We speak with Olya Yakzhina, who gives us her take on creating standards and healthy barriers inside of Slack.

Slack Best Practices Series: Optimizing Internal Communication & Engagement w/Olya Yakzhina

Slack Best Practices May 1, 2023

Hi everyone! In this interview of our Slack best practices series, we speak with Olya Yakzhina, Head of People at Switchee. Olya gives us some very interesting advice on how to create a set of standards and healthy barriers inside of Slack to promote well-being and general mental wellness across your remote team. Click below to watch the full recording, or read through the transcript at your own pace. We'll have a couple more interviews coming shortly in the series, so stay tuned!

About our Host:

Abigail Caldwell has been a People Operations and HR professional for the better part of the last decade. She's had the opportunity to work with several startups and upstarts, and is particularly skilled in kickstarting and maturing People Operations at companies that have not had it before.

Abigail Caldwell (00:00):

All right. Hi Olya. Welcome. Today, we are going and kicking off our People series where today we're going to be talking about Slack best practices for internal communication and overcoming challenges of of implementing an asynchronous culture remotely and hybrid. So I'd love to kick off and do an introduction of you, and then we'll jump over to me and get right into questions.

Olya Yakzhina (00:24):

Of course. So, my experiences all within tech scaling startups. I have worked remotely for the last four years and in my most recent company, company where I'm now, I've joined it about three years ago, and I joined it completely remotely without meeting anybody at all. So, um, one of the areas of my focus as the head of people in that business is making sure that we build a good functioning remote culture. And, um, it's a really exciting challenge.

Abigail Caldwell (00:59):

Awesome. So to kind of set the stage here, I'd love to know how long you've actually been using Slack throughout your entire career.

Olya Yakzhina (01:06):

I have been using Slack since I left uni in 2016, <laugh>. Ooh,

Abigail Caldwell (01:11):

So quite a while. Slack has

Olya Yakzhina (01:12):

Been, yeah. Throughout my entire career. Ever since I started at work, we have been using Slack.

Abigail Caldwell (01:19):

Nice. Do you feel like Slack has changed a lot since you started using it in 2016?

Olya Yakzhina (01:26):

I think that, um, slack itself as a tool has had a lot of different interventions from other parties, bringing more bots into it, bringing more productivity tools into it, building more integrations on top of it to allow you to kind of keep your work stream centralized through one main platform. And I think that was the main change. But in terms of the way that Slack has been functioning and its core foundational, but kind of workflows, they really did remain the same. I guess they have been working really well.

Abigail Caldwell (02:05):

<laugh>. Yeah, it's almost like they, they had their, um, foundation, their fundamentals that they would not compromise on, but they're kind of the definition of an asynchronous team. They really allow a lot of autonomy with organizations. How does Slack help your organization and can you share any specifics?

Olya Yakzhina (02:23):

Yeah, of course. So within our organization, we all work remotely. And so Slack is our main platform where we communicate between each other and make really important decisions. Um, we have chosen, to make these important decisions through Slack by just organizing it in a way where every individual department has an outlet to be making these decisions in. And why it's been helpful is just because again, all working remotely, we find ourselves in a situation where we just need to talk a lot more than maybe we would have had if we just sat next to each other. We talk a lot more online now, and it's obviously instant messaging. It's much faster to get to a resolution if you can just quickly message someone and they quickly reply to you. Obviously that comes with its onset of mental health challenges, but we'll get to that <laugh>.

Abigail Caldwell (03:20):

We'll, absolutely. Um, Lia being in hr, you are the head of HR and people in your organization. How have you influenced your organization to organize Slack channels and keep them efficient and also easy to navigate?

Olya Yakzhina (03:34):

Um, that's a really good question actually, because, um, slack yields itself to become a potential just black hole and chaos <laugh> of many, many messages being sent everywhere. Yeah. And I think that, um, it should never really be left alone to fester into all of these different communications channels. I think we kind of imagine it as a growing tree. We only want it to grow upwards. We don't want it to become a bush so that people get lost and don't know which branch to go onto. Um, so in my role as the head of people, one of the responsibilities I have is to manage people's experience at work, and the biggest platform that they use at work is Slack. Therefore, it's a huge part of how they experience their jobs. Um, so it's super, super important that this platform is really easy to use and they know where to go.

Olya Yakzhina (04:33):

So since the very beginning of my role, I've become an admin on Slack, and I have been the person who monitors and establishes channels that, as I mentioned earlier, is a list of those company approved main channels that everybody has to be a part of and they're closely monitored and moderated by myself. And then you have free reign, obviously, to make your own private channels for teams or for different topics that are currently current, are thriving those channels every now and then when you finish speaking about this topic. Um, and that kind of still stays within the responsibilities of the person who is managing this particular subject. Um, but that list of main channels and really close eye on making sure that they don't get polluted, I would say is, um, is is how I would influence it, how I have been influenced so far.

