Many organizations use connectivity tools for units that require their employees to work at a distance. For the longest time, Skype was the norm. While Microsoft is making their community products more robust, they still don’t hold a candle to products that have been doing it well for the last few years.
For me, the best tool out there to bring your working community together is Slack.
So, what is Slack? If you’re old-school, think of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels. If you have no idea I’m talking about, Slack is a robust collaboration workspace that allows you to create your own communication experience. Slack is a free service based on the number of users and traffic. For smaller organizations (1-10), you can get away with the free version if you archive older messages and maintain a faithful eye on your file sharing. Through Slack, you can build multiple workspaces which can be broken down into public channels, private channels for invitation only groups, and private direct messages for one-on-one conversations.
For a much better explanation, I would go straight to the source and review Slack’s explanation of their product: https://slack.com/help/articles/115004071768-What-is-Slack-
Multiple workspaces in the same window. You may need to see the product to understand, but a workspace is the overarching location of all your channels. If you have one for work, you will open the app, and there is your workspace designated by your chosen icon in the upper right left-hand corner. In my example, you can see my Penn State icon, which is my TSEOC workspace—for all our Talent Search and Educational Opportunity Center staff.
Below the Penn State icon is another that is a personal workspace of mine--Training and Development Network. It’s connected to a different email, on a different payment plan, and not attached to my Penn State account at all. It's pretty much a solo space that I use to for ideas. However, I can simply toggle back and forth between each workspace.
Multiple channels. In each workspace, you have a few default channels (general, random), but any workspace can have multiple channels—they are yours to create. Each channel can be public or private, and even the public channels can be set to invitation only. I highly encourage any team to create their own channels that are pertinent to their organization, but also, channels created for levity. We kept our #random channel as a place to talk about anything in our lives. Sharing memes, complaining talking about our kids, maternity leave, buying houses, personal hobbies, etc.
So. Many. Apps. There are over 100 applications you can connect with Slack. What service do you use for file sharing? Google Drive, Box, Dropbox, OneDrive? Connect them directly to Slack.
Use other types of communication? Add Zoom to your Slack workspace and toggle directly from there. Want to make an internet call? It’s already integrated.
Want to manage your availability? Connect your calendar to Slack and watch it change your avatar to display “in a meeting,” “out of the office,” “on vacation,” etc. Calendar connections are also a great way to set up notifications for yourself. Have Slack send you a message in the morning to let you know what your day looks like.
Need to get quick answers and poll your group? Want to set up meetings with Doodle Poll? Need to instigate workflows? Want to bring in your project managementtools? Want to set up bots for work or fun? It’s all there. Some apps are paid, some are free, some are pointless, and some are so powerful you’ll never understand how you worked without them.
File Sharing. You’ve connected your apps, but you still have a file on your desktop that you need to share with your team. No problem, drag and drop it into the channel, group, or private message. Want to share a picture or link to an online article? Share it to slack. Want a reminder to share with yourself? Share it to YOUR OWN CHANNEL (automatically created in every workspace) and tell Slack to remind you about it later.
Searching. Looking for a file you shared? Can’t remember a conversation? Use the powerful search feature to find files or conversations. Need to reference them? Link them back into the channel, group, or private message.
Pricing. As mentioned before, Slack has a free version, which may suit your organization just fine. The pricing doesn’t get out of hand, and they do offer discounts for educational institutions, non-profits, health-care organizations, and more. If you upload files and want a little more security, I suggest moving to an upgraded plan that offers some file encryption.
Access. You can access Slack via the web, phone, computer, or tablet—simultaneously.
Everything synchs. Worried about missing information? Slack tracks that too. For every channel, Slack will tell you how many conversations are unread, and even have a little red line where you left off. Making the need to go back and try to find the last conversation you remember unnecessary.
Notifications. You can alert channels, groups, or individuals when you especially need to convey important information. You can also pin conversations and/or documents to the channel for easy reference.
Notifications. Why also a con? Notifications are so robust that you really need to spend time adjusting your settings. Turn them off when you’re asleep or offline (you can set up a time-period). Set the type of notification you want to get, from which channels, and for which types of conversations. The default is EVERYTHING which will drive you crazy after one day.
Pricing. The pricing plan itself is great, and Slack is very conscious of how they are charging you. Remember, they charge you for every “active” user. This means there’s a fun little algorithm that will make your user inactive if they have not participated in the workspace after 15 days. Very customer cost focused. If you work for a higher education institution with fun reconciliation rules, a $1.27 credit every couple of weeks makes for some colorful language in our financial department. I’m known to have outright booted a grad student from Slack because they kept going active/inactive every two weeks.
There are several collaboration tools out there, and many that are being standardized. Organizations that use Microsoft exclusively are pushing Teams, which isn’t terrible, but not nearly as robust as Slack. While not covered here, there are also so many other integrations you can do with the addition of a workflow tool, Zapier. If you’re a developer, the API can do even more. Honestly, the possibilities are endless.
Regardless of how cool the tool is, it provides one major thing every remote employee needs—a sense of community. Chatter in Slack is more than the day to day operations. We share our lives, our disappointments, our wins, our struggles. We ask each other for advice, and we come up with some amazing solutions.
We became WE with Slack. And as Penn State says, “WE ARE.”
Melissa Walker, Ph.D. is the Director of the TRIO Training Academy within Educational Equity at Penn State University, the Associate Director for Penn State's Talent Search and EOC Programs—programs specifically designed to create equitable pathways for first generation/low-income students, and the owner of Training and Development Network.
Prior to joining the university, Melissa spent over 12 years working in the software industry under talent management to enhance organizations' development of diversity, leadership, teamwork, and performance. As a person dedicated to social justice, she has run volunteer training programs for domestic violence centers in CA, as well as volunteer research and training design for the CA Dept. of Corrections.
Melissa has presented on topics such as equity, leadership development, and talent management at national and international conferences such as the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and the Association for Talent Development (ATD).
Melissa holds a Ph.D. in Workforce Education, a double M.Ed in Curriculum and Instruction for Non-Traditional Students/Career & Technical Education (CTE), and a B.A. in English Literature and Culture.
Melissa is the mother to four children, ranging in ages from 17 to 3 years old, so in her spare time, she sleeps.