Courtesy call: more empathy tips in Slack

How to gather volunteers, make information more accessible, and generally make your Slack workspace a nicer place to work

Image Credit: Pete Ryan

In the U.S. and Canada, if you’re ever driving a car and you see an emergency vehicle with lights and sirens blaring, you’ve probably witnessed everyone pull over to the side of the road and stop momentarily. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the city or the country, drivers both young and old spare a minute for others in an emergency.

Sure, people do it because it’s the law, but it’s also a great example of widespread institutionalized empathy. These days we often hear that it’s impossible to get everyone to agree on something, but everyone instinctively getting out of the way so others who need help can safely pass is a pretty strong signal and reminder that, collectively, we can be kind and understanding to one another.

We recently covered some tips on encouraging empathy in others inside Slack, but since it’s such a big subject we thought we’d continue the advice with more ideas on how to be kinder to one another at work.

Volunteering internally

At Slack we use a very simple workflow to request volunteers for projects, events, and tasks. You simply describe your project in a channel message and then ask for volunteers using emoji reactions to gauge interest.

Once the original poster has collected a few volunteers from the reactions, he can set up a group DM to coordinate their work, or add them to a future meeting or new channel for the project or event. It’s an easy, low-stress way to find people at work who would like to help without having to put anyone on the spot.

Another avenue for volunteering is a channel called #a-little-help-plz. Here anyone in our marketing organization can ask others for help, usually on the order of quick, simple tasks that take just a few minutes. That could include helping package gifts for customers, scanning a few documents, or grabbing screenshots for other teams.

screenshot of someone asking for help with Asana

Default to open

There’s an old saying that many hands make light work. In the context of Slack channels, that means whenever someone posts a request or question, or needs clarification in a public channel inside your company, the chance that someone can see it and answer or provide feedback is much greater than when seeking out people one by one or limiting communication to smaller private channels. Posting to public channels also ensures that hidden information doesn’t lead to a power differential between managers, teams, or employees. When almost every channel is open to others, there’s a sense of trust and a spirit of community—people tackle problems and large projects together and build on each other’s work.

When almost every channel is open to others, there’s a sense of trust and a spirit of community.

Autodesk’s director of open source, Guy Martin, has a mantra of “defaulting to open” to promote this kind of transparency that enables collaboration on distributed, disparate teams. Autodesk takes this so seriously that it’s created a detailed policy listing all the conditions that must be met to create a private channel in Slack. When any of the criteria aren’t met, it becomes a public channel instead.

Social channels let our whole selves show up to work

You might think employees discussing television, music, or sports in Slack channels devoted to those kinds of social topics is a waste of company time and resources, but we hear a great deal of positive feedback from employees who enjoy that aspect of Slack. These kinds of watercooler discussions have always taken place in one form or another, either at the start or end of a workday, in hallways or over email. In Slack, they help employees organize around their activities and interests, and they contribute to a positive work culture for everyone.

New hires can immediately find like-minded fans of their favorite hobbies (in, say, a #rockclimbing channel) and, if they’ve relocated for the job, learn the best places in their new city to go practice their craft. There are even opportunities when a social channel intersects with work inside a company, such as if your professional photographer for a new ad campaign cancels a shoot but you’ve got a whole #photography channel loaded with experts from across the organization who can lend a hand in a pinch.

A few common courtesies

Keep these simple rules in mind, and you can do a lot to create a cooperative, fun place to work in the process.

Be mindful of everyone’s time. Only use the mass-notification shortcuts @here, @everyone, and @channel rarely, for emergency-type reasons. In larger teams, sending out a notification to everyone in a channel or across an entire workspace can be quite disruptive. Avoid the “boy who cried wolf” syndrome and limit their usage to truly monumental events.

Be selective in your interruptions of others. Check a teammate’s user status in Slack before sending a direct message, another notification that can disrupt someone’s flow. Is it after work hours? Did she leave a note that she’s on vacation or working out of the office? You can always set a reminder to send her a message the next workday at 9am instead. Are her do not disturb settings set to “on”? If so, you may feel more comfortable sending a message knowing her phone and desktop apps won’t interrupt her.

Circle back ideas and updates to your whole team. Sometimes a hallway conversation between two people can lead to an epiphany, or a quick DM can solve a problem that once stymied a team. It’s important to share that kind of knowledge with the larger team in public channels. That way, you keep everyone in the loop while also making sure others can find and read it in the future.

This might be a message like “Alice and I were talking about this over lunch, but how about we move up the launch date by a week to coincide with our conference announcements?” It’s also pretty common for people having a DM conversation to end it with “Hey, this all sounds good. I’m going to post a summary message to our team channel so everyone can see it.” Developing a culture in which this is the norm helps teams stay informed and up to date, regardless of where new ideas are coming from.

Expanding empathy in an organization is a great way to improve your company’s culture. And sure, it takes lots of practice to maintain it, but over time, good habits can morph into institutional norms—just like pulling over for any passing, siren-signaling vehicle.

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Slack is the collaboration hub, where the right people are always in the loop and key information is always at their fingertips. Teamwork in Slack happens in channels — searchable conversations that keep work organized and teams better connected.