As Shopify’s employees began their first day on the job of 2023, they discovered some significant changes had been made to the way they work with each other. Among the remote-first company’s shifts was the deletion of its large Slack channels, with a directive to use the popular app only to direct message colleagues.
The surprise move highlights a problem associated with the rapid adoption of Slack for workplace communications – how are those conversations documented, and what happens if they suddenly disappear?
Shopify leadership pointed to Slack communications as bloated and unnecessary, but its growing ubiquity in workplaces – the company says its used by more than 100,000 organizations, including 77 of the Forbes 100 – can come with even more serious complications. For example, an alleged lack of corporate controls at FTX stood out in a court filing, where the beleaguered crypto exchange’s new leader said prior leadership often approved payments and expenses via emoji in Slack, and encouraged the use of auto-delete on messaging platforms.
As Slack becomes an increasingly common part of enterprise communications, in remote and in-person workplaces alike, even well-intending organizations can find themselves behind the curve on documentation policies and procedures for the conversations happening on the platform.
“We do expect to see more high-profile cases involving Slack and other team collaboration apps,” said Peter Callaghan, CRO of PageFreezer, an enterprise archiving platform. “So many decisions are made over Slack—and many organizations fail to consider the record-keeping implications, which inevitably will result in legal and compliance issues.”
Entrepreneur and consultant Yolanda Lau uses Slack in her work, and described her relationship with the app as “love-hate.”
“Tech companies, in general, have become dependent on Slack – and not in a good way,” said Lau, founder at consulting company FlexTeam and CXO at consultant-management platform Liquid. The app can provide an illusion of productivity, she said, but when its use happens without good policies and practices for documenting conversations on the app, Slack can actually create more work.
Modern communication tools present a variety of challenges, Callaghan said. Documentation solutions must be able to handle the volume and speed of data generation, be designed to document data in a variety of different formats, and include tools for data authentication or verification. Beyond the solutions themselves, organizations need to understand which tools are being used for business communications and put clear and comprehensive policies into place on record keeping and retention for those tools, he said.
One documentation policy to rule them all
The best way to overcome Slack’s potential documentation pitfalls is to build a documentation-first workplace culture, Lau said – ideally, from the start of your company’s operations.
“Culture change is hard, whether we're talking about documentation and or any kind of culture change,” she said. “And so, if you don't start things off on the right foot, it can be a lot harder to change a culture that has already been instilled.” It’s also much easier to begin with documenting everything, then roll it back if it’s unnecessary, than it is to move in the other direction, she said.
Many of the general best practices for workplace documentation can also be applied to your company’s use of Slack, whether that’s in the office or in virtual workspaces, said Jeremy Yamaguchi, CEO of Lawn Love, which connects people with lawn-care services across the U.S. Track key information like the time and date, the participants involved, and the content of the communications, and ensure your documentation is accurate, objective, and confidential as necessary.
Callaghan advised thinking about Slack documentation the way you would email, which now feels well entrenched in enterprise operations but was a new concern only a couple of decades ago.
“Although it is hard to imagine today, there was a time when organizations were not entirely sure how emails should be stored and managed to meet compliance needs,” he said. Over time, the combination of evolving technology and new rules and guidance from regulators and courts helped companies understand their documentation responsibilities and develop and implement retention systems and processes in response.
“Today, just about every company understands that employee emails have to be retained for a set period (usually somewhere between three and seven years), and subsequently
have some sort of email vault or other archiving solution in place,” Callaghan said. The reasons for those documentation requirements fall into a few broad categories – regulatory compliance, litigation and eDiscovery, and data security and knowledge management – that can be used as guidelines when developing policies for Slack documentation.
“Simply put, if a recordkeeping rule applies to email, it also applies to an enterprise collaboration tool like Slack,” Callaghan advised.
Building a documentation-first culture from scratch
But if it’s too late to start things off with a documentation-first culture, you can still change course. Lau advised thinking about your existing company culture and the people who work there, and building from that. For example, if your organization uses Google Drive or Notion for other business operations, those applications may make sense for documentation too.
Whatever your workplace’s practices on documentation, for Slack and other modes of electronic communication, it is vital staff is made aware of the related policies, Yamaguchi said. This is important both for ensuring the policies are followed and for protecting your staff’s privacy, he said.
“As an HR professional, it is important to be transparent about the organization's policies on electronic communication and to make sure that employees understand their rights and responsibilities in this regard.”
And to make it successful, lead by example by ensuring the culture change around documentation happens from the top down. “If you've got executives or other high-level folks who are telling people that they need to document everything, but they're not documenting anything, it's really difficult to implement that kind of change,” Lau said.
Make Slack work for you
Though Callaghan suggested applying the principles of documentation for email to Slack communications, he acknowledged the practical processes of the two are different.
“The fact of the matter is, team collaboration tools like Slack are upending traditional approaches to recordkeeping, which is why it is giving records managers, compliance professionals, and legal teams so much trouble,” he said. In contrast to the discrete records companies are accustomed to dealing with, Slack recordkeeping is complicated by its real-time nature, multiple file types, and integrations with other apps.
Also, Slack’s data is unstructured – meaning it exists outside a relational database. “When you combine this unstructured nature with the always-on real-time activity of the platform, knowing what information is hiding inside Slack can be difficult,” Callaghan said.
Organizations can help legal and compliance teams overcome this issue by providing them with easy access to Slack and allowing them to search content, see edited or deleted content, and export content. And services like PageFreezer can automate the documentation process for Slack and other applications, which simplifies organizational adherence to regulations and policies around compliance, litigation, loss prevention, and other risk areas, he said.
In her consulting work, Lau advises companies not to use Slack’s premium version, which comes with access to a full message history because without that history to rely on, companies are forced to design and implement a documentation strategy outside of the platform.
“If you become reliant on the search, you end up not documenting anything,” Lau said, “and then you become even more dependent on Slack.”