Over the past few months, Slack has made some major moves in the enterprise space. In July, it bought the HipChat social network from Atlassian and then announced it has raised $427 million in funding. The acquisition and the funding round were designed to further develop Slack which, according to its founders, is on its way to becoming the principal collaboration app in the enterprise.

What is Slack

Slack is a cloud-based set of proprietary team collaboration tools and services. The name Slack itself is an acronym that explains everything — "Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge. If offers three main types of functionalities:

  • Teams - Slack teams allow communities, groups, or teams to join through a specific URL or invitation.
  • Messaging - Public channels allow team members to communicate without the use of email or group SMS (texting). They are open to everyone in the chat.
  • Integrations - Slack integrates with a large number of third-party services and supports community-built integrations.

As Slack gets bigger, there has been considerable discussion as to whether it might replace ubiquitous email and whether, with the addition of new tools like the recently acquired HipChat, it could become a single place for work.

A lot of this kind of speculation has been driven by the founders and executives of Slack who have been talking the product up since it was founded in 2009. There has been a lot of hyperbole about its capabilities. The company even took out a full page ad in the New York times to goad Microsoft (it also appeared on the Slack blog) the day it launched its new collaboration application Teams.

Recently, Slack’s chief security officer made public comments stating that its customers aren’t interested in end-to-end encryption, so it’s not a priority for the company. This was underlined by a former Slack employee who told science and tech online publication Motherboard earlier this year that, “It wasn’t a priority for [executives], because it wasn’t something paying customers cared about.”

Related Article: Slack or Microsoft Teams? Well, That Depends ...

The Problem With Slack

The security issues imply that there are limitations in what Slack can offer. But what about its collaboration and communication capabilities? Are there limitations there too? Is there enough functionality for everyone? There are, it seems, problems. Hans Desjarlais, founder of travel website Flightlist, believes that the problem lies with the nature of the technology itself. There are just too many notifications and distractions across the entire app. “We've been using Slack in our business for several years now. We implemented a rule where all Slack notifications must be turned off except for private messages.  He said he believes that while there are problems with the tech, Slack is an effective communication tool, and most businesses require an effective means of communication.

“However, Slack has proven to be a great distraction as conversations tend to go on without a time limit. Although Slack is an indispensable tool for many businesses, its limitations lie in its inability to create an environment for more focused, time-constrained conversations,” he said.

Related Article: Forget Slack vs. Email: Think Slack Plus Email

Wasting Time on Slack

Turning off notifications can reduce distractions and help mitigate the issue. Ben Taylor co-founder of the HomeWorkingClub.com and collaboration consultant pointed out that while it’s a great tool especially for geographically-dispersed teams, its most significant shortcomings revolve around its potential to become a time-drain and a source of frustration. This, he said, can prove especially noticeable in group chats or project-based groups. “While it’s great to give everyone on a team a voice, sometimes it’s not the best way to get decisions made. Conversations can drag on when a large number of people have subtly different opinions,” he said.

Learning Opportunities

When you then take away the subtleties of non-verbal communication and introduce the option for people to merely stay silent when they don’t agree with a consensus, you have a recipe for decisions that never get made, he added. “Slack’s a great tool, but the key is to define where it can be used most appropriately, and where more traditional solutions, such as conference calls and face to face meetings, actually work better,” he said.

Set and Enforce Slack Ground Rules

This appears to be the crux of the majority of Slack criticisms. As great a communication tool as it is, it can also generate far too much noise. Tyler Koblasa, CEO of CloudApp explained that without strict rules on usage, the real messages can be drowned out by the noise. Koblasa’s rules include:

  1. Follow only the minimum number of channels that apply to your role - Consolidate channels every quarter to cut down on noise. 
  2. When creating new channels, default them to “private” to avoid distractions - Invite only the necessary participants unless there’s a clear reason to invite others. 
  3. Assume Slack messages are not read - Don’t ask co-workers to rely 100 percent on Slack or review something in a direct message, as teammates can sometimes see the message, say they will take care of a task later and then forget about it. For this reason, follow up with an email or use some other system as a reminder.
  4. If a Slack conversation lasts more than 10 minutes, jump on a call using Zoom or Slack calling - It’s way faster than typing.
  5. Disable all notifications, including red dots on mobile, and mute channels as needed - Notifications can create busy work, anxiety and interrupt your work flow, which can set back your productivity. Defer to SMS or calling on the phone if a matter requires urgent attention. 
  6. Important images, videos and files shared through Slack - When using Slack to share these types of files they are saved to the cloud, which means they're stored and searchable going forward.
  7. Communication In Channels - Slack allows users to create invite only “Channels” that displays messages solely to channel members. Setting up team-based channels and keeping communications in those channels prevents employees from getting distracted from messages unrelated to their tasks.
  8. Daily and Weekly Goals - Whether it’s Slack, web browsing, or smart phones there are too many ways to lose your focus. Although you can’t sit by your employee’s side, you can set and monitor challenging daily and weekly goals that demand focus.

The value of Slack is being able to discuss topics and collaborate quickly, Koblasa added. It’s easier than using emails, and each conversation can be organized by topic. The drawbacks include an increase in distraction, as employees can sometimes go down the path of following too many conversations at the same time without getting any concrete work done. The most efficient and productive way to use Slack is to integrate it with other platforms to optimize collaboration, Koblasa said.

While it’s true that Slack opens the door to more free-flowing conversations, bringing up questions about team productivity, it doesn’t so much as create more noise, as it finds a place for it to live. A lot of these conversations happen daily with or without Slack, Alex Nossovskoi, head of marketing, at Brizi (Brizicam.com) said.

The biggest worries about Slack, and other tools like it, is the impact on team workflow. It’s an effective internal communication tool, and it’s a great way to keep the whole team in the loop (which is a very valuable feature). However, slack is not a tasking tool, and it’s also not a place to store and organize team learnings

Making something like Slack work for a team requires the team to be deliberate about tasking (we use Asana), process documentation and sharing learnings and external communications. Slack has a purpose.