When to avoid Slack... and meetings.

Last week our weekly team pulse question for Indeed Assessments was “What’s something we should stop doing?” The best answer was:

“Stop posting important updates, documents, or answers to questions in Slack and expecting everyone will see/read them.”

Another goodie:

“I think our All Hands meeting is beginning to improve in quality slowly, but as it stands I feel like it could be turned into an email update, even a weekly newsletter.”

For the first year of Interviewed, we didn’t have any meetings.  Really, none. We were only 5 people so we did everything over Slack.  Sometimes I’d forward Jono an email but then I’d have to go remind him to go read his email, anyway.

When the team grew to 10 people, we started to have mixups where two people were working on the same thing but didn’t know it.  Or we’d make changes to the app that were hurting certain customers without knowing it. So we added a weekly all hands where everybody went around in a circle and said what they were working on.  That helped, but a week was too long in between so we added daily engineering standups. Then we joined Indeed and had other teams who needed to coordinate with us so we added more meetings with them.

Over the months, the teams grew… we went from having no leads other than me, Daniel, and Chris to having engineering leads, content leads, and PMs. And we had more meetings.  More Slack channels. More email.

Communication bloat is a pernicious effect of growth.  

Nevertheless, communicating well is especially important with a distributed team like ours. If we do it badly we’ll take longer to ship, our products won’t be as good, and there will be more people flare-ups… in short, we’d lose the nimbleness and speed that makes our work fun.

To fight communication bloat, we try to communicate as much as necessary, but no more. Picking the right medium of communication is half the battle. I think these are the key variables:

  • What’s the priority: Critical, Major, Minor, Trivial

  • What’s the time sensitivity: Immediate, today, tomorrow, this week, some time

  • How many people are involved?

  • How much realtime discussion is needed?

  • Is it sensitive or controversial?

  • Do you prefer response quality vs speed?

  • Is it OK if some people miss your message?

Although we’ll never win the war against bloat, if we stop fighting we’ll lose. Here are some battle tactics.

Fight meeting bloat

Meetings are expensive.  Our biweekly all hands lasts one hour.  50 people attend. That means the cost of each meeting is 50 person hours (one week of productivity). This meeting occurs 26 times a year which equates to 1,300 hours. In other words, our all hands meetings cost one half of a person year. Holy crap.

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Here’s another example of meeting I attended recently: 9 attendee’s for 1 hour to listen to a readout on results of a pilot program. I’m not picking on this meeting in particular; it was a typical meeting.  But it cost a full day worth of productivity (9 hours). Ouch.

So we fight meeting bloat by acting on these questions:

Is there any way to get a similar result using Slack or email instead of a meeting?

In most cases, a thoughtful email will suffice.

Does everyone on the list have to be there?

Prune the meeting attendee list (including yourself).

When you look around the room is every attendee engaged and contributing?

If someone’s not engaged, then someone’s at fault: you or them. Either you’re at fault for having invited them (you should disinvite them) or they’re at fault for not being engaged when it was needed (you owe them constructive feedback).

Can you shorten the meeting?

Most hour-long meetings can be condensed to 30 minutes instead.

Does the meeting have an agenda in the meeting invite?  

If it doesn’t, how will people prepare or decide to opt-out? Is there pre-reading that folks need to be productive?

Here’s some polite ways to say no to meetings:

“Based on the information in the invitation, it looks like this meeting is for informational purposes. Would it be possible to get a summary sent out rather than convening a meeting?”

“This is an interesting topic but I’m not sure we’re ready for a productive conversation yet. Would it be possible to push this meeting back and let the group make a little more progress before we meet?”

“Thanks for the invite to this meeting. I don’t think I’m required at this point. If it’s alright with you, I’d prefer to have you proceed without me.”

“I’m sorry that I can’t attend the meeting. If I prepare you in advance, could I ask that you represent my ideas at the meeting?”

“Thanks for the invite. I think it’s important for me to be part of the discussion on the BHAG. Given a few other priorities at the moment, I’m going to excuse myself once that item is complete.”

Get comfortable saying no.  It will feel awkward at first, but you and your team will be glad you did.

Slack correctly

Our team doesn’t send enough email.  Never thought I’d write that. But really, we Slack things that belong in email or live conversations because Slack is so easy and gives immediate gratification.  So this section is mostly about when not to Slack.

Slack is a “lossy” format.

If you need to ensure everyone processes your message, send an email. People “mute” noisy Slack both mentally and physically in the app.  

Slack encourages speed not quality

If you need a well-considered response, send an email.

Slack is supposed to be asynchronous

Your teammates are not all on the same schedule as you; if everyone needs equal opportunity to be part of the discussion then send an email or a Google doc.

When you are going to make a decision after asking a question on Slack, give a timeframe of when you are going to make the decision so people do not feel obligated to respond in real time for fear of not being heard.

“Hey guys, do you think we should standardize on import stdlib from stdlib or import * from stdlib ? Need input by EOD so I can make a decision.”

 Please don’t do this.

Please don’t do this.

Don’t “Hey”

See asynchronous. Don’t ping someone with a “hey” and then wait for them to acknowledge so you can start talking -- that just adds friction.  If someone “heys” you, close the tab and go back to work. If it’s important, they’ll eventually ask their question, which is what they should have done in the first place.  After enough fails, they’ll change their behavior.

Don’t hesitate to change mediums.

Slack can be much worse (and slower) than live conversation for discussion of complicated ideas.

Update your status in Slack

Let your colleagues know if you’re going unusually AFK/in-meeting for a few hours during the work day.

Use the “Do not disturb” feature

You don’t need to respond to every Slack message immediately.  If you do, you should stop -- you’re sacrificing your ability to focus and hurting your overall productivity.  

When starting a chunk of work that requires deep thought, set yourself to Away mode for a few hours. If you are uncomfortable being “away” because you’ll miss out on decision, talk to your team about the “Slack is supposed to be asynchronous” point.

Email intelligently

Knowing that you haven’t missed an important email in the clutter (and maybe occasionally getting to inbox zero) will literally help you sleep better at night.

Prune the recipient list

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Actively remove people from lists when you hit Reply-all. The safe word is “save inbox”.

Filter aggressively

There are many email management strategies, but they have one tenet in common: things that get to your inbox should be must-read.

My preferred strategy is to have a “low” folder that I read once a day. I set up automated filters in gmail to have it collect everything non-critical:

  • Distribution lists

  • Automated notifications e.g. expenses, dashboards

  • Individual people who are high-volume senders

  • Entire domains that are high-volume senders e.g. all “@fbworkmail.com” senders

Use an email alias

 Get in the habit of setting up filters to defend your inbox.

If your IT organization lets you, request an alias. Example: if your real email is [email protected], request an alias [email protected]. Whenever you register for a web site or event, give them your alias. Automatically filter all your alias emails into your “low” folder.

Calendars

Book productivity blocks on your calendar

I have recurring 2-hour long blocks on my calendar at various times with ominous names like “Flight to PH - Do not book”. Experience suggests anything else gets ignored.

Make your calendar modifiable by default

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Let attendees edit the calendar event without asking you so they can add Zoom information when it’s missing, update the agenda, and change room bookings.

  • 1) Visit https://calendar.google.com/calenda

  • 2) Check "Modify event" under "Default guest permissions"

  • 3) When you notice a meeting that is not editable, forward these instructions to the host so they fix it for all future meetings instead of on a case-case basis.

This list of tactics is a living document that we maintain on our team Wiki. I hope it helps you, too.