Slack is an organizational messaging/collaboration software tool that was released back in 2013. It really started to pick up steam in 2015, when it started becoming the defacto internal communication channel for a number of hip new startups. It built a devoted following and a reputation as both an 'email killer' (at least for internal emails) and a 'meeting killer'.
It became especially popular for teams with remote members, as Slack became a live hub for collaborating with these offsite co-workers. If you want a readable overview of why Slack has been so compelling to so many organizations, this article from Wired (Shut Down Your Office. You Now Work in Slack.) makes a good case for it.
We've gotten requests from a handful of folks across the organization to purchase Slack licenses, but the premium version is pretty pricey ($12.50/person/month). That's a steep pricetag, especially when you consider that Google Chat offers many of the same features and it's already included with Google Workspace.
Hence, this introductory guide to Google Chat.
Chat is a web-based, business-focused application for instant-messaging and collaborating with co-workers.
You can use Hangouts Chat to send messages to other users in the organization, just like with email. Also like email, your chat history is archived and searchable. You can start Chats with individual people, correspond and collaborate with groups of people in 'Spaces', or interact with pieces of software called 'bots'.
In addition to text messages, you can send files and images as attachments (just like email), link to any file stored in Google Drive, insert emoji (YES!), and also start videochat calls with Google Meet.
Important Legal Stuff
Chat is categorized as a Core Service, which means that Google doesn't show ads in the app and doesn't use Chat data to target ads at users. It also doesn't require parents give special permission for their children to use it. Like other Core Services, Google also guarantees that it will work 99.9% of the time. You can read more about Core Services and Additional Services in this Tech Tip.
All Chats are archived using the Google Vault service, just like Gmail and Drive documents. As with Gmail and Drive, the IT department has the ability to retrieve and review any Hangouts Chat conversation, even if a user tries to delete it. When would IT need to retrieve your Chat history? Again, just like with email, there are a few scenarios when this could happen:
- You ask us to retrieve one of your missing chats.
- HR asks us to retrieve one of your chats.
- TSS receives a subpoena or is otherwise legally compelled to turn over Hangouts Chat history.
What's the take-home message here? Treat Hangouts Chat the same way you treat email: as an official communication channel that is not private and that can be requisitioned under certain circumstances. If you do have a need for secure, off-the-record conversations, we recommend using Signal.
How to Get Started
You can interact with Hangouts Chat via a web app (chat.google.com), a Windows desktop application (there's also one for Mac), a progressive web app or a smartphone app (Android and iOS). If you download one of the apps, you'll need to log in with your TSS Google account credentials to use it:
The Hangouts Chat window is divided into four main sections. On the left, you'll find recent chats and Spaces.
The main pane shows your selected conversation:
The search box at the top of the window allows you to search your previous Chats:
Start a Conversation
To start a Chat with someone, click on the + icon iat the top of the left-hand sidebar. You can also use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + k.
You'll see several options, plus a search box:
To start a conversation with an individual person, you can start typing their email address:
If you want to look at existing chat rooms, click the 'Browse Spaces' link
You'll see a list of every space that you're currently able to join within the organization.
If you want to start a new space, you can use the 'Create Space' button. You can add individual users by email address (e.g. email@example.com) or groups of people (e.g. TSS-Felines@tetonscience.org) to a room.
Adding individuals automatically adds them to the room; adding groups gives the members of the group the option to join. Anyone can leave any room at any time; even if you're added to a room you didn't want to join, you'll be able to leave it.
Mark Yourself as Out-of-the-Office
As I'll mention again later, one of my problems with chat apps like Hangouts Chat is that their notifications can provide tons of interruptions throughout the day, making it hard to get real work done. Hangouts Chat does have a 'Snooze' button, which will allow you to turn off notifications for a set period of time. If you click on the button labeled "Active" near the upper left-hand corner of the screen, you can set your status as 'Do not disturb':
From here, you'll get a menu of options that will allow you to specify how long you want to be out of the office.
This status will be visible to others. They can still send you messages, but you won't receive notifications until your out of the office time expires.
'Find apps' is the last option, and probably the trickiest to get a handle on, especially if you've never used Slack or Microsoft Teams before. An App is a piece of software that you can chat with, either through direct messages or as part of a room discussion with other users. Some bots can deliver notifications to you. The @Drive bot, for instance, will let you know you about any documents that have been recently shared with you or recent comments that relate to you.
