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5 Slack best practices for inclusive companies

Internal messaging platforms like Slack are one of the things that make modern work work. And although it wasn’t specifically designed for remote teams, the six-year-old workplace chat app is experiencing a huge influx in new customers as the novel coronavirus forces more and more of us to work from home. Amid this unprecedented surge in telecommuting, Slack has become an increasingly valuable tool—not just for getting stuff done but also for maintaining your company culture while everyone’s out of the office.

If you’re working to build or maintain a culture of belonging, recognize that a major part of inclusion is using conscious language. And at this particular moment of heightened emotions, communicating with intention and sensitivity is more important than ever. With that in mind, we’ll explore some Slack best practices that can empower your entire organization to foster an inclusive company culture in the way it communicates.

Embrace the inherent transparency of Slack

Slack is a platform built for transparency—just ask the people who built it.

While the communication app does allow for private chats, teams can also use channels that are open to everyone in the company so that all employees can engage in the conversation. And at Slack HQ, they prefer to take the latter, more inclusive approach.

“We encourage conversations to happen in the most public venue they can,” CEO Stewart Butterfield has said of how Slack uses Slack. “There’s a lot of value sometimes to ask a question and get the answer in the biggest public forum that it could happen in.”

In that spirit, try to create an environment in which employees feel safe and encouraged to have more discussions out in the open. If you really want to model transparency and accountability, you can even provide employees with a designated space for discussing challenging topics and asking leadership the tough questions.

Slack’s own employees have a dedicated channel called #exec-ama, where any employee can ask questions of any executive. They believe that if one person asks a question, they’re likely voicing a concern shared by others. And while company-wide discussions of hot-button issues can be uncomfortable, it’s still preferable to widespread uncertainty. And, allowing everyone to participate, be heard, and have their questions answered makes employees feel welcome, respected, and valued.

Of course, it’s also crucial that you never let “transparency” justify publicly calling people out or “Slack bullying.” Some conversations should only happen in direct messages, and it’s never okay to publicly berate or belittle someone (or to do so privately, for that matter!). Certain private Slack channels can and should exist as safe spaces for employees.

Encourage and empower people to speak up

Another advantage of Slack and other internal messaging platforms, as Textio CEO Kieran Snyder recently observed in a post on inclusive remote culture, is the ability to quickly see who’s getting left out of the conversation and invite them back in.

When you have a discussion in writing, she noted, it’s a lot easier to review the conversation and see who’s talking most and who’s staying silent or being ignored. In the same way you give quieter teammates a chance to speak up in meetings, it’s worth explicitly asking for their input in Slack discussions.

Since the prospect of weighing in on a lengthy thread that has taken off before you got to it can be intimidating, it’s helpful to recognize who’s not contributing and gently ask them if they have something to share.

Gather around a virtual water cooler

For as long as the coronavirus keeps us all out of the office, Slack can serve as a venue for the kind of socialization that builds belonging.

Here at Textio, our virtual water cooler has taken the form of a new Slack channel called #we-vanquish-loneliness. It’s a place where those of us who feel more isolated working from home can engage in casual conversations that would normally happen around the workplace.

We’ve also been experimenting with “flash” daily Slack channels, featuring a work-from-home topic or question of the day. We’ve kicked off daily discussions with prompts like:

  • What is the weirdest, silliest, or most offbeat thing you wish Textio would build, sponsor, or try?
  • What’s one thing from your personal or professional bucket list?
  • Share a picture of a piece of art you have in your home.

As you can see, the questions may or may not be related to work. The important thing is that they change every day and cover a broad enough range of topics, so there’s bound to be something interesting for everyone.

Also consider trying out social Slack channels dedicated to other conversation starters and day brighteners, such as:

  • #we-read: A channel for posting and discussing new interesting book and article finds, whatever the subject.
  • #we-jam: A place for sharing music recommendations ranging from the tunes that help you focus to the bops that always cheer you up.
  • #we-dig-dogs: A space for showing off photos of pet co-workers while working from home.
  • #we-love-food: A way to swap recipes, recommendations, and lunch pics.

A note on the naming of Slack channels: A lot of companies denote their “social” or “non-work” channels with a prefix like x- or z- to alphabetically sort them all to the bottom of the list. At Textio, we prefer to use the prefix we-, which still manages to group this category of channels together without automatically implying that social life is less important than work life.

The we- approach also avoids the trap of subtly “demoting” social advocacy or support groups. For example, we have a #we-are-lgbtq channel instead of something like #x-lgbtq, which would be deeply othering. In addition to spotlighting inclusivity, the we- prefix also encourages people to come up with names that are both creative and findable, which has resulted in some solid channel names like #we-unlearn-racism.

Pair people up for more conversation

In addition to facilitating group discussions, Slack can foster the sort of meaningful one-on-one interactions that also create camaraderie in an organization.

If part of your workforce is temporarily or permanently remote, one idea to consider is using the free Slack app Donut, which randomly pairs up employees for virtual hangouts. Ask everyone who’s interested in the idea to join a Donut Slack channel, and keep it flexible—once two employees have been paired up, they can independently decide on a time and channel that works best for both of them.

These types of random pairings can bring together people from different teams who might not normally interact with one another. Chatting with folks outside of your small work circle is a great way to build empathy and awareness (and maybe even a new friendship or two). It’s a simple but effective way to foster inclusivity.

Carry conscious language over to Slack

Hopefully, your organization is already making an effort to use neutral and inclusive language in your talent content and internal company communications. But, as of now, you may not have made an attempt to carry that spirit over to Slack.

If you’ve used Textio to draft your job posts, careers page, and more, you’ve probably found yourself increasingly aware that language choice impacts how a message is received. Particular phrases, as you know, can carry a lot of weight (though oftentimes the subtext is too subtle for you to even register it on your own).

Time to bring that awareness to your Slack communications! In fact, Textio customers have told us that some of their employees use our augmented writing software to jot out initial drafts of things they’re writing, including Slack messages—they just feel more comfortable having Textio provide some guidance. A few of our own folks do the same.

Whether or not your employees have access to augmented writing software, it's always a good idea to encourage more mindfulness in communication. Creating intentional Slack messages with greater awareness and sensitivity is important, especially if it’s become one of your company’s primary platforms for communication.

Establish these Slack best practices now, and keep them up

Your words matter, even the ones you’re typing quickly in an informal chat. Bringing more intention to how you use Slack as a company can be a powerful tool for building a more inclusive culture overall.

The recent increase in working from home has made this point more obvious than ever, but that doesn’t mean these practices should be thought of as a temporary solution to a passing problem. Intentional written communication will always be necessary to promote openness and transparency, empower employees, and foster engagement and camaraderie. If these methods prove effective in fostering an inclusive company culture, keep them in place even after everyone’s back in the office.

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