Why Communities Use Slack Better Than Companies 💬

And what we can learn from them to improve our own.

I have been using Slack every day for several years now.

I am member of ~10 spaces, a couple of which are directly related to my job, while others are either professional communities of various kinds, or companies that kindly keep me in their Slack because we chat every once in a while.

I can tell you that companies' workspaces are always harder to use than community ones.

Always.

It's harder to find information, harder to keep track of conversations, channels are messy, and so on. And to make things more embarrassing, we are often talking of companies of a few tens of people, vs communities of several thousands.

How is this possible?

I spent some time looking at Slack spaces from successful communities I belong to, and tried to distill some lessons for building better workspaces for our companies as well.

⚖️ Unfair advantages

It turns out, communities have three big advantages when it comes to building a great Slack environment:

  • 📚 Permanent Info — almost all information that gets exchanged is permanent, and not ephemeral.

  • 👨🏼‍💻 100% Remote — they are 100% remote by default. Why is this an advantage? You will see.

  • 🏡 Curated — they are often curated, that is, there are moderators / owners that are actively involved in making everything work.

Let's dive in on these three points to understand why they are so important, and if and how we can apply them, or their benefits, to our use case.

📚 Permanent vs Ephemeral

Communicating means exchanging information with other people. So far, thank you captain obvious.

At work, we need information to travel in certain ways to reach some goals. These goals might be, for example, keeping people on the same page about something (e.g. product requirements), or deciding something together.

Based on this, I find it useful to define two information categories: Ephemeral and Permanent.

  • Ephemeral — information that loses most of its value after a goal has been reached. E.g. what shall we do for lunch? Are you on time for the delivery? The website is down! These might be all important things, but their main feature is they probably don't need to be referenced again over time. They matter now, but they won't in the future.

  • 📚 Permanent — information that keeps its value over time, because it needs to be accessed and retrieved in the future. Think of any kind of documentation, requirements, or roadmap. Permanent doesn't need to be forever: even if it's just the next couple of weeks, but in those weeks you and your team need efficient access to it, it means you have to structure that information with care.

In a company daily life, there is a ton of ephemeral communication. And all this data becomes noise when you look back at your channels history.

It stays there, even if you don't need it anymore.

Communities, on the other hand, mostly share knowledge, and knowledge is permanent.

I am not going to ask on a community if Paul has taken some time off because he doesn't answer my calls. And that vastly increases the signal-to-noise ratio.

Damn, Paul.

📣 Remote vs In-person

If you work in an office, the way you use communication tools is naturally shaped as a complement to in-person communication.

Most of the times that means the important discussions will happen in person — via meetings, or casual conversations — while Slack is left to quick, ephemeral chats.

This puts Slack between a rock and a hard place, where most activity is little more than noise, and useful information is very hard to get.

Of course, going remote changes everything 👨🏼‍💻

Remotely, the natural replacement for meetings and casual conversations is conference calls.

Conference calls, though, are generally less effective and more expensive than meetings, because of people discomfort and lack of true engagement. Not to say, they are incredibly more expensive than casual conversations.

For this reason, in product and engineering teams they tend to be used less than their original counterparts. This doesn't cancel the need for communication, though, and Slack fills the gap by hosting several conversations that, otherwise, would take place in person.

These conversations are high-value. They are about decisions, they require people to be thoughtful, specific, and comfortable with working asynchronously with others.

👉 Being remote, as an online community is, makes it easier for a Slack workspace to become high-value, and for people to care more about the conversations happening there.

🏡 Curation

Communities often have curators, or moderators, that enforce a set of rules. These rules — other than protecting against offensive behaviour — cover important topics, such as:

  • What channels do exist and why

  • What kind of content should be written in which channels

  • What conventions do exist that users should know about

You might think this is needed because such communities are open to total strangers, but the truth is, almost everything applies and brings value even to a closed environment such as a company.

👉 In many companies’ Slacks, there is little to no effort dedicated to setting company-wide conventions, and to actually enforcing them for good. And that shows.

🎯 How we can improve

Communication is one of the most human things we have, and as such, is imperfect. It will always be.

Nevertheless, there are at least three practical measures we can take from communities to improve our company’s Slack — which means, in the end, improving our team communication.

Let's have a look at them.

🧵 Use Threads

Use threads for every single conversation within a channel.

Threads provide context and make chat history more compact and easier to scan.

They also equip you with better notifications, as you have the "Thread" indicator top left that, if used properly, displays only notifications that are relevant to you — because they are only related to threads you participate in.

Threads are one of Slack's secret weapons. If you use them right, they make a world of difference.

🧩 Create a Structure

Have well-defined rules for creating, naming, and archiving channels.

Channels can be created for multiple goals, but these are typically recurring. Try to map them based on how your team works today, and provide rules that create consistency in the way channels are managed.

A couple examples:

  • Is a new channel often created to support work on a new feature? Enforce that it should be called feat-something and that it should be archived when the feature is over and in production.

  • Are there channels for general communication within specific teams? Enforce that they should be called team-something.

These might look like small things, but when done at scale they go a long way.

👑 Have someone in charge

Have one or a few people in charge of the health of the workspace.

These people should dedicate a small fraction of their time to:

  • Enforcing and propagate workspace rules

  • Collecting suggestions and opportunities for improvement.

  • Having a monthly or quarterly reporting meeting with a supervisor.

🍱 Takeaways

Slack workspaces can be chaotic and messy, and it's easy to blame the tool for that. The truth is, a few small organization tweaks can go a long way in improving communication quality.

A lot can be learned by watching how successful communities use Slack in their day-by-day. Companies are similar to small communities, so most of such learnings can taken and applied with profit.

Do you use Slack in your company? Do you have any tips that might be useful to others? Tell me more in the comments! 👇


Hey, I am Luca 👋 thank you for reading this through!

Every Friday I publish some advice about product and engineering management, and how to improve your work in a team. If you liked this post and you haven’t already, you can subscribe below and receive weekly updates in your inbox!