I gave a speech to a fantastic group of high-tech start-up CEOs. I talked with them about how our failure to manage people’s attention is diluting them to the point of poor productivity and emotional burnout. Someone suggested that Slack was a major culprit; it was clear that many of the leaders in the group had developed a love-hate relationship with the tool. So when one of the audience members emailed me to ask for my advice on wrangling the Slack monster (or Teams monster), here’s what I said.

How to Manage Your Team’s Use of Collaboration Tools 

1. Good Organization and Hygiene

Start by setting up your collaboration software so that it feels like it serves you rather than you serving it. Put effort into getting the proper channels and deciding what notification strategy you’ll use for each channel (full email notification, in-app notification, or mute). Then, set a frequent reminder to revisit your settings and prune your channels and threads back to something manageable. 

2. Blackout Periods

Have blackout periods where your team members have their settings on Do No Disturb, and all notifications turned off. If it makes sense for your team, have a regular, recurring time such as 9-11 and 1:30-3:30 each day. If that doesn’t work, find your own way to have a meaningful chunk of time where people can shut out the distractions. Whichever method you choose, be sure to talk about this time so that everyone knows it’s part of how your team works. You want it to be normal for team members to be unresponsive sometimes. 

To make this work, you’ll also need to institute a way to get in touch with one another in case of an urgent issue during a blackout period. Ideally, use a mode such as a text or a phone call so that it will notify the person without them having to monitor anything continually. 

3. Communication Guidelines

As a team, set guidelines for what should go into Slack and what should be communicated through other means. Slack is mainly written communication, which is light on context cues and prone to negativity bias (what experts refer to as “lean” communication). It’s also an asynchronous communication tool where people send and receive information at different times. As a lean/asynchronous communication vehicle, you don’t want to rely on Slack to communicate about any of these types of issues: 

  • Man looking confused while reading on his laptopImportant issues where you need to know that everyone has devoted a certain amount of time to the content. 
  • Novel situations where people don’t have history or experience and therefore might misinterpret the message. 
  • Complex issues with many interrelated factors and unknowns (but DO use it for complicated, linear processes or deliberations where you can apply a set of rules and processes). [If you’re interested in the difference, I enjoyed this article in the MIT Sloan Management Review about Rick Nason’s work on the difference between complex and complicated problems.]
  • Interactions with people who don’t share the same experiences, language, or context.
  • Situations where there might be contentious or personal issues
  • Owner’s Manual

In addition to any team ground rules for communication, it’s also helpful to have your own standards for how you like to collaborate. You can create your own instruction manual to get the most out of you, just like you have for your car or washing machine. The owner’s manual is where you articulate how you prefer to communicate and which mode colleagues should use for different things. For example, you might say, “I don’t monitor Slack or email after hours but if you need me, feel free to text because I’ll get that.” 

4. Communication Bursts

Since I read Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley’s HBR article, I’ve been a big fan of “Communication Bursts.” Bursts are a way to coordinate focused time, maybe two or three times per week when everyone will be working independently and monitoring Slack to be immediately responsive to one another (and allowing for spontaneous and ad hoc calls). I think this is a great approach, particularly if you’re in different time zones and want at least a few opportunities where team members can get access to move things forward quickly. 

5. Meetings

Slack and Teams do not replace your need for team meetings as a forum to discuss issues and dynamically come to a shared view on an issue. For example, you could reserve 15 minutes of a weekly operations meeting to ask if there are any questions or updates on conversations that have been happening in Slack. You can use Slack to identify topics that need more preparation, attention, options, or alignment and deserve dedicated time on a monthly agenda. Remember that lean/asynchronous communication is excellent for some things, while the rich/synchronous forum that meetings support is better for others. 

Our desks (and desktops) are riddled with technologies that were supposed to make us more efficient and effective but have made us more frantic, frenzied, and frustrated. Unread emails are piling up, your phone is dinging with new text notifications, your watch is vibrating, and the number in your Slack red circle is climbing every minute. It’s hard to ask any individual team member to tackle the issue independently. So instead, establish new team standards and claw back your attention and focus. 

Further Reading

Are you using the right virtual collaboration tools?

How to Manage Conflict in Virtual Teams

10 questions to increase collaboration