Slack Versus Email? They Can Coexist

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As if it wasn’t bad enough that our inboxes are constantly dinging, now we also have Slack constantly demanding that we feed the chat beast.

Competing chat and email communication channels can drive teams crazy, and make it hard to know when to use each tool.

Messaging with your team on Slack all day can be disruptive, but it when used wisely in the wider ecosystem of workplace communication tools, it has some benefits.

It’s great when you’re looking for immediate connections with your team for short discussions, and brainstorming or idea sharing. Email, on the other hand, can lack context or pile up, but it provides an easily accessible written chain of communication where people can also get into a more in-depth discussion.

Can Slack and email coexist? Can their respective strengths even balance out each other’s weaknesses? To see if they can, we turned to two Slack and email veterans here on our own Palo Alto Software team, makers of Outpost, LivePlan, and Bplans.

While recent years have seen much news about dropping email, IM, and text for Slack, it is not the end-all, be-all tool for every organization.

“Slack is disruptive and mostly in a bad way. It does have its place though,” says John Procopio, director of marketing and ecommerce at Palo Alto Software. “Slack is useful for quick answers or updates when no major decisions are going to be made.” For more in-depth discussion, especially if multiple team members and/or external parties are involved, he’ll get on a conference call instead of firing up a Slack channel.

Slack can decrease inbox clutter and enable real-time discussions

“Slack is best for real-time conversations when your team is trying to solve a problem together,” adds Noah Parsons, chief operating officer at Palo Alto Software. “It’s especially useful if you’re not all in one place physically. Slack is terrible for discussions that require more depth and background. Slack is also terrible for delivering large amounts of information to people.”

Slack works well for reducing what’s coming into your inbox—you know, all the random chats, “thank you” messages, irrelevant emails, and other miscellany that can drown out the emails you actually need to be doing something with.

That being said, while being part of an email chain can make you feel obligated to reply, Slack users can experience a similar FOMO (fear of missing out) downside: If some team members are in a chat, then everyone may feel obligated to join in.

Comprehensive deep-dives are best left to email, not chat

However, discussions in Slack can just be discussions, leaving email for longer-form deep dives and items that actually need to turn into specific tasks or projects.

Slack can also be easier to reply to in real-time than email or text, so people can stay in the moment on a conversation—yet you can also avoid email’s dreaded “reply-all.” Archives and search features also help team members revisit old discussions. Slack’s search function simply isn’t as powerful as Gmail’s for example.

So it can feel like links and documents are lost forever, after a few days.

Internally at Palo Alto Software, teams leverage Slack “to drive follow-up questions, or share quick thoughts on things that are being said by the other party,” says John. “It gets everyone on the same page without having to verbally say anything.”

Here are four ways Slack helps Palo Alto Software staff be productive and coordinate with one another:

1. Share top of mind resources, such as links or studies.

2. Organize conversations with channels. “We set up channels for things like Content, Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO), Social, etc.,” says John. “That drives quite a bit of discovery and chatter.”

3. Post updates, which can drive further discussion in Slack, on a call, or face-to-face.

4. Integrate third-party tools and apps. “We pipe in Kissmetrics and other sources to alert us when certain things happen,” says John, “such as when someone purchases a special promo package.”

Email: what it’s good at, what it’s bad at

Over the past few decades, email has become as standard a feature of work as phones. Like phones, email can be misused, but it still is a vital component of productivity—as long as it’s used well.

On the one hand, says John, “email is email.” It’s not very glamorous. There’s not much in the way of bells and whistles (though there are some handy ways to make your inbox work better for you, instead of you feeling like you’re working for it).

Over the years, there have been failed attempts to replace email (we’re looking at you, Google Wave), and there are regular calls of doom portending email’s imminent demise.

Oh, wait, what’s that? You need to check your email real quick?

Exactly.

Email excels at providing a clear record

Email isn’t going anywhere anytime soon (and even Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield has conceded that email is “very useful”). At least for the moment, we can’t consider Slack an email killer.

