Using Slack in a pandemic

We have been using Slack at my school for about four years now. It has generally worked really well as way for our whole staff team to communicate together effectively beyond email, helped by the fact that we provide all staff with a device and because it works across a range of platforms (iPadOS, macOS and web etc).

But as I reflect on the last few months of pandemic school closure, Slack has definitely made remote working a lot easier for us an organisation. I can sit on my kitchen table and easily flow between a range of different tasks: solve an ICT problem for a teacher; glean valuable feedback from teachers on an aspect of home learning; schedule a Zoom meeting with senior leaders; stay in the loop about activities happening for critical worker children still in school. Each task might not seem hugely significant by itself, but the fact staff from across the school can get this sort of work done without getting buried in endless email threads helps make school life feel at least a bit more cohesive.

Here’s a few things that have helped us make it work:

  • The more channels the better. Sack works best when there are channels about a specific tasks or project. We had lots of existing channels that worked well for us during ‘normal’ school opening, but with the change to distanced working, we needed some new channels to reflect the new tasks at hand. For example, we set up #who-is-in-school for posting rota details, rather than them getting lost on our general channel. Having a dedicated channel means that people who want or need to know that information can find it quickly.
  • Pin important posts. Once you have made specific channels for the specific topic/project, it’s very helpful to ‘pin‘ key documents or information. As well as making the information stand out for those already in the channel, those joining can just scroll up and find it too.
  • Turn group discussions into private channels. Sometimes an existing channel doesn’t have quite the right people in it for the information you want to share, so you create a new new direct message to those people. But creating a private channel instead (or converting an existing message group into a private channel) clarifies the ongoing conversation topic and makes it simpler to return to the conversation.
  • Use ‘reacji’ to keep track of tasks. Slack allows you to react to a post with an emoji (e.g. 👍) something Slack cloyingly call a ‘reacji‘. This can be used as a great way of to both let people know that you’ve received a message and be a note to yourself that you’ve dealt with it.

Slack: helping Teachers ‘be less busy’?

A few years ago, Julian Coultas recommended we tried using Slack at school. It’s basically a chat service for work, allowing users to easily and quickly communicate across the whole school team. You can pay for it, but the free option gives most of the functionality you would need. At that time, I knew it wouldn’t work because not everyone in the school had easy access to a computer. However, as we were making sure every member of staff had a computer from the beginning of this term (desktops for office staff, iPod Touch for Early Years and iPads for everyone else – teachers and TAs), I thought it was time to give it a try.

We’ve only been using it for a couple of months, but here’s some benefits I’ve seen:

  • I’m receiving and sending much less email internally. Much of that email was just letting people know things or having a conversation about a topic, all of which is easier in a ‘chat’ interface.
  • Slack’s organisational structure of open channels, private channels, individual direct messages and group direct messages means all communication comes ‘pre-filed’. For every email received, you have to decide whether to delete it, leave it in an inbox or file it away in a folder. With Slack, this decision has already been made by the sender.
  • Email, because it’s a bit like sending a letter, tends towards the more formal, insisting on a salutation and closing greeting. Short and to-the-point messages can come across rude. With Slack, short and concise messages are just informal and fun.
  • Sending emoji via email can be hit-and-miss whether the receiver can display it, whereas Slack loves emoji! This makes the communication that little bit more fun and light, something that the teaching profession could always benefit from.
  • With push notifications enabled, Slack can cut through the communication ‘noise’ of email. Because you choose what channels you want to be part of, and all communication is from within your team, every Slack message is potentially relevant and important and so worth a notification.
  • Email can have quite small attachment file size limits, whereas Slack allows for the sharing and resharing of all manner of files and media. It supports all the ‘Open In’ hooks in iOS too, which is nice.
  • The people at Slack seem like a really friendly bunch and have always been super helpful with any support issues.
  • Push notifications also make communication really instant. Our IT technician doesn’t have a walkie-talkie because sending a DM or posting to #ictfaults has just as quick a response!

There is a strong network effect with Slack – it only really works if everyone in your organisation is part of the team and has easy access to a computer device. But it seems to be working for us!