The great work Slack experiment

From time to time, we open up the Union Metrics blog to a guest blogger with something interesting to say about social media. Today, that guest blogger is Jerry Chen, Union Metrics lead engineer and the first full-time employee we ever hired. Jerry’s recently undertaken a bold experiment – he joined every single one of our Union Slack channels. Here, he shares what he learned.   

Work chat has transformed the way we work. The underlying concept of group chat in a place of business isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s now easily in the grasp of anyone who’s ever used IM or a web browser, thanks to Slack. Only a decade ago, a company like ours would have only had email on our computers as a means of communication, along with the cubicle farm and the breakroom with the water cooler and one of those by-the-gallon coffeemakers you only otherwise see at diners.

Group work chat is an open-office floor plan, with similar advantages and disadvantages. Pro: You can turn to your coworker and ask something. Con: Your coworker can turn to you and ask something. Pro: You can talk to your whole team at once. Con: Everyone can talk to the whole team at once. To maintain sanity, there are headphones, and equally important, accepted conventions of communication and etiquette. After all, this is a civilized, enlightened society, sharing cat GIFs and discussing the social impact of Puppymonkeybaby.

So this past week, I attached wheels to my virtual desk, and joined every channel in Work Slack.

We have three types of channels: team-based, ad-hoc meeting rooms, and the rest. Our team-based channels are grouped by the people we work with closest: #Dev, #Product, #Sales, #Customer, etc. Our ad-hoc meeting rooms allow us to say with complete seriousness and sincere gravitas: “let’s take this to #Whataburger” or “let’s meet at #In-n-Out.” And lastly, the rest are a hodgepodge of robot-filled rooms announcing various things like code pushes, or a channel called #Recess where we talk about anything that involves getting up from your desk and moving, from running 5Ks to basketball, or well, mostly watching Steph Curry. (At this point, we should consolidate all Steph Curry talk into a new #stephcurry channel.)

First off, this is not an experiment for the easily distracted. Slack’s notification settings are very powerful and one can increase signal to noise by starring channels, muting #general (or equivalent #offtopic #lobby #vineslol), and turning off the red badge unless you get DMs or are mentioned. Yes, the irony of trying to cut down the noise while increasing the number of loudspeakers is not lost on me, but bear with me.

Additionally, this isn’t a suitable experiment for the easily distracting either. Some channels are your home where you get stuff done. In other channels, you’re a fly on the wall, a polite visitor, a guest in someone else’s home. Save the quips for where you’d normally place them (in #general or as a quickly accumulating pile of crumbled up papers in the waste bin.) Read the room, and actually only read the room. This is your time to observe and learn.

What have I learned so far?

It’s immensely rewarding to watch people in their element, and especially when their element is far from your own. While we have Friday Company All-Hands where we gather around Google Hangout and each team reports what they’ve been up to, sitting in on an everyday conversation in #Sales or #Success opens a window into a world as complex, as tedious, as challenging, as exciting, as gratifying as the one I’m in.

You learn how the work you’re doing affects the work of other people, somewhere on the other side of the room. You learn that people find ways to help themselves and to not bug their peers unless they absolutely have to; on the flip side, given the opportunity, they will help others without a second thought. You learn that it’s never as simple as “if I give the best demo” or “if I build the best feature” for the company’s success but truly a symphony of professionals, working in concert towards the singular goal of providing clarity and helping customers do their jobs in turn.

So although I’m just one week into this experiment, if your place of work has an open-door policy when it comes to chat, and you can spare a few minutes of attention, I highly recommend joining at least one another channel outside your usual realm to learn something new.

Just, uh, double check which channel you’re in before /giphy bombing, because /kick still works. Offline, in-person yelling also still works. (Hypothetically and completely not anecdotally speaking, that is.)