Abigail Caldwell (05:28):

I think that's a, a very compelling statement that you used in the beginning of you want it to continue to grow up not outwards where it's kind of chaotic. Um, but with it growing up and up, do you set any boundaries for certain types of conversations and channels, um, as it is, as it pertains to Slack versus email? So confidentiality really.

Olya Yakzhina (05:49):

Yeah. So we, since the very beginning, kind of the way that we've tried to, um, establish this is we all agree at the senior leadership level what we use Slack and what we use emails for. And we have made a decision that for all of the internal communications between each other and our colleagues, we only use Slack. So we never send each other an email unless Slack is just maybe too clunky to have something in. So we always know that our inboxes are full of actually our customers reaching out to us, external parties reaching out to us, external candidates reaching out to us, and then we know to focus on our day-to-day work conversations within actual one platform where everything stays within the realms of these closely moderated channels.

Abigail Caldwell (06:43):

Got it. And Slack has such powerful filtering and search capabilities, so it's so easy to find conversations in Slack and you know, as you stated before, you don't want it to become chaotic and I'm sure Slack users can, very much relate to how quickly something can get buried inside of, a thread. So how do you keep Slack conversations productive and also on topic?

Olya Yakzhina (07:08):

Yeah, so I think there's multiple ways of doing that. And actually Slack has designed a few new features that we have been using with a lot of success. Um, so whenever this is a public channel, so one of those main channels, we don't normally have like back and forth conversations in there. They are normally designed for big updates on the particular topic. For example, we have a people comms channel where I will provide a specific update on a specific topic, like a new policy for example. And then within the business, we have all agreed that when we wanna talk about something that is published there, we use the thread underneath that post. So we don't kind of, um, flag on messages all in and around that post so that the original message gets lost. Instead, we all have agreed very early on that all of that stuff is gonna go in the thread.

Olya Yakzhina (08:09):

Um, obviously sometimes you will have a lot of these conversations happening and a lot of active threads. So there is a really helpful feature to pin the conversation that you are having in the channel. So the channel will have right there at the top, like all of your pinned, messages, and then people can go back to it and check it inside of our people. Comms again, for the, for, for an example, in those pinned conversations we have all of our values listed. We have a link to the employee handbook, we have a link to a finance expense process, for example, and kind of as more different subjects emerge that we want people to have reference to, we'll just going to pin them. So that's the second way. And the third way, which is a new feature that I found super helpful, is that you can now add kind of like bookmarks at the beginning of your channel and you can have bookmarks for your one-to-one direct message conversations as well. And that's been great because you can attach documents there, you can attach a link to a conversation you've been having there and it sort of works like when you have on Chrome, like loads of different bookmarks for the things that you wanna go back to, but you in the future, but you don't know, don't need them right now mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Um, so that's been really, really helpful.

Abigail Caldwell (09:32):

Awesome. And as this people series, this is the Slack best practices. Do you also pin like a, a document or a, a comment about Slack best practices or do a friendly reminder every once in a while?

Olya Yakzhina (09:45):

Um, we don't, but I think it's a great idea to do something like this. By the way, I think we have just been really lucky that people generally have been using Slack before they joined and they are quite comfortable with it. Actually it's a really great idea to have a list of best practices attached there. I'm gonna take that one away.

Abigail Caldwell (10:07):

You have that one. Um, so that kind of is a perfect segue into Slack engagement and some complimentary tools. So I'd love to hear how does Slack support your organization's company culture?

Olya Yakzhina (10:20):

Um, again, our company is remote, so we spend a lot of time trying to figure out ways of engaging people remotely. Slack is a great tool to do so because every time somebody opens their computer, their slack will be open as well. So it's kind of, it's a, it's a good way to try and build your culture and your engagement through that by again, having really good quality conversations, only notifying people, kind of like at here, at everyone, only when you wanna say something important to not overbear them with lots of information. Um, so that Slack really becomes a place where they go to learn what's happening rather than a platform that is just constantly bombarding them with, with noise as if they had like a Facebook app open and just constant notifications about that stuff. Yeah. Um, we have found as well that with, um, slack in particular, there is so many different ways of, um, monitoring kind of how that information gets distributed to people.

Olya Yakzhina (11:35):

So there is a bit of fun and you know, fun and laugh and then there is a little bit of that like, really important stuff please read. So we have been using, emojis a lot. We have been using gfi. So every time we talk about something fun, there is going to be a giffy attached and stuff like this. Every time we're talking about something important, the color of the emojis, or the color of the symbols that we use to kind of, um, sprinkle through the text of that update is going to be really specific to what we're talking about. Maybe red for something super important, maybe green for something encouraging and motivating because it is the color of our logo. Um, so yeah, just really trying to make sure that we, um, keep things standardized so that people know what material they're engaging with and then keeping them really to the point and direct so that people go there to learn about stuff that's happening rather than it chases them all the time about different things. Hmm.

