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  • Writer's pictureMerrill B. Lamont III

Use Slack Better as you WFH

I have four other blog posts sitting at the ready to be published, but the environment has changed, and what's important has changed, so some ideas for stories out-prioritize others. You could say I'm... managing a backlog ;) .

As a Slack administrator, and shameless fan-boy, I wouldn't call myself a super-user, but I have run across a few tips 'n' tricks that have nudged me and my teams in that direction. So as you're working less face-to-face in these Coronavirus Times (anyone else wondering what the first movie will be referring to this event?), you may want to make better use of your online group chat program. If you use MS Teams or Hipchat, I'm sharing my experience here about Slack, so I'll leave to you how these points translate.

Topic += Task Board + Web Conferencing Room

At the Daily Scrum, you hopefully look at your task board as a team. That thing tracks the stuff y'all are workin' on. That thing seems pretty important. That thing seems like a link of high-enough usage by the whole team. I've linked to that in the topic of the team public Slack channel. This way, non-team members who are collaborators or stakeholders can also inspect based on what's been made transparent. Ah, empiricism.

Benefit of putting it there? In the desktop app, or web app, the channel's topic is displayed up top, like always-on content. Things become super-easy to click when they're there, like a link of high-enough usage by the whole team, like your team's task board, looked at during the Daily Scrum.

While you're at it, another super-useful link to include in that Topic area is how to have that Daily Scrum: a dedicated web conferencing video room (Zoom, Google Meet, JoinMe, GoToMeeting, etc.). Similarly useful to collaborators and stakeholders, ad hoc team gatherings now have a default place. Want to take this a step further? Are you Mob Programming in a remote fashion (yep, one of my teams has done this!) or otherwise want to be always on video to lessen the isolation of Social Distancing? You may want one room, clearly agreed upon, easily accessible.

Curate Pins & Stars

Per channel, you can pin an item, be it a Slack message, or a shared file. If you pin an item, everybody else sees it as a pinned item of that channel. If you're a conservative pinner, this list of pins will totally serve you. If you're a liberal pinner, pinning for "Just In Case", or pinning because, heck, maybe there is a lot of good content y'all are sharing, then that list of pins will balloon to where it becomes less useful. My threshold has been curating the pins down to 6 once it hits 12 - yep, totally arbitrary.

If something is useful to just you, or something you don't want to impose on the list of pins, use a star. There's a list of starred items you can access, collecting across all channels, and I'm guessing your tolerance for the length of that list is larger than that of the team's.

You can also star channels & direct messages - they appear at the top of the list of 'rooms' (who are we kidding: these are the modern takes of the chat rooms of yore). Just like starring messages or shared files, the curation is yours. I tend to star perennially important or currently urgent conversations.

Here's an interesting analogy... if you can curate messages per individual (stars) and per group (channel pins), then you can also curate channels per individual (stars) and per group (...naming convention). You can be in a lot of channels, even after not joining the larger bunch in existence, so perusing that list can feel burdensome. Name your public channels for scan-ability by using prefixes, e.g., "#team-narwhal" and "#team-monkeyknifefight".

As a Scrum Master, want a new team to finally decide on a team name? Say you'll set up the private channel when they do :) . That's been a surprisingly effective motivator. Those channels would likely be starred, or at least that's how I guide Slack usage, so they can be much shorter, e.g., "narwhal" and "monkeyknifefight" - yes, these are actual team names from my... fun history.

Notification += Sanity

Back when I tested medical devices (this is how I start all my stories at parties) (I'm so cool) (and humble), we were aware of the notion of "Alarm Fatigue". Imagine you're a surgeon, operating away on someone's heart, and it's time... it's time to begin cardiac bypass. This means the heart will stop working, yet the rest of the body will still have blood pumping through it because it's hooked up to fancy hospital machines. If the heart stops working at a certain point, that's to be expected - you're operating on it - so you don't need to hear a loud & obnoxious (alarming) alarm to let you know the heart's stopped. Thus, monitoring systems can have a cardiac bypass mode so that you're not ignoring the bells 'n' whistles you're hearing, helping you "separate the signal from the noise". Alright, stop imagining you're a surgeon - go off 'n' be thankful your heart works.

As a non-surgeon, your equivalent is "Notification Overwhelm", so actively manage those notifications. Turn them off at the app level during sleep hours, or when you leave work. Turn off all active notifications after dinner (that's not a Slack tip, just a Life hack). You can join then 'mute' channels to get a notification when your name is mentioned, or when everybody in the channel is referenced, or for certain keywords you can set, like misspelled variants of your name (nobody knows how to spell "Merrill", so I order my lattes under a different name - a story for another time).

My phone's notification setup:

  • Airplane-Mode at bed-time

  • Do-Not-Disturb enabled between 10pm & 7am (calls from my 'Favorites' list will still come through)

  • only phone calls and text messages have an audible tone - my wife getting her own text tone

  • all apps I moderately care about show a badge with the number of its notifications over its icon

  • all apps I frequently care about also get a temporary banner plus a presence on my lock screen


Slack is powerful. Wield its power well. Take over that 'topic' space. Manage those pins & stars. Wrangle its notifications so you don't go nuts - I mean, maybe you enjoy the 'knock brush' sound for every new Slack message you get, but the rest of us can hear that. Then again, we're all working from home nowadays...

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