There’s plenty to love about Slack. This top business messaging app lets people punt on internal email. You can message with colleagues and partners concisely, whether you’re chatting in real time or asynchronously. Slack is more spirited than many other forms of business communication, too. New changes to the interface now make it more intuitive for new users. For good reason, it is a PCMag Editors’ Choice for team messaging.
Sometimes, though, the praise that comes from the mouths of typical Slack fans reminds me of the adoration you hear from iPhone owners who have never touched an Android device. They can pinpoint how it has changed their lives for the better, but at the same time they don’t know what they’re missing from the competition. You have to make a lot of customizations to keep Slack tidy. It’s also not ideal for teams that work asynchronously most of the time. Slack also costs more than other alternatives.
In an absolute sense, it’s hard to dispute that Slack makes communication not only easier, but better. The trick is knowing when to use it, how to use it, and what to expect from it. Slack is one of the best team messaging apps, and perhaps the most beloved by its users, because it offers more than any other team messaging app. As long as “more” is what you want, it’s a top choice.
What’s New in Slack?
Slack has just announced it is rolling out a new version of the app to update the interface with major changes. These changes make it easier for people who are new to Slack to start using the app.
A new compose button, for example, lets you start writing a message in a large editor, so you have time to revise and re-read it before choosing where to post it. In the older version, you had to choose a channel or direct message before you could write anything.
Another change is to make certain apps and commands more accessible through icons and menu options rather than slash-commands. Previously, for example, if you wanted to run a poll using a polling app such as Polly, you would need to know to type “/polly” to activate it. Now, you see a lightning bolt icon; when you press it, a list of shortcuts appears so you can choose what you need rather than having to type it as a command.
My favorite change, and this one is only available to paying customers, is that you can create groups of channels and direct messages called sections. Previously, the best way to organize your sidebar was add a star to any channels and message threads you used most frequently. Now you can organize all your channels and messages into groups. Each section can have a name and an emoji. They’re also collapsible.
If you don’t see these and other interface changes right away, rest assured they’re coming. The release will roll out in phases, according to a company representative, with new teams receiving priority (presumably because they don’t know how to use Slack yet, and the changes are designed to make it easier for them).
Slack Plans and Pricing
Slack has a free option, as well as two tiers of paid plans: Standard and Plus. Slack Standard costs $8 per person per month, or a few cents more than $80 per person when paying annually. Slack Plus costs $15 per user per month or $150 per person per year. Both of those prices are much higher than what other team messaging apps cost. With the paid plans, you only get charged for active members, and if members become inactive midway through the month, Slack credits your account a prorated amount.
So, what do you get from each of these plans? The Free plan lets you have as many members in your account as you need, but there are limitations, such as only having audio and video calls between two people, not groups. Free accounts are also restricted to 5GB of file storage for uploads across the entire team. Additionally, only the most recent 10,000 messages are available to search. That’s a small number if your group hits enter at the end of every phrase or posts a lot of images, gifs, and other non-searchable content. Free accounts are limited to integrating with up to ten third-party apps. More about integrations in a bit.
The Standard account removes many of the restrictions in the Free account. Here you can search everything in your message history, plus you get unlimited integrations. The file storage increases to 10GB per person, and you can have group calls with up to 15 people. Guests may join your account, which is helpful if your team works frequently with external clients or collaborators. Administrators can require two-factor authentication for all users. The Slack Standard account comes with a few more perks, including advanced usage statistics and priority support.
Slack Plus includes everything in Standard, but storage increases to 20GB per person. You get 24/7 support with a four-hour response time. Plus also comes with the ability to provision and deprovision users.
Slack has an Enterprise option called Slack Enterprise Grid. You must contact the company for a price quote. Grid essentially allows very large organizations to have multiple Slack workspaces that are all housed under one umbrella. The company can also ensure HIPAA compliance if needed.
Slack’s prices are high. Most other apps run around $3 per person per month. A few examples are Flock and Zoho Cliq. Zoho Cliq charges on a sliding scale based on the number of users, so while it starts at $3 per person per month, the fee drops to $1 per person per month once you reach a certain number of users. Glip by RingCentral costs $5 per person per month, and it’s worth noting that Glip really shines with features and functionality. Twist, an app by Doist, also charges $5 per person per month. Microsoft Teams costs the same, but you get additional Microsoft apps for that amount.
