Private Slack Channels

April 1, 2019

Many of us have been there. We interview at hot new companies, excited to join a small team building out a new product or platform. One of the major draws of joining a startup is being able to have a major contribution to the vision, and to have a level of transparency that you can’t get at a larger organization. You decide on one of these companies after hearing from everyone you spoke with at the company how open and transparent the organization. You show up on your first day, open Slack, and…. crickets. There are a couple one off questions in #engineering, some people discussing food choices in #lunch, and some congratulatory posts about recent successes in #general, but not much else. At some point in the future, you happen to be chatting with a coworker, and see their Slack window. There are messages everywhere, and you notice that everything is happening in private channels. You realize that you were invited to the team, but haven’t really been invited to the team.

The main thesis here is fairly straight forward: private channels are the most overused, and misused, feature of Slack. Their misuse is toxic to team dynamics and introduce opportunities for communication failures. When used unnecessarily, they contribute to an unnecessarily clique-y environment, a lack of inclusivity, and general difficulty for newer team members. This is not to say that there are not legitimate use cases for private channels. I’m sure there are organizations where a “default to private” mentality is valid, however in the majority of small-to-mid-sized tech companies, this is not true.

First, a few caveats:

  • I am only discussing work related channels, however non-work related general purpose channels should be public as well to avoid team members feeling as if they are excluded. Ie, there is generally no valid reason for your #music channel to be private.
  • I am generally focussing on how misuse of private channels can impact the ability to be productive at work. The impact of employees feeling like outsiders to the rest of the team is another discussion that I only touch on briefly.

Private channels are appropriately used in one of a few situations. These are:

  • Information is confidential: The information and topics discussed, or even the knowledge of the discussion happening, needs to be limited to the individuals in the room. Extra Care is taken to ensure that the information is not leaked (topics are not discussed in the hallway or outside a conference room). Examples could include private client discussions, or Human Resources related discussions.
  • Private discussion is short-lived, and limited to a few individuals: A private channel that is limited to a small group of individuals for a short-term topic can be an appropriate replacement for a multi-person direct chat, and leave the opportunity to invite in new collaborators. Typically this channel would be archived after the event/topic is complete. Examples could include private discussion about a critical security related event.
  • Hiring or HR Channels: Hiring Channels should always be private. This is because public channels are searchable, and HR channels often have discussions related to private details of other employees. If an organization has an HR team, they should know how to handle this. If not, just keep these channels private. Most of the downfalls of private channels do not apply to the limited scope of Hiring or HR.

Without good reason, I generally consider widespread use of private channels outside of these use cases to be one of the most confusing communication barriers you can introduce at a company.

The first issue with private channels is that they are not just private, but they are also hidden. If a new employee joins the team, and an admin misses explicitly inviting them to a given channel, it could be weeks before they realize that something is missing. They then need to awkwardly ask what people are talking about because they have been missing messages for weeks. I admit that this could happen with public channels, but the employee would at least have the ability to see a channel that they should be in.

Cross-team communication is also limited by the unnecessary use of private channels. In engineering organizations, some teams (such as a devops team, or perhaps a project manager) will have to communicate with multiple different teams. If each individual product feature has their own private channels, the teams with larger scopes need to be in all of the private channels, all of the time, because they cannot easy leave and rejoin. The possibility simply does not exist for them to leave and re-enter when appropriate. As well, a new member on one of these teams is very unlikely to be inviting into the private rooms of other teams automatically, even if they have a legitimate reason to need access. This issue is compounded if you have individuals that switch between teams often. Each team will have to ensure that the appropriate new team members are added to the right channels, on a regular basis.

This pattern of manually adding individuals into private channels indirectly contributes to an information imbalance between new, and existing employees. Due to the general difficulty of leaving and re-entering private channels, access is rarely removed, leading to a general increase in access for more senior employees. This is a situation where an employee who has been around longer will simply have access to more information, regardless of whether or not the job they are doing is materially different from a new employee. They require a new team member to be explicitly invited into the “in group”. There is no private information in these channels. Frankly, if you consider it private, it should not reasonably be considered private when 75% of the organization has access.

This leads the final communication impact that the misuse of private channels leads to: A widespread misunderstanding of who knows what. A general belief that someone has information that has never been made available to them. I have on multiple occasions been involve in discussions or meetings where it is casually mentioned that a topic has already been discussed or mentioned on Slack, albeit in a private channel that I was not in. Everyone else believed I was in the channel, because it contained a large portion of the engineering organization. Generally speaking, if you find your team operating on an assumption that discussions in a given channel are widely known, that channel should not be private.

By overusing private channels within a “transparent” organization, you are inadvertently creating different ‘levels’ of employees. The ability to effectively share information in crippled. Please strongly consider whether a channel needs to be private before creating it (it is difficult to make a private channel public). If you still feel that your organization requires private channels for day-to-day operations, then perhaps consider not describing yourself as having a focus on transparency.