Some or all of your employees may have been working from home. At least a few might continue to. That’s great in terms of keeping your small business train running, but the communication downside of remote work can be significant. 

That’s why collaboration and teleconference tools like Slack and Zoom (and with them Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and Meet, Hive, Facebook Workplace, etc.) have exploded in popularity and use.

But while it’s great to stay connected and engaged, it can also be overwhelming: Your team could be spending more time on meetings and calls and responding to messages than they do actually getting things done. 

Let’s fix that. 

Here are some handy tips to make using Slack and Zoom usage more efficient. (Keep in mind most of the following can be applied to other collaboration and teleconferencing tools.)

Slack tips

Slack can effectively help folks reduce their email load, but it can also lead to a whole new type of unread clutter. Here are a few ways to minimize the noise.

1. Update your status often. Just because you’re “on” Slack doesn’t mean you’re available or wish to be disturbed. Default status settings like “in a meeting” help manage response expectations, but feel free to customize your status. “Working on inventory for the next hour” not only indicates you won’t be available but also lets others know what you’re doing.

Using status messages gives you the freedom to focus on an important task without interruption—or feeling like you need to constantly check for messages.

2. Mute “less important” channels. There’s a difference between “important” and “urgent.” Messages in a channel like “#customer-complaints” might warrant immediate notification. But plenty of channels don’t need to pull you away from whatever task is at hand. 

Mute the channels you can—or want—to check infrequently; that way you won’t get distracted by notifications that don’t require immediate attention. (Which, frankly, are most of them.)

3. Respond in threads. Joe from accounting posts a message to a main channel. Marcy responds. Anika responds. Joe responds to Marcy. Before you know it, the channel gets clogged and no one can tell which reply matches which.

Instead, respond in a thread to keep different conversations organized. It’s easy; simply click “Start a thread.”

4. Use reminders. Slack messages are often like emails: Many you want to handle or respond to them… but not right this minute. But if you don’t, you may forget.

The solution is simple: Set a reminder. Click the three dots at the far right of the message (where most of the message tools reside), choose “Remind me about this,” and choose an alert time.

5. Use “notify all” judiciously. Want to share something important? Include @channel in your message and everyone in the channel will be notified. (The same is true for @here, except only those who are actually on Slack at the moment you send the message will be notified.)  

Rarely, though, does a message need to instantly be delivered to everyone. (A crisis for two shouldn’t be a crisis for everyone.) Simply post the message for people to read when they have time, and if a few people need to know right now, only tag them. 

6. Create user groups. If you have more than four or five people on your team, posting all messages to one channel gets unwieldy fast. Creating user groups can streamline communication and better organize conversations. 

User groups can be based on functional areas, roles, personal interests… whatever works for your business. Maybe you’ll have one for the shop floor and another for admin. Or one for supervisors of one department and another for all department heads. 

An easy way to start is to think about how you tend to use email CC. If you often include the same people in certain emails, boom: Create a user group. Then you can either go to that group to post your message or tag the user group in a general message.

7. Use “pin” for FAQs. Answering the same questions often? Want people to be able to access certain information easily? Click “Pin to this conversation,” and the message or thread will appear under the “pin” icon at the top of every user’s screen. You can remove the pin when the information is out of date, which also makes it an easy way to post schedules, to-do lists, etc. 

8. Take advantage of new features. Slack recently added a variety of new features you might not be aware of.  For example, you can now:

  • Create a custom notification schedule to automatically turn on Do Not Disturb (DND) at specific times of day or days of the week. 
  • Share a channel with up to 19 other organizations, making it easier to communicate with customers, vendors, partners, etc.
  • Group channels into what Slack calls “Sections” and streamline your workspace side panel. 

Want to stay on top of new updates?  Slack announces new and upcoming features and provides links to tutorials on its updates and changes page.

Zoom tips

Most of us are spending more time on Zoom (or another video conferencing tool) than ever before. Give these a try to keep your Zoom time as valuable as possible. 

