Use the tools you need, don't let the tools use you

Tom Biro offers his experience using messaging app Slack and talks about whether adopting it will actually increase a team's productivity.

Image via Facebook
Image via Facebook

For the last few years, I’ve been very involved with a nonprofit organization in Seattle. In 2014, I was brought into the group’s leadership team made up of 12 to 15 volunteers, assisting in the management of communications. I first worked on our weekly newsletters, then with the website, and so forth. It was a natural fit, given my day-to-day work as a communicator. Depending on your role in the group, and if you add up all the time applied to it over a month, it’s sometimes the equivalent of a second job that bleeds into nights and weekends. The group runs fairly well, but we’re always looking for ways to improve efficiency.

You don’t make the leadership team by being elected. You make the leadership team by stepping up and doing things. Some people have good financial backgrounds or work in retail. Others are involved in motivating members for various events and activities. Sometimes people are amazing project managers. Beyond that, the background of our leadership team varies; some people have desk jobs, others don’t.

Ultimately, however, we all have to work together to make things happen. Given that we all don’t see one another every day and that it’s a volunteer gig, it’s important to stay connected, maintain a "paper trail" that other volunteers can learn from in the future, and to be functional, without being overwhelmed.

Last December, one of my fellow leadership members and I took on the role of co-presidents. Just as with any other organizational change, we looked to be more productive. Our team used email, forum software, and a few other tools to regularly communicate, and chose to add the messaging app Slack to the mix to see how it might fit in.

Slack was, for the most part, amazing. A few of us used it at our day jobs, which eased the learning curve. Others who lacked frequent phone or computer access couldn’t use Slack until late evening. Those of us used to a fast-paced communicative environment thought it was fantastic. Others were not as impressed, and even frustrated to check in at some point during the day to find 200 messages waiting for them from lunch conversations other team members were having.

Despite the minor frustrations, we got a lot done. The program helped us turn some sharp corners at a swift pace that without it might have been overlooked. Slack’s dynamic and setup was less challenging than say a forum or sending a bunch of emails, etc. But there was a downside. For many, software like Slack wasn’t the preferred method of communication. A conversation that could have been a "let’s sleep on this and follow up on the forums tomorrow" turned into a problem solved during a lunch break. Sometimes, that was good. Other times, we were doing more work than was sustainable, irrelevant of our passion for the organization.

Essentially this tool created work and effectively challenged us to do more. It’s not about slowing down the work-flow for the sake of doing so; it’s about keeping everyone as engaged as possible throughout the process. The key is that we recognized this. Many of us have adapted to Slack so we drive it, and not the other way around. I welcome anything that’s truly a problem-solver for business or personal use. But just because you can do something at a breakneck pace, even if you are making the right decisions, doesn’t mean it’s the smartest way to operate over the long haul.

Tom Biro resides in Seattle and is an independent communications professional. His column focuses on how digital media affects and shifts PR. He can be reached at or on Twitter @tombiro.

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