Getting Started With Slack
Using Slack or any team messaging app for the first time requires an adjustment period. For a team to successfully adopt Slack, there needs to be a company culture that supports it. Teams need time to figure out the rules of engagement. What channels will you create and what kind of content is appropriate to share? Which channels are compulsory to join and which ones are optional? While there are many tips for Slack, there’s no single right way to use it.
If you’re unfamiliar with Slack parlance, a brief description of the app should help. Let’s say everyone in an organization joins the company’s Slack account. The first time a person enters the app, they’ll see a list of channels on the left. The channels are like chat rooms that they can join. Some channels are open for anyone to join and some are by invitation only. Each channel has a name that usually describes the topic of the chat room. There might be a channel for each department plus a few for socializing based on people’s interests.
When you enter a channel, you can see everything people have posted there in one long, ever-scrolling feed. Sometimes, people will reply to a specific post in a thread, which means the reply doesn’t show up in the feed. To see the thread, you open it in a new pane. You can post something new, reply to an existing post, add a reacji (an emoji that’s used to show your reaction) to someone’s post or comment, use an @ sign before someone’s name to get their attention, read to your heart’s content, or search the channel for a specific mention of a word or phrase. That’s the gist of it.
Part of getting started is exploring the apps (mobile, desktop, and web), including all the settings and configuration contained within them. Slack has a ton of configuration options, letting you adjust everything from the color themes and notification tones to whether you see web previews of links that people share.
Additionally, the team using Slack needs to figure out rules for itself, such as how quickly they expect people to reply, whether you can assign someone a task in Slack, when to use reacji versus a typed response, the appropriate use of a thread versus putting comments right in the feed, and so forth. If you’re joining an existing Slack team, there may already be informal rules and etiquette in place, in which case, take the time to observe and learn what they are.
Slack gets many details right. You can type using markdown, edit a message after you’ve posted it, and see decently sized previews of pages when you add links. Because it’s not uncommon to join more than one Slack account, you can switch between different accounts using the left sidebar. You can also customize each account to have a different look, which helps tremendously in keeping your groups straight.
When I first started using Slack, the app felt disorganized, cluttered in a way that made me worry I’d lose track of what was happening or miss important information. (I’ve used it in two different professional settings and among friends.) It also seemed very chaotic. Some people never get past those feelings, but it is possible to surmount them if you lean on the app’s settings to customize it. It also gets easier the more your group figures out the best way to use Slack for its needs.
Customizing alerts helped me tremendously and made Slack more useful. No matter how many channels I join, I typically mute alerts on all but the most important ones. (Doing so may not be the right move for you, but if you feel overwhelmed by the app, give it a try.) Slack thankfully lets you enable and disable notifications to a fine degree. A Do Not Disturb option, for example, lets you silence all notifications during certain hours of the day, like when you’re asleep. You can set DND to recur or use immediately for a one-time-only session. Additionally, you can have different settings for your desktop notifications versus your mobile ones. All these customizing go a long way toward making your unique experience with Slack better. Configuration is half the battle.
Another wonderful way to customize Slack is by adding keywords for notification. Any time someone uses your keywords, you see a badge count next to the channel in which they appeared. It’s one of Slack’s best features by far.
Apps and Beta Apps
Slack is available for a variety of devices and platforms: Mac, Windows, Linux, Android, and iOS. It’s a real-time, cloud-based tool, so you need an internet connection to use it no matter which app you have.
To be more precise, there are two versions of the desktop apps for Mac and Windows. First, there’s a standard one that’s little more than the web app in a wrapper. Second, there are beta versions of the desktop apps. These beta apps are freely available for anyone to download and use. The differences between the beta versions and the normal desktop apps are usually subtle. You won’t miss out on any major features by not using the beta apps, at least not in my experience.
Video calls are only supported in the desktop apps and the web app running in Chrome. If you join a call from a mobile device, you get audio only. Similarly, screen sharing only works from the desktop apps, and sharing control of screen sharing only works in the Mac and Windows apps (not Linux). From the web app in Chrome, you can watch if someone else uses screen sharing, but you cannot initiate it.
