It's possible that you've never heard of Slack before. If that's the case, here's a quick primer:
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). Also, last year Google announced that they were working on a similar collaboration tool; I actually wrote about it in my Tech Tip on Hangouts Meet. We thought it would be prudent to wait for Google's 'Slack-killer' to be released, then assess if it would provide the same functionality.
Eight months later, that day has finally arrived. Last week, Hangouts Chat was released out of beta testing and it is now available. In this week's Tech Tip, I'm going to provide an overview of what Hangouts Chat is, how to use it, and then offer some thoughts at the end.
Hangouts Chat is a web-based, business-focused application for instant-messaging and collaborating with co-workers. While it confusingly shares a name with other Google products (Hangouts, Hangouts Meet, GChat), Hangouts Chat is a completely separate application.
If you're confused by all the different communication products Google offers, by the way, I'd say you're well within your rights. Here's a crib sheet of Google's current 'chat' services:
- Allo- a consumer-focused instant-messaging application (like What'sApp or Signal)
- Duo- a consumer-focused video conference application (like FaceTime)
- Hangouts Chat- a business-oriented chat application (like Slack)
- Hangouts Meet- a business-oriented video conference application (like GoToMeeting)
- Hangouts- a deprecated platform for both video and text communication. Google has announced plants to retire Hangouts in favor of the four products listed above.
You can use Hangouts Chat to send text messages to other users in the organization, just like with email. Also like email, your chat history is archived and searchable. You can start Hangouts Chats with individual people, correspond and collaborate with groups of people in 'Rooms', 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 Hangouts Meet.
Important Legal Stuff
Hangouts Chat is categorized as a Core Service, which means that Google doesn't show ads in the app and doesn't use Hangouts 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 Hangouts 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 Hangouts 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), 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 see a sidebar showing your most recent chats and any starred chats, along with a + icon you can use to start a new conversation. At the top of the screen, you get a sparse toolbar. The most useful features are the magnifying glass (search) and the gear icon (settings). The bulk of the window is occupied by your currently selected chat, where you'll see messages and files that you and other contributors have added. At the very bottom, you have your 'compose box', where you can add messages, files, Drive Files, videochat request (via Hangouts Meet), and the all-important Emoji selector:
Start a Conversation
To start a Chat with someone, click on the + icon in the upper-left hand corner. You can also use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + k.
You'll see four options, plus a search box:
To start a conversation with an individual person, you can start typing their email address or click on the 'Group Message' link, search for their address, then click the 'Start DM' [Direct Message] button:
If you want to look at existing chat rooms, click the 'Browse Rooms' link
You'll see a list of every chat room that you're currently able to join within the organization. We've already created a 'One TSS' chat room that any employee, intern, or grad can feel free to join. If you want to start a new room, you can use the 'Create Room' 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.
Snooze a Conversation
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 turn notifications off when you need to focus on something else for a period of time.
'Message a Bot' is the last option, and probably the trickiest to get a handle on, especially if you've never used Slack or Microsoft Teams before. A Bot 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.
We're in the process of writing our own TSS bot. It's still under construction, but we'll let you know when/if it's ready for general use.
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. Like, for instance, the flexibility for bringing new people into the organization, or into a project.
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 Hangouts 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 on Hangouts 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 Hangouts 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 Hangouts Chat tab 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 Signal. Or Email. I communicate with my sister-in-law exclusively through Instagram direct messages. The point is, Hangouts Chat, while potentially useful, is still one more messaging system to keep track of.
Will Hangouts Chat replace all email and meetings within the organization? Only time will tell, but I do think there's a real chance that it might take on some of the burden that email has had to shoulder for so long. We won't really know until we try it, however, so that's the next step moving forward. If you thing Hangouts Chat could improve communications on your team/committee/#squad, I'd suggest having a discussion at your next (maybe last?!?) meeting and set some expectations around how you want to trial it.
I realize that I glossed over many details about how Hangouts Chat works, but this Tech Tip is plenty long enough already. If you want to really train up on what this new app has to offer, I recommend using the G Suite Training extension (here's a tutorial) to walk through the different Hangouts Chat features.