remote team using instant messaging to communicate

Team collaboration tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams are becoming more common for organizations with remote workers. So are complaints. Time that used to be spent cursing email is now spent rolling our eyes every time that little hashtag symbol pops up on our screen. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Like every communication tool, there are appropriate ways to use Slack and its cousins to build a team, get answers in a hurry, and move the work along. It can also be a source of annoyance, interruption and the desire to throttle the life from your co-workers (which I’m pretty sure is an HR violation in most companies).

Here are some guidelines for using these tools well:

You have choices about who you bring into the conversation. Choose well.

Too many people act as if they either can talk to one person at a time, or have to include everyone. You know that if something is posted to “everyone” you’re very likely to stop and take a look (because you’re part of ‘everyone’) if it doesn’t apply to you, you probably get a bit miffed. It takes only a few seconds to create a conversation with the necessary people. Respect the time of your teammates and they may just return the favor.

Set up sub-groups…

One of the best uses of the tool is to set up discussion groups specifically for select groups of people, usually by function. For example, we have a general channel, but also separate groups for Sales, our business units like Remote Leadership Institute, and specific projects, like the book launch for Long-Distance Leader. While there may be some of the same people in each, you are really only calling on the people involved in that particular piece of work. Even then you can decide whether to read and respond right then, based on the priorities of your work.

…including those for fun.

When you can’t be with people in person, you miss out on a lot of the social activity and (dare we say it) fun that can come alongside working with others. Birthday greetings, personal announcements, congratulations on work milestones sometimes get ignored if they don’t fall strictly under the category of “work-related.” If you set up a channel for that information, people can participate when and if the time is right, while not cluttering up their work messages. Some people call it a “watercooler.” Other organizations call it “the people room.”

Use and respect status updates.

If you’ve ever had someone try to reach you by sending a Slack message, and an email and a voicemail in rapid succession, you know how annoying it can be. It’s also a pretty good indication that person needs something from you. It’s also even maybe that they’d be less annoying about it if they knew you weren’t answering because you weren’t there and they’d be wasting their time. These tools allow you to not only set status updates, but to add messages to them. “Out of office,” isn’t really helpful. But a status update with a message like, “stepping out for an hour, back at 2” may help people relax a bit, stop bugging you, and even go find their answer somewhere else. Don’t abuse this though. If you just constantly have yourself unavailable, people will either suspect you’re not working or just ignore that message when it’s actually legitimate. Oh, and if someone has a status message, respect it and don’t bug them.

Feel free to use the tools available, but don’t make people crazy.

A common problem with tools like Slack is that people use the bare functionality of the tool. 80% of people use 20% of the tools, which makes them less effective than they could be. On the other hand, there are plenty of features that should be used sparingly. Slack has a wide array of functions designed to help us make work less miserable; emoticons, GIF tools, webcam capability, and more. They are all there for a reason, but be smart. The CEO probably doesn’t need a GIF of ducks waddling across the screen every time he says “ducks in a row,” while Mary in HR might think that’s hysterical. Yes, we can express our personality and work style in multiple ways, but think about how your message will be received. Time and place, people.

Ask before data dumping.

Finally, don’t assume that the people you’re messaging or working with are sitting around waiting for a chance to respond to you. You wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) just go to someone’s cubicle and start firing your request before you’ve even greeted them. Common human courtesy applies here. Greet people, ask if they have time to answer a question before asking it, or let them know when you need a response so they’re not dropping something important to help you with something less vital. If they don’t have time to chat right then, when is a better time?

There’s no doubt that if people can find a way to take something useful and abuse it to torture others, they will. Odds are, though, most of us don’t want to be THAT person. With a little careful thought and candid discussion about guidelines, you and your team can maximize the use of tools like Slack without driving each other crazy.

For more about using Slack and good communication practices for remote teams, get your copy of The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.



Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.

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  1. Very relevant. Tools like Slack can enable teams and foster a new level of communication and collaboration when used appropriately.. When abused with random, disconnected comments are distracting. Good suggestions on keeping it focused, with some watercooler channels for unrelated banter.

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