Technology and Community: Our Slack Experience

Posted by Annelie Rugg, CIO, Humanities Division, UCLA. I work with a staff of thirty at our Center for Digital Humanities. Our size makes it relatively easy to get to know one another and yet, until recently, there was a distinct lack of meaningful sharing across the unit. I have been looking for a way to cultivate the sharing of “lightweight information” — interesting work-related news or discoveries, events, recent experiences, or questions — across all staff and teams.

I define “formal” sharing as the exchange of serious information that we need to get work done. Common channels are email and meetings. “Informal” sharing happens around the proverbial water cooler, across neighboring cubicles, and before and after meetings. When meaningful informal sharing happens, the workplace feels better to those who have shared.

I believe in modeling the behavior we want to see, so I have tried many avenues to share lightweight communication across the office. I’ve sent emails about events or ideas, and asked questions or opinions about things that relate to our work but don’t require an answer. A few dutiful people responded but not a single email resulted in engaged dialog across the unit. And for good reason – in our office, email is for getting things done. Lightweight communication over email just feels out of place.

Enter Slack. A group at UC Riverside was using the free version as an office messaging tool, and I heard their manager was really excited about the difference it was making in communication. I later found out about a Slack team set up by some UCSF developers that was open to whoever wanted to join. I signed up and tried it for a week. In 24 hours, I came face-to-face with informal sharing that was useful and meaningful.

So I announced a one-month pilot for anyone in my group who was interested. I knew we had sufficient members to form critical mass. What I didn’t know was if the group would engage in the same kind of sharing I had experienced with the members of the UC developer channel. They did. And I was thrilled.

Fast forward to today. Based on the extremely positive experience of our one-month pilot, I have required my entire group to log into Slack for our official online messaging platform since March 2016. We are piggybacking on the UC Tech Slack team to connect with technologists across our ten-campus system, but I only require my employees to use our private channel on UC Tech to instantly message our group.

Slack is so easy to use and so effective, that most members of my team are also relying on Slack channels for team or project communications, and setting up their own channels or joining in with existing ones. Because everyone has to log into Slack when they are “on the clock,” it is easy to see who is available, just by scanning the member list of our channel. For an office like ours that has multiple locations and allows for telecommuting, this is as important as the ability to instantly communicate office-wide. Slack works extremely well for our fundamental work needs.

But the biggest win of all: meaningful sharing is happening across my group! Questions, comments, and insights are spontaneously being communicated around work, training opportunities, current events, lunch options, and life. Slack is somehow unhitching us from the formality that comes with email and meetings. And it is connecting us more tightly as a unit, while also affording us access to an entire university system of technology wisdom and experience.

Slack has brought a world of positives to our productivity, as well as to our sense of community. I believe the latter is the reason for the former. As a manager, I couldn’t be happier.

Slack Bot

Comment (1)

  1. Ian Crew

    I used to be excited by the possibilities of Slack, and tried–and failed–to convince my team to use it, but I’ve really been turned off of it, mainly because the Slack user experience makes it pretty unusable. Specifically:

    – Each team I join has its own separate URL on Slack.com that I have to bookmark or remember.

    – Each team I join requires me to create–and keep track of–a new Slack.com login and password. (Yes, I know I can link things afterwards, but why make me do this in the first place?)

    – I have to manually switch between teams, and then between channels within each team, to see all of the Slack traffic I’m expected to read. (Why can’t I just have a single unified news feed like Facebook, or Twitter, or any of the infinite other cloud collaboration apps?)

    – I have to keep a separate browser tab open, or install (and keep running) yet another application on my computer because they don’t provide (usable) support for multi-protocol IM apps like Trillian or Adium.

    – It’s not possible to search for a past message across all of my slack teams and channels–I have to go team-by-team and look for the message I was remembering.

    That all adds up to keeping track of what’s going on in Slack taking huge amounts more time than just scanning through my email inbox, where everything’s in a single place, and is also available to me to easily find past messages in the future, which I do all the time.

    All that adds up to me failing to see any benefit to it.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Reply

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