Other bots actually act like robot servants, carrying out commands. If you start a conversation with the @Meet bot or bring it into a conversation, you can order it to schedule meetings with co-workers. If you're curious about what a bot can do, every bot I've tested responds to the command 'help':
Hangouts Chat has a limited number of bots at this time, but more will probably be added in the future. Here are the ones that look useful, so far:
- @Meet- Schedule & cancel meetings, summarize your schedule. There's actually a whole news article, just about the promise of the @Meet bot.
- @Drive- Send you updates about sharing requests, comments, and recently-shared documents
- @Asana- Field Education, feel free to give this a try!
- @Gyphy- Inserts random gifs, based on your query.
- @Salesforce- Development/Registration, feel free to give this a try.
The Promise of Hangouts Chat
Now, at this point you might be wondering, "OK, so what's the big deal here? I can already do pretty much everything Meet offers using existing tools like Calendar and email." This has been my view of most workplace chat apps, going all the way back to my first job as a program coordinator (we're talking 2004-ish) when everyone in my office was trying to use AOL Instant Messenger to communicate. I'm now slowly coming around to embracing the advantages of collaboration tools like Hangouts Chat.
One of the major downsides of email is that a person who's new to a conversation or to the organization doesn't have access to any of the rich history that's lying in past email threads. "It's all locked away in my email!" This sentiment led to the creation of the TSS Admin Manual because we recognized that new employees don't have access to all these old email threads.
But with Hangouts Chat, a new employee can join a Chat and have instant access to browse or search that Chat's content, going back to the beginning of time. A new employee can't see the history of messages sent to the TSS Community Group, but if TSS Community was a Hangouts Chat room, they could. Even if the 'new' person has worked here for a long time, this feature is still useful. If you bring an existing employee to help with an already established project ("Hey Issac, can you help us out with these modifications to the ropes course?"), the newcomer has instant access to the entire conversation history surrounding this project. From the Wired article:
Slack can fulfill the promise of what was once called “the Intranet” to provide a behind-the-corporate-firewall repository of know-how and history. It can constrain some managers’ bad habit of withholding information to hoard power. And it can put email back in its original place, as a vehicle for messaging across organizational boundaries.
Longtime Slack evangelists also point out that effective use of collaboration software reduces the need for meetings. Rather than hold weekly status meetings, departments can set the expectation that everyone writes a weekly update on Monday in the department Chat room. Many meetings simply exist to delegate work to different people; when you combine Hangouts with a project management app (like GQueues or Asana), those discussions can also get moved to an asynchronous chat and don't necessarily need to happen in person.
Offices that have wholly embraced Slack have noticed another side benefit: they've gotten a whole lot quieter. Open offices get a lot less noisy when you can quickly send a Chat message to a co-worker, rather than making a trip to their desk or shouting over a partition.
...and the Pitfalls
So, we've actually done Slack trials at TSS before. The Field Education Program Team used it for about six weeks back in 2015...before abandoning it. Through trial and error, we stumbled across many of the problems that can plague workplace chat apps:
- Set Expectations with Your Team: Our biggest mistake, in retrospect, was not setting two key expectations in advance: what are we going to use Hangouts Chat for, and how responsive should we be when using it? These turned out to be non-trivial matters. Since we didn't set a firm expectation around how often we'd be logged into the app, you could message someone and not be sure when (or if) they'd respond. With email, we at least have some workplace culture built up around how long you can expect to wait for a response. As it turns out, when you don't know when (or if) someone is going to answer to a question in Google Chat, you very quickly stop trusting it for anything important. I recall that by the end of our trial, a co-worker and I were mostly using it to exchange videos of bears running amok.
- Get your Notifications Under Control: This was my biggest beef with Slack: it was a remorseless interruption machine. I was constantly getting notified and harassed about trivial conversations, which was interrupting my workflow. I'm a big proponent of scheduling long, uninterrupted blocks of time for doing Deep Work; Slack's constant notifications made it really hard to get substantive work done. If you're getting annoyed by Google Chat notifications, experiment with your settings so you're only getting notified about the important stuff. Also, don't forget that it's OK to close your Google Chat tab or mark yourself as 'do not disturb' during times when you want to avoid interruptions.
- Channels on top of Channels: My other beef with workplace chat apps is that they're yet one more channel in which to communicate with people. I don't know about you, but it's a constant struggle for me to remember each of my friends' preferred communication channel. For some people, if I want to make dinner plans, it's Facebook Messenger or nothing. For others, they won't get back to me unless I call them on the phone. Still others never pick up their phones, relying soley on SMS messages. Or WhatsApp. Or Email. I communicate with my sister-in-law exclusively through Instagram direct messages. The point is, Google Chat, while potentially useful, is still one more messaging system to keep track of.