Similar to phone and text, email’s inherent simplicity, ability to reach one or many people with a single message, and sheer ubiquity make email an essential tool. It also serves as its own date and time-stamped written record—handy for verifying details and looking back to see what was actually said during an exchange.

When you need that written record and need to get down and dirty on details, email is what John relies on. Email is best “for anything long, roping in external partners, and when the stakes are high enough that decisions need to be made,” he explains.

He definitely doesn’t turn to chat. “Slack doesn’t play well with tons of text.”

Inboxes enable deep dives and give you time to think before replying

“Email is best for discussions where people might need or want more time to think about an issue, or if there’s a lot of information to convey,” says Noah. Email’s asynchronous nature can also be both an advantage and a disadvantage. Sometimes the real-time nature of Slack can be an asset, but for matters where some read-consider-reply time is needed, email shines.

“There is a ton of value in asynchronous conversations and communication,” says Noah. “Email doesn’t interrupt the way Slack does. With Slack, everything needs/expects an immediate response. The interruption quotient is high.”

Organizations like Palo Alto Software turn to the good ole’ “compose” button in a variety of circumstances. Email enables in-depth discussions and long messages requiring more explanation and detail. Given chat’s inherently more casual nature, email also provides an opportunity for a more formal tone, which is especially useful when you are talking to someone you don’t know (or at least don’t know very well yet).

It shines as in internal communication tool. Along with other collaborative project management tools, Palo Alto teams also find email useful for communicating about tasks and project milestones for individual or team reference—on the occasion when it’s necessary to bring the conversation outside of project management software like Basecamp.

While Slack can be searched, it also lacks a very simple feature: an inbox. In a sense, your email inbox can be like your desk. Sure, sometimes it might be cluttered, but stuff is there and you know where to look.

Email also keeps items more front and center, so you can easily return to them later. “There is no real ‘inbox’ concept for Slack,” explains Noah. “You can’t view a message and easily save it for a later response. It just disappears into the flow.” (Though technically, Slack can be “snoozed” to remind you about a post at a later time, but that’s still an action you have to take.)

Your organization sets the tone for getting the most out of email and Slack

If your organization is using Slack (or a similar tool) in addition to email, or if you’re considering adding a chat tool, email and Slack can indeed coexist in a way that plays up the strengths of each tool.

Optimizing your team’s mix of email and Slack, however, also comes down to the tone set by the overall organization. Guidelines, best practices, and clearly defined expectations can guide how personnel uses Slack, email, and other tools. How management and executives use (or misuse) Slack and email will also have a large bearing on how teams use those same tools.

This doesn’t mean setting up massive guideline documents, but it can include simple tips that, for example, encourage team members to move quick chats to Slack, and keep more in-depth discussion in email. Being mindful about which tool to use when can also prevent your teams from feeling like they’re on a chat hamster wheel, afraid to leave the channel for fear of missing out.

Ultimately, organizations must shape how they want staff to communicate—an area where Noah thinks Palo Alto Software can make further improvements.

“We don’t solve this problem, currently,” he says. “I think we need to create a ‘Slack code of conduct’ or ‘how to use Slack properly’ policy for our company so that the right communications go in the right channels.”

These scenarios are also where organizations are turning to broader collaborative email tools such as Outpost. Assigning emails reduces forwards, CCs, and unnecessary replies, while simultaneously helping teams see the real-time status of customer inquiries. Instead of having to crank out new emails from scratch every time an issue comes through, FAQs and templates give teams ready-to-use copy that decreases the time it takes to reply to emails. Collaborative email tools can further help cut chatter and clutter, so teams can focus on being productive.

Amidst today’s ever-expanding options for chat, social networks, and email tools, it’s more important than ever to find the right mix for your organization. It’s not about finding the mythical, non-existent silver bullet. It’s about finding the right combination of tools, setting clear and simple guidelines for their use, and following through with consistency from all levels of the organization.

Do that, and not only can Slack and email get along well in your organization, but your team can too.

Posted in Email

Anthony St. Clair

Anthony St. Clair

Anthony St. Clair is a business copywriter, author of the Rucksack Universe travel fantasy series, and a craft beer writer specializing in Oregon. Learn more at anthonystclair.com.