I often work from a different time zone than my colleagues, and when I do, the Slack mobile apps really show their worth. If something important requires my attention at a time when I’m unlikely to be at my workstation, I get a notification on my phone. Because of the nature of Slack as a messaging app, rather than an email app, the message is usually very short. As a result, I can quickly decide whether to reply and how without feeling like I need to open my laptop for an unexpected half hour of catching up on email. The fact that Slack encourages brief communication is important to understanding why team messaging apps in general have been so successful.
Slack channels house the majority of conversations in the app. Channels can be public for anyone to join or private (invite-only). In addition to channels, you can have private direct messages with an individual or a group.
When you start a new Slack account, you get two channels by default: #general and #random. Channels are always designated by hashtags. While #general and #random are fine starting points, they aren’t representative of how most teams could or should use Slack in a real business setting. Better names are the titles of projects, clients, or departments. People usually create channels for socializing, too, so that banter and off-topic chatter doesn’t get mixed in too much with work conversations. If you have sports fans, book club members, or pet lovers among your teammates, Slack can be a place for them to come together.
With administrator permission, you can rename channels at any time—except, annoyingly, #general and #random. You cannot rename them. You can also archive channels to move all their content out of sight.
Naming channels clearly and appropriately is extremely important for helping your teammates understand where to go and why. That’s why I wish the default channels had better names. A typical problem Slack accounts face is that people create too many channels, and team members are lost navigating them appropriately. It’s important to think about what should exist and why. It also helps to have rules regarding who can create new channels because by default, everyone can.
The sidebar of channels, private conversations, and direct messages on the left is more useful than it first appears. Any time there are new, unread messages, the channel name appears in bold. The same goes for when your name is mentioned or when you receive a related direct message. A number appears alongside it to indicate how many mentions or messages you have.
Video Calls and Additional Features
The more you use Slack, the more features you uncover. A series of boxes on the right lets you quickly see highlights from the channel (e.g., popular posts), pinned posts (meaning someone is signifying they have some kind of lasting importance), files that have been uploaded to the channel, and other useful information you may have missed.
Video calls, audio calls, and screensharing are included in Slack, but are notorious for being less stable than practically any other video conferencing software on the market. When calling someone, there can be long delays between initiating the call, a ring or notification on the receiving end, and finally connecting. The update to the desktop app that I mentioned earlier might eliminate or minimize this problem, but longer-term testing will be required to confirm this. Call quality could be better, as hiccups and stalled video interrupt the flow. Hopefully the team at Slack can tackle those problems in a future update. Being able to make calls in Slack is handy in a pinch, but I prefer to use a more stable video conferencing app, such as Zoom, when I need to speak with someone.
Slack’s Best Features
I mentioned threads earlier but want to dive into them a little more here to point out how they’re useful and where they could be better. Let’s say Julia asks a question in a thread, and her question goes unanswered for the time being. Later the same day, other people put unrelated comments in that same channel.
A few hours later, Serena, who works in a different time zone, wakes up and sees Julia’s question, as Slack has highlighted all the unread comments that she missed while she was asleep. Given all the activity in the main feed, it’s now awkward for Serena to reply to Julia directly in the channel because there are so many other comments now that will separate the question from the answer. Here’s where a thread is useful.
If Serena answers by creating a thread, then she can reply directly to Julia without making it seem as if everyone in the channel needs to read the reply. The thread appears to the side of the first comment, rather than at the bottom of the channel stream. One problem with the design of threads in Slack is that they still can get buried from view easily. Perhaps another team member, Dave, wanted to know the answer to Julia’s question, too. (The answer is that Dave can add a comment to the thread or opt into following it to receive notifications about new posts on that thread, but not everyone knows to do that.)
The app Twist has a completely different layout than Slack in which every conversation is in its own thread. It’s much more organized and orderly for people who work asynchronously. The downside is it looks an awful lot like email and ends up having some of the same problems as email.
A few other features that came to Slack in 2019 make the app friendlier for disparate teams. When Slack notices that you’re about to send a message to someone who is in a different time zone than you, and that person is off hours, Slack shows their local time right below the message compose field. With that knowledge in hand, you are better equipped to make a judgment call about whether to message them now or wait.
