Office Hours: Slack vs. Email vs. Meeting – How to know which one to use and when

This post originally appeared on Medium

So much of starting a new job can be nerve-wracking — making sure you interpret the dress code correctly, picking up the new team lingo, getting up on all of the team’s different platforms and technologies. Not to mention the stress that comes from wanting to make a strong positive impression by knocking it out of the park on your early projects and overachieving on your goals.

At a startup, there are some unique challenges that come along with those first few weeks on the job. With distributed teams and a tech platform for everything, figuring out how to ask a coworker a question or get feedback on a document can be confusing. Should I Slack my manager? Email her? Or just walk over to her desk?

It can be tough to decipher, but of course, we’ve already figured it all out for you. Here are our tips on how to know when to use which communication medium.

First, Do as the Romans Do

The most basic rule to follow is — do what the rest of your team does.

When working at a startup, your main job is to add value for sure; but at the earliest stages of your career, you’re likely learning more than you’re contributing. You know this and so does everyone else. You don’t want to be the new, entry level employee that requires a ton of coaching on both what to do in your job and how to do it. The best solution then is to make life easier on everyone by focusing on the what and matching what they already do for the how.

During your first few weeks on the job, take note of how your coworkers tend to communicate. If your open plan office is pretty quiet but you see a ton of notifications across multiple Slack channels, your team prefers digital communication instead of in person. If your email inbox never approaches zero because coworkers are constantly writing new messages, then email is the way to go.

All in all your goal is to show your new team that they made the right decision in hiring you — both because you can do the work they need and because you can do it in the way that they want.

Even when going with the flow, it’s still possible to break an unwritten rule. Follow these specific guidelines on when to use what method of communication.

When to Slack 

The biggest benefit of Slack is how easy it makes it to respond and discuss things quickly. Keep that in mind when deciding how to communicate with your team.

Slack is best in these situations —

  • If you need a quick answer on something simple
  • If you want to share & collaborate on something in real time
  • If you need an immediate response
  • If you want to share something random, funny or off topic

Keep in mind that the speed of communicating on Slack can often mean that it’s easy to miss an important update, lose track of something or forget to respond. When you want to make sure that your team understands the importance of something, remembers critical info for later, or follows specific instructions, it’s best to send that info via email.

When to Email

If your team tends to communicate on Slack most of the time, email will start to take on outsize importance and typically be reserved for more serious issues and communications. Keep this in mind before emailing something to your team — you don’t want to be getting their attention only to clog up their inboxes with info you could have posted in Slack.

You should use email when —

  • You need to include someone external on the conversation
  • You’re sharing something longer with lots of detail
  • You’re sharing something pretty important and want to underscore that importance

When to Call or Meet in Person

Despite the ease of electronic communication, sometimes the best option is to actually speak to someone. Direct communication gives you the benefit of body language, tone of voice and the ability to have an actual conversation.

Take it offline and actually talk to your colleagues when —

  • You need to discuss a sensitive issues
  • You need to talk through complicated projects or subjects where people are likely to get confused
  • You’ve been discussing via Slack or email and the discussion has dragged on with no clear next steps or consensus

Lots of startups have distributed remote teams. In these cases, we recommend opting for a video chat over a voice call. Again, so much of communication is non-verbal. Especially in tense situations or when there are major disagreements, being able to look at a coworker during these conversations will go a long to way stave off any unintended offense and help you both come to common ground.

When to Text

Many startup teams have a tight-knit culture, where everyone has each other’s personal phone numbers and texts each other regularly. As the new kid on the team, you should hold off on texting as your primary form of communication. You’re still early in your career, may be one of the youngest on the team, and you want to project maturity and confidence in your professional abilities. But there is always a time and place for everything and sometimes texting is the right way to go.

You should text your colleagues if —

  • They’ve specifically asked or stated this is their preferred mode of communication
  • You are offsite at a meeting or event and need to be in touch or share info immediately
  • You have a good relationship and want to discuss something completely unrelated to work
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