter.com)

So next time you want to say “let’s meet” or “let’s throw time on”, start the conversation on Slack and then see where it goes!

5 — Don’t Apologize for Asynchronous Behaviors

Let’s look at this exchange to see the mismatch between speaker 1 (an async pro) and speaker 2:

Yes, it is kind to acknowledge a message in some way. However, we will succeed when we feel the psychological safety and trust to know that our colleagues will get to our messages when they can. In fact, that’s a primary benefit of virtual communication tools: they are asynchronous, unstuck in time. We will succeed as a company by embracing async work and, to do so, we do our best to adapt and embrace that a request takes time and will be there for us in a nicely organized fashion when we get to it.

Try to reframe interactions on Slack so that it doesn’t become an “all day meeting” and instead becomes a place to log action items, questions and requests in lieu of more time-consuming meetings.

Max is the founder & maker behind sheetswizard.com, where you can find educational materials and apps to help you be a great co-worker, better analyst, and excel at Google Sheets. Visit our newest apps like:

Custom Sheet Themes: launch every Sheet you make with custom colors & fonts,
Calendar x Sheets Integration: the easy way to grab and visualize cal data,
9-Block Maker in Sheets: make a 3x3 matrix in one click for your performance reviews,
Org Chart Slideshows (coming this week!): automatically make beautiful slide-sized org charts from your people & org data,
Workday to Sheets: the missing integration to beam HR data right into your sheets automatically.

Try them out or reach out to inquiries@maxbrawer.com if your security policy blocks add-ons and you need custom or on-premises work.

--

--

Max Brawer

People Tech & Analytics leader @ Level, formerly Twitch, BuzzFeed, Google, Nielsen | Try his apps @ sheetswizard.com