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Improve Transparent Communication Using Slack the Data-Driven Way

Ludek Stehlik

People & Data Scientist

August 7, 2020

6

min read

Why bother with open and transparent communication

The benefits of open and transparent communication in the workplace are common sensical. Fortunately, we do not have to rely solely on our gut feelings to appreciate them. There is robust scientific evidence that “increase in openness of communication is likely to enhance team performance”. Without fostering a culture of this type in the workplace, organizations are more likely to struggle with the key ingredients of success in business: employees’ trust, loyalty and engagement, uninterrupted flow of information, smooth task alignment, problem solving capacity or potential to innovate. To put it more straightforwardly, in the words of the guys from Basecamp, “Communication is the substrate on which everything else grows. This shit [really] matters.”

To enhance transparent communication and its positive effects, many organizations have implemented new collaboration platforms that have as their core feature instant messaging (IM), like Slack, MS Teams, Hangouts, Ryver, Fleep, Flock, Brosix, etc. Unfortunately, if not accompanied by proper user habits and expectations, the unintended side effects of their design often defeat their very purpose. Collaboration and communication is hindered, not improved.


Does instant messaging in the workplace help or harm?

A sharp switch from emails to IM in the workplace has affected many people.  Illustrating this transition from email to chat, see the network graphs below. They eloquently capture the disbalance in the way that we at Time is Ltd. distribute our internal communication, among Slack messages (the top network picture, with a median degree of 8 contacts) and emails (the bottom network picture, with a median degree of 3 contacts). 

It is clear that joining our Slack network would give you a far better insight into Time is Ltd. than our emails would. Similar situations can be found in many organizations today. 

Organizational network in Time is Ltd. defined by SLACK messages exchanges between its employees
Organizational network in Time is Ltd. defined by EMAIL messages exchanges between its employees

Network graphs showing patterns of collaboration via Slack (network picture on the top) and emails (network picture on the bottom) within Time is Ltd. company. Normally, we present this type of data at the aggregated (team or departmental) level, but here for R&D purposes the nodes in the networks represent individual employees and the edges correspond to the communication links between them. The size of the nodes and thickness of the edges are proportional to the number of direct contacts one has in the network and intensity of the communication, respectively. The color of the nodes represents departments individual employees belong to.   


This switch to IM is primarily motivated – besides the current Work From Home (WFH) response to COVID-19 pandemic – by expected improvements in employees’ engagement, productivity, and collaboration. It purports to give coworkers the chance to closely align their efforts and swiftly exchange information and ideas, while giving managers the tools by which to direct their teams efficiently. Cumbersome meetings and emails, that suffer from well-known inefficiencies like excessive length and slow response time, being avoided. 

There is some data allowing optimism for a positive impact of IM on work-related processes and outcomes. In 2018, Slack commissioned a study of more than a thousand U.S.-based users who had been using Slack for at least one month, and the majority of them reported that the platform… 

The proportions ranged from 73% to 88% per question. 

That being said we should take the results from the Slack 2018 study with a healthy grain of salt, given the conflict of interests. Both our personal experience with IM (as shown by the sheer amount of hits generated when googling the phrase “I hate instant messaging at work”), and more rigorous scientific evidence testify that supposed pros of IM are accompanied with many cons. The most common ones being...

  

Screenshot of output from googling the phrase “I hate instant messaging at work”.


Both our personal experience and the scientific evidence are thus rather mixed when it comes to IM evaluation. To maximize its benefits and minimize its downsides, it is crucial for each organization aspiring to use this technology to properly answer questions about IM's whys and hows. In what situations does it make sense to use it? Are we taking into account the good, recommended user practices that counteract the ills of IM?

In the next IM-related posts we will cover many of these “sins” and their corresponding counter-checks, together with the ways they can be supported and amplified by analysis of passive data generated by collaboration platforms. Let's start the series with a resoundingly common issue with IM – lack of transparency, specifically on Slack.



The issue of transparency with Slack

Slack is one of the most popular on-line collaboration platforms on the market. According to techjury, in 2019: 

One struggles even to imagine the volume of communication traffic behind such high numbers. This is why it is more important than ever to ensure that this bulk of communication is sufficiently transparent, to support the very reasoning behind which businesses wish to use it.

Transparency is one of the supposed and intended benefits of using Slack, however, this expectation is too often out of sync with reality. When you use Slack’s own analytics and break the messages into public and private conversations, you can often observe images like the one below. In the presented graph you can see that only about 20%-30% of the messages are sent in public channels. This heightens the risk of information important for task alignment, problem solving, or decision being hidden in direct messages or private channels, out of view from relevant people.