1. Set up waiting rooms. If your calendar is stacked with meetings and one runs over, it’s distracting when participants for the next meeting pop in before the last one concludes—or if they log in early, before the previous meeting has ended.

A waiting room takes care of the problem. To enable waiting rooms, log into Zoom on a web browser. Click “Meetings” on the main menu at left. Then click “Personal Meeting Room” at the top of the “Meetings” page. Scroll down and click “Edit this Meeting,” and under the “Meeting Options” section, check the box beside “Enable Waiting Room.” Then hit “Save.”

Zoom waiting room set up 1
Zoom waiting room set up 2

2. Record important meetings. Recordings are useful when all team members can’t attend in real time, for training purposes, or when information is relatively evergreen. For example, a friend recorded a new employee onboarding session a few months ago and now distributes the link to new employees. 

The free version of Zoom lets you record a meeting on your computer; the paid version lets you save recordings to the cloud and then distribute a link to anyone you choose. 

3. Use an external microphone. Teleconferences are difficult enough without having to strain to hear what is said. A decent external microphone solves the problem, cutting down on ambient noise while dramatically improving voice clarity. 

Investing $50 to $75 on a decent microphone is well worth it. After all, if it’s important enough to be said… it’s important enough to be heard.

4. Control another attendee’s screen. Simply request control of a participant’s desktop and, once they approve, you can use their cursor. It’s a great way to provide technical support, run a demo, or highlight information on documents, spreadsheets, etc. 

It also helps you avoid everyone waiting while a file gets emailed to you or the right person.

5. Consider attention tracking. You can tell who is paying attention during in-person meetings. It’s much harder on teleconferences with multiple attendees. 

But not if you turn on “attention tracking,” a function that lets you know if an attendee has moved another window in front of their Zoom window.

Granted, there could be a good reason. Maybe the person is looking for pertinent information,checking the status of a project, or reviewing notes for when it is their turn to provide updates.

While you shouldn’t automatically assume the person isn’t paying attention, attention tracking does at least provide an indication someone’s attention has wandered. 

If that does turn out to be the case, don’t call the person out in front of everyone. Handle the issue privately.

6. More importantly, focus on helping people stay engaged. Staying focused during an hour-long in-person meeting is tough. Staying focused during an hour-long teleconference is even tougher, especially if one or two people carry most of the conversation.

The best solution? Use the same strategies that work for in-person meetings:

  • Don’t hold meetings just to share information and updates. Use email instead.
  • Schedule meetings only for the time you need. Decide ahead of time how much time you need, based solely on what you need to accomplish, and schedule accordingly. If you only need 15 minutes, schedule 15 minutes. And end on time.
  • Never let anyone (including you) “think out loud.” People who haven’t taken the time to prepare don’t need to participate. 
  • Focus on action. Hold meetings to make decisions. Assign authority. Assign responsibility. When things happen, people pay attention.

While attention tracking can help you deal with a person who is chronically inattentive, the best way to keep people engaged is—you guessed it—to keep them engaged.

7. Use recurring meetings wisely. If you tend to meet with the same people on a regular basis, Zoom makes scheduling those meetings easy and convenient—especially since it uses the same meeting settings and meeting link.

But then there’s this: Research shows that while large groups are good at improving existing ideas and designs, small groups are better at coming up with new ideas, inventions, and opportunities. (As the researches put it, “Large teams develop, small teams disrupt.”) 

Other research shows that brainstorming and problem-solving (the two should go hand-in-hand) are significantly more effective when people first come up with ideas by themselves, or with one or two other people at most.

As with many things, just because you can have recurring meetings doesn’t mean you should. 

Zoom—and Slack—make it easy for your employees to meet and collaborate. But sometimes, what they need most is the time and space to get important things done.

Make sure the way you use collaboration tools is designed to help people get things done.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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