Direct messages should be dead

💡

There are some issues with direct messages. The article describes the problem and suggests some tips for you to follow to resolve it.

Preface

Social networks are there for years, and we have learned a lot of patterns of communication on the Internet from them. So many, starting their careers and encountering Slack for the first time, try to transfer learned patterns that seem natural to them into work. But communication in social networks and work communication are different things. And not all communication patterns are universal.

One of the most important problems of work communication is the problem of direct messages. This problem has become much more important with the transition to a remote work format with the advent of asynchronous communication and distributed teams. The article describes the problem and suggests some tips for you to follow to resolve it.

Disclaimer

💡 I have no complaints about people who send private messages, and I think they just don't know the consequences.

💡 It's not possible to completely opt out of private messaging - topics that should only be discussed in person, are not work related, or should only be kept secret to a few people can be discussed in private messages.

💡 This article is mostly focused on project-related communication, but the same can be applied for company-wide communication, and there is no reason for reducing all your personal communication with employees via direct messages to zero.

What is the problem?

I don’t understand at all what is happening and where, and this is the main problem - the transparency of communication.

Any communication that occurs in direct messages remains closed from the team. The recipient of direct messages becomes the only one who has all the context and his responsibility is also increased because he is the only one who knows all the details, which creates unnecessary pressure on the employee. The rest of the team starts to lose context, which leads to a loss of understanding of priorities, so potentially the entire team loses time and money.

Direct messages are perceived as something urgent. Even if the team works asynchronously, with everyone choosing the most efficient working hours for them, many still perceive direct messages as something urgent. Developer didn't reply in the channel after five minutes? You need to send him a direct message! Not all direct messages should be perceived as urgent, however our patterns and delivery (notification) format make us think of it as such.

The level of secrecy of direct messages is not clear - is it possible to send and mention what the manager sent you 10 minutes ago in direct messages or was it addressed to you and only you and should remain a secret.

With private messages, you communicate more. You work in a team, and you need to stay a team, so sooner or later you will be duplicating the texts of direct messages to immerse someone in the context of the task, if necessary. That is, you repeated something at least twice, which is not very good for your efficiency.

Steps to kill direct messages

1. Do not initiate conversations in direct messages

If you want people to stop using direct messages, you shouldn’t use them as well - to change something, you need to start from changing yourself. Do not use direct messages, even if it is clear that only you and one more person will participate in the dialogue.

2. Reply in channels

Even if you received a direct message, ask if you can reply to it in the channel. Trust me you will never be able to know 100% who and what information may be needed, so better move it to a channel.

3. Don't open Slack when you focus on something

Communication is a part of your job as well as development, planning or whatever you do. So keep working on your task and do not destruct your current job with another job. Schedule time offline (popular variant - e.g. I’m not available for messages after 6 pm). Another option is to schedule time online (not that popular, but to me more efficient and more async friendly - e.g. I will reply to messages from 9 am to 10 am and from 5 pm to 6 pm)

4. Turn off notifications on direct messages

Slack gives you an option to disable notifications for direct messages. This way, others will quickly realize that direct messages don't work to get your attention. But make sure that you constantly respond to messages that are sent to channels.

5. Communicate more so others don't have to know your status

This is a simple thing that can help you to reduce the amount of “Hey, how it’s going with task X” messages straight to zero. With over-communication it will be clear for others what’s going on, so you'll have no questions from them. This can be achieved through regular stand-ups. If your task is progressing slowly and stand-up does not show any changes - write separate messages with statuses, progress and all the problems that you meet.

6. Create more channels with clear topics and descriptions

It’s hard to choose where to send your message if there are only three channels with wide topics being discussed, so you’ll probably send a direct message. The more channels you have - the easier it will be to choose where to send a message.

Afterword

The role of communication becomes more and more important when your team grows. And a lot of issues coming from bad communication or miscommunication. Direct messages is the root of all miscommunication and even though it feels really natural to us, it must be dead - and it will resolve a lot of project issues and improve team performance.

Do not follow the tips above blindly and all at once - you can introduce them gradually, slightly moving away from direct messages step by step.