Another new feature is dark mode for desktop apps. Dark mode inverts colors so that text is light and the background is dark. It’s easier on the eyes in certain lighting conditions and helps people with impairments and disorders. The Slack mobile apps have had a dark mode for some time, and it’s independent of dark mode on desktop. If you set your iOS app to dark mode, you won’t automatically see dark mode on Mac, Windows, or Linux.
The most important way to customize Slack is to be selective about the channels you join, as you don’t have to subscribe to every single one. If you don’t work on Project X, there’s little reason for you to follow it. However, if you are unaffiliated with Project X, but highly involved in keeping Client Y happy, you might set up an alert so that you’re notified anytime someone mentions Client Y, including in the #project-x channel. That way you can ignore the general chatter while still knowing when to pop in and catch up on the conversation.
As mentioned, you can further customize the sidebar now by grouping discussions into sections. Free Slack users don’t get this feature. If you’re a paying member and haven’t seen it yet, you may not have received the latest update to the app, which is rolling out in phases.
Click around and many more options and menus appear. Every corner seems to have something. The top-left corner lets you invite more members to your Slack team, adjust the team settings and administrator settings, switch teams, and more. Buttons in the top right help you filter discussions by messages you’ve marked with a star, recent mentions, files you’ve added to conversations, and all files, as well as reaching a team director and opening an activity feed.
Notifications are what eventually won me over to Slack’s true utility. When the app first became popular, it was touted as a more efficient alternative to email, which isn’t necessarily true. Slack isn’t immune to frivolous conversations. But if you make use of the right options and settings, it can be a much better tool for communication.
Slack lets you tell others when you’re in a meeting, out sick, on vacation, or whatever else you need to convey, with a status. This feature has gotten much better in the last year, now that Slack lets you set a date and time for when the status should clear. If you’ll be out of office on holiday until next Tuesday, you can choose an icon that represents that status, type a custom message, and set a time on Tuesday when the status should clear. Slack may have taken a note from Twist with this feature, as Twist has had a similar tool for some time now.
Slack is not a one-stop workforce collaboration tool. Rather, it’s meant to be cobbled together with other tools to form a Voltron of software, if you will. Integrations with other apps and services let you do that, and Slack’s support is very strong.
One example is to integrate with email. Let’s say you want to send an email into Slack so that others in a particular channel can read it. Slack lets you generate a custom email address for that purpose. Or, you can set up an integration such that things you type into Slack get sent to another app, such as Trello, JIRA, or GitHub, to name a few options.
Slack works with a long list of tools, including Google Calendar, Zendesk, Salesforce, Wunderlist, and dozens of others. If you’re looking for an integration that isn’t immediately obvious, you can always turn to Zapier for help, because Slack is a supported service. Zapier is an online service that creates integrations between other apps and services, without you having to know any code to make it happen.
That said, if you’re in the market for collaboration tools, you don’t have to go the Voltron route at all. Some workplace management platforms already offer chat, video calling, task management, and everything else you could want in one place. Editors’ Choice Podio is a great example. Podio is a hub where work and collaboration both happen, and it has its own app store so that you can include everything you need natively, whether it’s invoicing tools or an app for meeting agendas. Podio and other workplace-collaboration platforms usually have calendars, to-do lists, reminders, and many other work tools already included.
A Crowd Favorite
Slack is a PCMag Editors’ Choice for online communication because of its breadth and depth. It’s a highly customizable productivity app that plays well with others. Readers agree that it’s a great service, too, giving it a Business Choice award in 2019.
Be warned, however, that Slack’s price tag is significantly higher than that of its competitors. Also make sure that you understand what Slack does and doesn’t promise to deliver before adopting it for your team. It’s an excellent place for conversations and discussion, but if you’re looking to manage tasks and workflows, you need more than Slack alone.
If you’ve decided on Slack (or if you need some examples of how it can be used before you decide), you should read our story detailing 50 Slack hacks that can help you say goodbye to email.
The Bottom Line
Slack is an excellent and powerful team messaging app with a rich collection of settings and options. It’s among the best, but it’s also the most expensive.