Abigail Caldwell (12:42):

Got it. And last question from this, um, portion and the segment, what do you have to say about the growing challenge remote workers have when disconnecting from work? Because these apps are so easily accessible on their mobile phones and really anywhere and any time?

Olya Yakzhina (12:59):

Yeah, and I, so myself, I'm really passionate about mental health and wellbeing. Um, I do a lot of work, surrounding the wellbeing of our employees and different resources and different things that we provide to kind of encourage people to really self-reflect on where they are within the mental wellbeing journey for themselves and how they can get better. And starting from that, we try and find some really constructive ways of, managing Slack from here. So we, again, at the onboarding stage, we would teach people about the schedule button so that they don't send messages outside the company working hours. Um, we will also at our,  company offsite, we do like quarterly company get togethers where everybody comes face to face and we do a series of like company engagement presentations and around different subjects. The CEO will come at the very beginning and say things like, just as a reminder, we're all working flexibly and to make sure that we all don't suffer from it.

Olya Yakzhina (14:12):

These are the things we do. Have you heard about the scheduling thing? Have you considered that somebody else might be sleeping at this time? So really trying to not let that go basically and constantly have it at the top of your discussion list is our advice. Um, we also do, you know, something, um, with the engagement survey where we ask people like, how are, how are you finding the state of your wellbeing? And then we ask them why you are finding the state of your wellbeing this way? And when we received, you know, some of the, feedback around, I find it really hard to turn off from Slack. I find it really hard to not reply to messages and I get stressed if I don't. And I think about it all day until next morning when I can actually reply and I'm at work. And so we educate the heads of departments from the place where the feedback came from and kind of tell them, you know, this is what you should say at your next team huddle, <laugh>, this is what you should reiterate to make sure that people don't feel pressured. Um, and then just lead by example yourself, kind of, if all managers lead by example, hopefully people and direct reports not gonna feel pressured that their manager messaged them at 10:00 PM

Abigail Caldwell (15:35):

Yeah, I think leading by example is super powerful if you have a manager who is not, you know, following those best practices and their team is going to follow that as well and think that is the actual best practice. Um, I used to have a, a leader where if she saw me on while I was on vacation, she would literally slack me and say, I'm going to kick you off. I'm going to deactivate your access if you do not get off. Um, in a funny way, but it does kind of reiterate how important it is for the mental wellbeing of employees. So I absolutely love that. Um, and as we come into our closing sections, Lia, I would love to give you the opportunity to plug in any of your favorite Slack apps, anyone that you specifically use that you just think you wouldn't be able to not have inside of Slack for your team.

Olya Yakzhina (16:23):

Yeah. Um, so one of the things that we actually like quite lot in Slack is one of the channels that they, um, they have provided really. So the Slack bot channel that we use, um, we use the donut channel on Slack. So, that one is to promote remote coffee sessions between people. Um, I can't imagine it without this channel really, because that is like one of the reasons, one of the ways we help build relationships virtually just get people to talk about non-work related subjects mm-hmm. <affirmative> for hour. Um, and we do that on constant rotation. And another app that we have within Slack is spill. Um, so Spill is a mental health platform that provides you with access to online therapy sessions with qualified psychologists, um, as well as lots of other kind of health tips and advice and things. I also use this app to run mood surveys, um, through, you know, through the, through through people just see how they're doing with kind of emotions they're feeling at the time. So that's really helpful. And obviously we use a culture management, um, solution from Culture Bot as well. And we use that for all sorts of different things really, but mostly just that online engagement, um, shout outs, appreciation, that sort of stuff.

Abigail Caldwell (17:55):

That is so awesome. So a call to action, you know, for this session here is, I think what would be really fantastic is for everyone who you know is watching who doesn't already have a list of best practices put together. Definitely develop, you know, your top five best practices for your team and, and have your team kind of help even generate those. Because best practices really are based off of what the culture is of the organization and the culture is true to everybody's behaviors and values. So I definitely implore everybody, create those best practices, reach out to Lia and I and myself on LinkedIn if you want any tips. I think Lia you have like literally some of the best tips that I've heard, so like kudos to you and your team for being so disciplined and structured with it. I think that's absolutely fantastic. And thank you so much for your time at Olia. It's been tremendous.

Olya Yakzhina (18:46):

Thank you very much. It was lovely.

Abigail Caldwell (18:48):

Thank you.

About CultureBot:

CultureBot is an all-in-one app for Slack to help build connected and engaged remote teams. Use it to celebrate your team's special milestones like birthdays and work anniversaries, recognize each other for jobs well done, and more.


Oswald Reaves

A serial startup founder and entrepreneur, Oswald is a co-founder of the Slack-based employee experience and team engagement platform, CultureBot . Oswald is originally from North Carolina.