CIO, Opinion

Putting Things in Context: Why We’re Ditching Slack for Microsoft Teams

I don’t often write about the inner workings of ActualTech Media. It’s not because I don’t want to, but is due primarily to having a whole lot to stay on top of. But we’re doing something that many may think crazy, so I thought I’d tell the world!

We’ve ditched Slack and adopted Microsoft Teams in its place.

“WHAT?!?,” you may ask. You may wonder why we’d stop (well, almost… I’ll explain later) using a tool that is the darling of many a company in favor of a relative upstart product. Let me start by providing a look at the state of our tools in use. Over the years, we’ve managed to amass quite the array of tools to help us manage specific functions. We use Office 365 for email and the Office suite, Dropbox for shared files, and Smartsheet for sharing other information. In addition, we have a project management tool and a few other things.

The Sprawl Factor

It may not sound bad, but for certain projects, we manage to send ourselves on a dizzying adventure that spans tools and creates frustration and inefficiencies that often make me a bit insane. Tool sprawl is real, my friends… tool sprawl is real.

As a former CIO, it’s almost embarrassing to admit that our small company has this kind of inefficiency going on, but it’s a symptom of growing. The tools and processes that used to work got to a point where they simply don’t, at least in their current configuration. And that’s where we find ourselves today.

At the heart of our communications network was Slack. We moved to Slack from Skype a number of years ago, and it was pretty transformational. However, information organization is not its strong point. Channels are great, as long as information doesn’t scroll off the screen, but Slack’s search capability is abysmal. File management in Slack hasn’t been much better. As people send files around for review via Slack (which, I admit may not be an ideal method of sharing, but it became the default), they scroll away, never to be found again (OK, they are found, but sometimes only through sheer force of will).

And don’t get me started on threaded conversations in Slack.

Context is Critical

What the sprawl of tools has done is remove context from our daily work. We jump around between tools, building our own ephemeral context as we go because the way we’re using our current tools fails to provide a contiguous experience. Once that single journey is over, it’s time to move on to building the next contextual experience to get another task done. And on it goes.

Context is the primary area in which Teams beats Slack, without question. Yes, Teams provides similar messaging capability as Slack. But where it goes far beyond Slack is the interface and integration with the rest of Microsoft’s Office 365 suite and with third-party tools.

On the interface front, each Teams channel includes the ability to add tabs that sit alongside the ongoing conversation. Inside these tabs, you can add files either directly or link to Dropbox or other folder. You can create a tab that houses an Excel sheet or Word document. You can collaborate within Teams on these documents thanks to Word and Excel Online. In another tab, you can add simple task management via Microsoft Planner. And, if the Office 365 tools aren’t sufficient, you can create tabs that integrate with third-party tools such as Trello and Asana. In fact, we’ve actually migrated from our old project management tool to Asana due to Asana’s ability to integrate directly into Teams.

Frankly, the specific tools aren’t that important. What is important is the ability to pull together everything to do with a project or team into the same console and in the same channel. In this, context is maintained. There’s no more jumping around from tool to tool, which is generally accompanied by the loss of brain power as we try to pick up where we left off.

In fact, context is the key reason that we’ve made the jump. Everything is in one place, even if it isn’t. What I mean is that, regardless of the actual location of pieces of information, they’re all presented in the same context; and, more importantly, they’re able to be manipulated within this context without having to go somewhere else. It takes collaboration to another level and helps to keep everyone on the same page.

It’s Not All Roses

Of course, Teams isn’t Slack, and it isn’t perfect. The conversation view in Teams reminds me more of a text messaging conversation than anything else. It makes poor use of available screen real estate. Microsoft claims that they’re working on a condensed conversation view, but there’s no current ETA.

For notifications, Teams is weaker than Slack – or maybe it’s not. This is an area that “feels” weaker, but it’s also one that seems like it’ll be easy to adjust to if it really is. I can say that I wish there was a bit more audio in a Teams notification for channel updates, but, again, it’s something easy to work around. And, in fact, it might end up being a positive when I really think about it. Slack notifications can sometimes get in the way of work getting done, but Teams notifications may result in missing some messages. I just don’t know yet on this point. I do know that Slack has an edge on Teams when it comes to the breadth of notification options, though.

In terms of integrations, Teams handily beats Slack with the depth of integrations and in maintaining the context of those integrations. Where Teams falls short of Slack is with the quantity of integrations that are available. There are not nearly as many integrations available for Teams as there are for Slack.

Worse, Teams isn’t yet supported by Zapier—a popular integration tool—although it seems to be coming; but for now, creating custom integrations can be pretty tough. We’ve managed to work around this, though, for what we want to accomplish. For example, there is one tool that we use that we’d previously integrated with Slack directly. That tool doesn’t offer Teams integration, so we worked around it. Now we make use of the fact that each channel inside Teams has its own unique email address. We simply email the channel via a Zapier integration and get the same result – in fact, we’re getting even more information, since we’re able to decide which fields we want to bring over from that other system. And, as mentioned before, we switched to Asana from our old project management tool since Asana has native Teams integration. To be fair, we were already on the hunt for a new PM tool anyway; Teams just helped push us into Asana’s open arms.

One other area where Teams falls short is in multi-team environments. I’m a member of a number of Slack teams, and I just click a button to move between them. In Teams, if I want to participate in another organization’s Teams structure, I need to log out and back in again. It’s something Microsoft says they’re working on, but again, there is no ETA. That said, I don’t currently have a need to participate in multiple teams, so it’s not impactful, but it would be for some.

The Verdict

For us right now, Teams appears to be the right solution, given the full breadth of our needs and to improve efficiency and keep everyone on the same page. We’re not fully ditching Slack, though. We do have shared channels with clients that we want to keep open. And we all participate in other Slack teams.

It’s not ideal to run two tools for communication, but by focusing Teams on the internal and Slack on the external, we can delineate what to use when. Of course, in a month, we could throw in the towel and decide that this was a failed experiment. But I don’t believe that will happen. Every day, we find something new about Teams that we like, and as we get over the hurdle of a transition to a new tool, we’ll eventually find our way to navigating this tool just like we did Slack, except with an extra helping of context to make our lives a bit easier.