If you work online nowadays, you are likely using an instant messenger service like Slack that allows you to get the attention of your colleagues with a quick ping.
But although Slack is often meant for quick workplace communications, in hybrid and remote environments, it can also be the main way employees end up talking to each other. And that can cause problems and misunderstandings.
“Slack is meant for short conversations and is not a substitute for conversations that need to be had either in person or over the phone,” said finance and workplace decorum expert Pattie Ehsaei. “Communicating complex information via Slack is inefficient and may cause confusion.“
It’s not your fault if you’re confused about how to act on Slack. It can feel confusing by design, because while we have some sense of how emails, phone calls and texts are supposed to go, Slack can cross all of those expectations within one platform.
“It’s kind of a text and it’s kind of an email and it’s kind of across levels,” said Bradley Brummel, an organizational psychologist at the University of Tulsa. “And then within the same platform, you move from one team, which is a bunch of people at the same level who can make jokes in the flow of their work to one that has all hierarchies where your reputation is really important and at play.”
That’s why it can feel critical to get it right, because being good at Slack is a work-relevant skill, he said. “Some people are like, oh, [Slack] doesn’t matter. That wasn’t real work. But it absolutely is if your message distracted people or caused chaos,” he said.
Here are some innocuous yet mildly terrifying behaviors you may be engaging in on instant messengers like Slack, according to experts, and some tips on how to address those Slack anxieties.
Not giving any response or reaction to a message.
Complete silence after a message can be anxiety-inducing because the messenger lacks any feedback on how the message was received. “This is like one of those quiet angsts that so many people feel,” Brummel said.
“It might be because you sent a message at 4 and everyone left that day, so it could mean absolutely nothing. Or it could mean that everybody’s on another channel talking about you,” he noted.
Brummel said that the Slack anxiety around silence can speak to a larger misunderstanding people have about the tool: They assume that just because they said it on Slack, other people in the channel heard it.
“You thought you said something clearly and you thought that people understood, but it just totally, in the noise of everything, didn’t land,” he said.
That’s why he recommends that organizations set rules on how colleagues should behave and respond on Slack to save employees, especially those who are new or lack power, from this kind of worry.
Giving one-word greetings and replies.
In online work communication, every word and punctuation mark takes on extra meaning in the vacuum of other information like body language and tone. What you may see as a casual period, your colleague may view as an aggressive declaration of war, for example.
“Periods mean ‘end of conversation.’ This can be construed as the writer not wanting to hear any more from you,” Ehsaei said.
It may seem like a small matter, but padding your “OK” with an exclamation mark or another word like “OK great!” can make a difference in how colleagues perceive you online. As internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch previously told HuffPost about adding extra words to a greeting like OK: “Having two things there, it makes it seem as if you have gone through a bit of an extra effort, and it’s that extra effort that makes something more polite.”
To be a considerate Slacker in general, you should be trying to give context to your Slack greetings with colleagues.
“The most skilled people leave hooks. So they don’t tell you how to respond, but they give you a hook to respond to,” Brummel said. ”‘Hey’ is like nothing. There’s no response to ‘hey,’ like they’re putting all the work on you to create the conversation, to describe what’s important and to figure out where it’s going.”
Typing and stopping repeatedly without sending a message.
On Slack, you can be explicitly notified when someone is typing a message to you. Seeing someone start to type, then stop, then type again can be panic-inducing to the other person because it can make them worry about why it’s taking you so long to formulate what you’re going to say.
“When they stop typing, you are wondering, ‘What happened? Do they need to think about it? I need this information ASAP!’ This causes the anxiety,” Ehsaei said.
“It focuses attention in terms of wondering what’s happening, because you get close to seeing something and then nothing happens. So there’s like this anticipatory stress or expectation that rises,” Brummel said. He noted that similar to read receipts on text messages, these typing notifications on Slack can frustrate recipients because you will “constantly be wondering why someone read something, and then didn’t respond.”
“From a work-life balance perspective, if you don’t have clear rules, some people will never get to turn off Slack.”
The typing notification feature also confuses participants about whether the conversation is supposed to be a back-and-forth discussion or one where there is no pressure to respond right away.
“If a discussion is meant to be asynchronous, then it’s allowed to have pauses over a certain amount of time. And when conversations are synchronous, the rule is sort of no interruptions, no pauses,” he said. “What you’re doing with typing bubbles that don’t get delivered is you’re violating every intuition about whether you’re having a synchronous conversation or like an asynchronous sort of back-and-forth.”
Brummel said that if it’s possible, people can try turning this kind of unhelpful typing feature off. It takes some extra steps but you can actually stop yourself from seeing when someone is typing to you. Follow these steps:
Go to your workspace and select “Preferences.”
- Go to the “Messages & media” option, then scroll down to the “Additional options” section. There, you will uncheck the box that reads: “Display information about who is currently typing a message.”
For less anxiety on Slack, there should be set expectations, and employees should ask questions if they don’t know something.
To avoid misunderstandings, workplaces would ideally share expectations up front in writing on how to behave on different Slack channels, Brummel said.
“It’s a kindness to the people involved for the person with the most power to say, ‘Here’s how we respond.’ It’s also a kindness to say, ‘Hey, like if something is on Slack, you know, it’s an email, you have 24 hours [to respond],’” he said. “From a work-life balance perspective, if you don’t have clear rules, some people will never get to turn off Slack.”
Brummel noted that it’s also kind for colleagues to give their newer co-workers feedback on their Slack behavior if it’s violating an unseen social norm of the workplace. “Instead of just rolling your eyes and being like, ‘That person’s not good at their job or is too informal,’ to actually say, ‘Hey, it might just be me, but in this Slack channel we tend not to X,’” he suggested.
And his advice for those who are new or are not in power at work and are wondering how to act on Slack? Ask questions. “You can go to your supervisor and be like, ‘Hey, like how quickly do you expect me to respond?’ ‘Would we do something on Slack?’” he said. “Because they may or may not have rules, but they probably have ideas in their head about what they respond to.“
All employees should also keep in mind that Slack is a workplace surveillance tool that lets employers see when employees are active and what they are typing. In this way, helping employees be better at Slack would mean giving them explicit permission to stay off of it when possible, so they can be freed from the anxieties that come from feeling watched while working.
In this vein, Ehsaei said it can help if managers are flexible in requiring employees to account for their online time on Slack. “Nothing makes employees more anxious than when Big Brother is watching,” she said. “Employees need to be empowered and trusted to get their job done without constantly being monitored on Slack.”
Ultimately, it can take more time and effort to explain the intent and impact behind your Slacks in channels, but it could save you from alienating your colleagues in the long run.