How we chat: Breather
A look at how one team created a company-wide “Slack Chat Style Guide” to work better together.
There are few better ways to unite a team than a well-designed style guide.
In many cases, a style guide is designed as a living document. It can change and develop over time to reflect all the things that would impact business, from code to font styles.
But, of all the style guides we’ve seen, we’ve never heard of doing one for your team chat. We spoke with Frances Wilk, head of talent acquisition for Breather, where their mission is to make the world’s spaces connected, accessible, and productive.
Background story: From Process to Botness Montreal
At Botness Montréal, the event for all things chatbots 🤖, Frances spoke on the enterprise customer panel with our CEO, Tom Hadfield. While on the panel, Frances recapped the time Breather realized their chat within Slack was out of control.
The Botness audience was very interested in how they decided to create a chat style guide to control chaos within Slack channels. The premise works because they are committed to pulling together basic tenants for team process. It’s a common issue that requires some smart thinking as a group.
Q&A with Frances Wilk
We recently followed up with Frances to get a better understanding about creating a chat style guide and how it’s working for them. The lessons they’ve learned can be valuable to not only embracing enterprise messaging platforms, but also making sure we can stay productive.
Message.io: How many employees are at Breather?
Frances Wilk: We’re nearing the 250 mark!
Message.io: Are they located in a single office, or are you pretty distributed? If you are distributed, where are your various offices?
Frances Wilk: We are very distributed! We have 2 HQ’s — our first one is in Montreal where the bulk of our employees are (100+), our secondary HQ is in NYC (where most of our exec team sits), and then we have offices in all other cities that house Breather spaces (SF, LA, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, Washington, and London, England!)
Message.io: What did communication look like before you implemented a Chat Style Guide for your team Slack account?
Frances Wilk: We definitely communicated a whole lot, but in somewhat of a more disorganized fashion. We created channels for everything, from apple picking trips to halloween costume contests, and more. We started threads and conversations when they weren’t necessary, and definitely overused a lot of @here’s and @channel’s.
Message.io: Culture (and Breather values) is a big part of your organization, can you describe how that impacted your communication models and Style Guide?
Frances Wilk: Effective communication is vital when you work in a distributed environment like ours. Relying on core values has a huge impact on the way we choose to communicate, and something we kept in mind when coming up with the guide. Two of our core values happen to be contribution and candor, so we wanted to make sure that our employees felt like they weren’t going to have to sacrifice the latter in return for effective communication.
“Since implementing our guide, we are definitely more mindful about creating channels and the ways in which we name them, as well as being cautious of how we communicate within general forum channels, ensuring that we take longer threads into a DM etc.”
How to Create Your Own Team Chat Style Guide
So how can your team make the most of enterprise messaging tools while remaining productive?
The Breather team was able to tackle those communication challenges collaboratively, initially launched by their culture committee. Below are excerpts straight from their style guide that can apply to any team across many popular messaging platforms:
1. Use Department Prefixes for Channels
As a global, distributed team, Breather creates channels with one rule in mind: Use department prefixes.
They’ve mapped out all possible combinations of channel prefixes by city and team, which are always capitalized. From London to Operations, here’s a sample taken from their style guide below:
2. Prefix → Topic
Using a set of standard prefixes (“PREFIX-Topic” format) helps to ensure your channel names will remain organized and descriptive. Here are a few that Breather employed:
3. @Here @Channel
Avoid a “boy who cried wolf” scenario and designate when your team should use @here versus @channel. Breather’s decision tree illustrates a few key questions to help you determine which to use.
4. All About Threads
Using threads instead of regular posts in Slack can help teams to follow up on action items while saving your colleagues time. Threads in Slack are the quickest way for your team to review channels, or to point your colleagues to a past conversation or highlight specific messages from another channel.
5. Decision to DM
It used to be that the big work communication question was whether to respond via email directly or reply all. In the world of Slack, the big question is whether you should DM or create a private channel. Breather created their own ‘pro tips’ that illustrate when to DM or private channel someone.
Message.io: How often do you analyze and revisit the models which you implemented to communicate with teams?
Frances Wilk: I’m sure our Slack channels are due for another clean up!
Message.io: What tips would you have others who want to do something similar to what you implemented?
Frances Wilk: Survey the team. Find out what they want and need to be most effective. Don’t implement something that is one-sided or not perfectly suited for your company, even if it takes a little longer, be patient! ⏹
What areas of your team communication workflows need the most work? What lessons can you take advantage of using the concepts from Breather’s style guide? Share your advice and tips in the comments below.