Graph coming from Slack Analytics that shows breakdown of Slack conversations between public channels, private channels, and direct messaging.


How do we help enhance transparency on Slack?

Analytics and insights currently provided by Slack itself are rather limited. Jan Rezab, CEO of Time is Ltd., with (just) a little exaggeration commented on this in one of his posts on LinkedIn: “Slack itself should probably be more open about its own Slack Analytics - today, it doesn’t give much, perhaps hiding its real usage due to Slack making work even more taxing?” Nevertheless, despite its simplicity, the provided breakdown of public and private conversations is very useful. It provides easily understandable and actionable feedback on whether improvement is needed in terms of communication transparency, or not.    

To increase the actionability of this basic insight it is useful to segment related metrics based on department/team affiliation. See below the view from Time is Ltd. productivity analytics platform, which displays this in a clean, condensed format. It is clear from the stacked bar charts that there is a consistent behavioral pattern across departments that hugely underutilize public channels in their Slack communication. 

Such information enables CHROs, CIOs, CTOs, HRBPs or team leaders to leave behind a one-size-fits-all approach, and adjust their suggestions and interventions to specific situations in individual departments and/or teams. Further contextualization for intervention is provided here by a stacked line chart, showing a huge peak in direct messaging during March and April 2020. Given that during these two months employees were forced to abruptly switch to WFH arrangement, this peak in direct messaging activity probably acted as a substitute for informal personal encounters in the office. This does not represent a problem-to-be-resolved, but quite the contrary, something to be supported and reinforced.    

Slack communication transparency view from the Time is Ltd. productivity analytics platform.

 
To further enhance the actionability of these insights we have designed a special view called Alert view. In this view we track the proportion of Slack communication taking place in public channels, and highlight which teams are making positive developments, which are making negative ones, and which are making no changes whatsoever. It is vital to praise the teams showing improvement and foster open communication. The teams who have room to grow here should be watched and offered support. Those departments consistently performing well earn a place in the Get Inspired category - these are the role models in the company.

Alert view focused on transparency of Slack communication from the Time is Ltd. productivity analytics platform.


How can managers move their teams from Watch to Praise?

Private channels and direct messages on Slack are useful for discussing sensitive issues or for coordination that would otherwise spam other employees. However, to build a culture of belonging and inclusion, the rest of company communication should take place in public channels so that issues are surfaced and everyone relevant can give their input. 

Managers should communicate this expectation to employees and new hires on a regular basis and make sure to lead by example in using public channels. They should also ensure that different groups of employees have the opportunity to make their voice heard in these channels, to avoid the conversation being driven by a minority, be it based on department/team affiliation (see view from Time is Ltd. analytics platform below for illustration), gender identity or any other relevant demographic category. For further guidance go through these 5 Slack best practices for inclusive companies.

Slack communication transparency view from the Time is Ltd. productivity analytics platform.


It is not just about transparency

Positive change in employees’ behavior in terms of Slack communication transparency can bring its own challenges. Employees may start to feel more overwhelmed by notifications and messages coming from the various public channels they are participating in. That is why it is important to better manage other aspects of Slack communication as well. 

So, stay tuned for our future posts, where we will cover other useful Slack practices and related metrics, and learn how to fulfill Slack’s potential and prevent its negative side effects the data driven way.


Resources:

https://iaap-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/apps.12203

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instant_messaging

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telecommuting

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/leaders-must-step-up-help-overloaded-overworked-defocused-jan-rezab/

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/19/style/slack-replace-email-ipo-listing.html

https://slackhq.com/trust-tools-and-teamwork-what-workers-want

https://basecamp.com/guides/group-chat-problems#positives

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fear_of_missing_out

https://news.stanford.edu/2009/08/24/multitask-research-study-082409/

https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/23146/too-many-interruptions-work.aspx

https://blog.rescuetime.com/slack-focus-guide#TOC

https://techjury.net/blog/slack-statistics/#gref

https://textio.com/blog/5-slack-best-practices-for-inclusive-companies/28024899214

https://qz.com/work/1128150/your-companys-slack-is-probably-sexist/

https://slack.com/intl/en-cz/help/articles/218407447-View-your-Slack-analytics-dashboard


wRITTEN BY

Ludek Stehlik

PhDr. Cognitive psychology, Ph.D. in General psychology, His research focus extends to sociometry, statistics, and HR consulting. Previously worked for Deloitte or Assessment Systems International.