How to manage productive teams (without Slack or email)

Sneaker heads know all about “the drop.”

New Yorkers have watched (with both bewilderment and scorn) as young men lined up outside the Supreme store for the the 2002 Nike SB Dunk collection.

Supreme Closes its Original Lafayette Street Store | HYPEBEAST

Then there’s the Travis Scott x Jordan 1s “drop” that now trade on Sneaker exchanges at the eye-popping price of $1,170.

This week, Twitter teased out another epic sneaker drop.

Wait for it…

Yes, a Cole Haan x Slack collaboration.

I’ve got questions.

First, why on earth… would anyone wear Cole Haans?

(I joke friends, I joke. I wore them for nearly a decade before swapping them for a pair of Rainbows.)

But more importantly, there’s a general consensus that Slack notifications suck.

They put you in firefighting mode the second you grab turn on your phone.

They crush your strategic thinking and stamp out your creative brilliance.

And 99% of the time, they’re related to a friggin GIPHY.

If there’s a $10 task out there (besides Inbox Zero) it’s the Slack notification.

But there’s a bigger reason why I couldn’t get these shoes. It would violate our company’s communication protocol.

Yes, our tiny company of three has a clearly defined protocol, built on the following principles:

  • We respect each others’ attention
  • We always invest a small amount of effort to lessen our colleague’s cognitive load (even if you’re the boss)
  • We always favor asynchronous tools
  • We have clearly defined our expectations
  • We use the right communication tool for the job
  • We shut off completely when not working

Receiving Slack notifications on your feet would violate all these rules. Here’s what our Communications Protocol looks like in real life:

1.We don’t send email internally

With the exception of forwarding relevant documents and one-off $10 tasks (i.e. fixing a typo on our website), we don’t communicate via email. And that’s a good thing, because having email on your phone is optional. (We’ll address our emergency protocol shortly.)

2. All communications related to projects stay in one place

We use Notion as our project management tool but this rule would still apply if we used Asana, Trello, or ClickUp. Each of these project management tools has gotten so sophisticated (with delightful UX to boot) that you can easily thread conversations directly to a task or project.

This keeps communication tight and efficient.

(We don’t use gDocs or Office365, but if we did the same rules would apply for tracking changes.)

This step required two specific behavior changes for our team:

  • We committed to entering all our tasks and projects in Notion
  • We committed to checking our Notion (or Asana) inboxes for notifications

Know I now what you’re thinking. “Khe, you’re a hypocrite, did you just trade one notification for another?”

No, using Notion for communicating on projects has a few built-in advantages. First, there’s a finite number of tasks and projects. (Think about how frequently you communicate about specific tasks.) Second, it’s asynchronous so there’s no expectation for an immediate response. Third, unlike Slack there’s zero temptation to go down a $10 work rabbit hole.

You pop in, address the comment/question/ask, and get on with your day.

3. Slack is like knocking on someone’s office

With a complex business, comes complex questions. Your standard operating procedure might be missing a step for an edge case; the client might have abruptly changed their mind on a deliverable.

And so you can no longer communicate about the task via Notion/Asana.

In the old days, you’d walk into someone’s office and ask your question. Or call them. Here’s the one time it’s ok to use Slack.

And the expectation here is that there will be a prompt response. The response could be one of the following:

  • a clarification via a Loom recording (remember, we favor asynchronous)
  • a quick Slack exchange
  • An actual call (phone or Zoom)

There are two key advantages to this step. First, if we’re being thoughtful about our task assignment, weekly touch bases and SOPs – there shouldn’t be too any instances of fuzzy marching orders.

Second, here’s why we favor asynchronous communication. It does have slightly more friction than back and forth Slack messaging. But to us – this is a feature, not a bug – as it tightens the scope of the conversation. Furthermore, it doesn’t draw you into the Slack wormhole – of adjacent and unrelated conversations.

4. Our communications expectations are transparent

Wait But Why blogger Tim Urban distilled happiness to a simple and elegant equation.

Happiness = reality – expectations

And this definitely can be applied to your internal communications.

Think about it, if your boss expects you to respond to Slack messages every 5 minutes, and you take 10 — you’re probably going to be in some trouble.

It also works in the opposite direction (one that will resonate with paranoid employees). If you reply within 5 minutes, but your boss was cool with 10 – you’ve “wasted” 5 minutes of unnecessary stress. Layer in 50 Slack messages a day from said boss and “Houston we have a problem.”

The closer you, your team and your boss can get to expectation = reality, the closer you get to reducing your collective angst and leveling up your team’s performance. (And you’ll probably like each other a lot more in the process.)

An easy way to lay out these expectations is to use a user manual. This is your team’s unique opportunity to lay out each individuals’ preferences (“if you ever can’t find me, just call my cell”), constraints (“I usually don’t have my phone near me from 6-8 for dinner and bath time”) and quirks (“I’ll never reply with thank you, but will always let you know I’m grateful during our 1:1s”)

Here’s a snapshot of my user manual (that I shared with my virtual assistant):

5. What about fire drills?

I can hear you ready to bust out of your chairs saying that all of this works well in theory, but business takes place in the real world. After all, Iron Mike Tyson said:

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Fire drills, screw ups and clusterf**ks will undoubtedly arise. But as a Zen Buddhist will tell you, the only thing we can control is how we react.

The most important part of the user manual is the Emergency Protocol: how to get a hold of each other when something goes awry.

With us, it’s send a text first and then call. Now our team is quite small, but a larger team could have a few back up contacts, with their emergency preferences.

(And what happens if the boss is isolated at their mountain home with no WiFi? Well it was on them to update the Emergency Protocol before they left.)

And once again, there’s Behavior Change required by all team members – don’t call anyone on their cell until you’ve exhausted all the prerequisite channels.

Now it’s your turn

Many of these strategies might seem hard to implement without management buy-in, firm wide behavior change (and of course, reasonable colleagues). But if you’re drowning in Slack and e-mail hell, even implementing a tiny sliver of these tactics can dramatically lessen the cognitive load. Here’s a few paths:

If your boss is cool but your a paranoid people-pleaser

Sit down with them. Ask them how they like to be communicated with. Tell them how you work best. Frame it simply: “If we communicate better, we’ll hit our goals faster and make less mistakes.”

If you run a small team

See if you have enough leeway from IT to standardize your projects around one tool. Then mandate that all the communications related to the projects stay within that tool.

If you own the business and are willing to experiment

Create a firm-wide communications protocol with a corresponding hierarchy. Remember that you’ll have to change people’s behavior and that you’re only as strong as your weakest link. (If no one emails internally except the CMO, lots of people get dragged back into email.) Consider how:

  • You’ll structure incentives to make this change happen
  • How the culture will need to adapt
  • Messaging its importance across the organization
  • Nudges you can use to effectuate behavior change

Now you may be reading this exhausted by the rules, frameworks and policies. Maybe you’re wondering, why don’t I just send the damn Slack message and call it a day.

Because it’s not working. People are burnt out. They’re overwhelmed. And they deserve better.

And if you implement this correctly it’s good business. Happy colleagues. Improved profits. But most importantly, you’ll regain control of your time AND peace of mind.

No new sneakers necessary.

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