Pivoting to Virtual Teamwork using Slack

by Zack Osborne, Manager of Health Information & Knowledge Mobilization

For many non-clinical staff and teams at Unity Health, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted us to change the way we work (most often working virtually – from home), and to adopt new approaches for communication and collaboration among our teams (whom we’re accustomed to seeing and working with in-person each day). In mid-March with little advanced notice, the Library nimbly pivoted its core activities to online and remote environments. The foundation and key to success for all our library services is good communication, and accordingly, the new remote work directives unquestionably challenged the existing “flow” and pattern for quick, effective team communication on our team.

A piece in the Toronto Star addressed the realities, hardships, and some humour about working from home, and highlighted feelings of isolation and loneliness often accompanied with virtual/remote work. Changes to our work norms can be difficult, and an early solution trialed by the Unity Health Library Services team was the introduction and experimentation of Slack. The team quickly found Slack to be a helpful tool for enabling conversation, fostering morale, and mitigating the loneliness or isolation accompanying remote work.

Slack: What is it?

  • Free, web-based platform for communication and collaboration
  • Designed for small project groups or teams
  • Used for direct or group messaging, file sharing, and collaboration

How it works:

  1. Create a Workspace: https://slack.com/intl/en-ca/get-started#/
  2. Invite members to the Workspace by email
  3. Access the Workspace on your mobile device (through the Slack app), using any web browser, and/or using the Desktop app (I use a combination of all three)
  4. Create channels for different conversations, projects, team members

screenshot of the Library team's Slack workspace channels

For our purposes, we created channels relating to broad categories of our work, pre-existing committee structures, and channels which reflect the roles and responsibilities of the team’s staff. These channels allow for team members to filter work conversations (rather than one main “chat room” for all conversation topics), and each channel can be configured to include only those who need access.

In addition to using traditional email for business-as-usual communications supporting Library services and operations, we piloted Slack for remote collaboration, conversation, and to combat those feelings of decreased productivity often experienced with remote work. It’s also a simple tool for checking-in each morning, expressing how we’re feeling, and retaining the important social aspects of work which we’re all missing.

screenshot from Moneyball (2011) with caption "You don't put a team together with a computer."

While technology alone can’t solve our problems, Slack’s intuitive interface and adaptive functionality allows for a somewhat organic platform to foster office conversation, teamwork, and connecting with one another. Slack also delivers an informative guide with tips and tricks for transitioning to remote work: https://slackhq.com/remote-work-tips.

It’s important to note that due to the nature of our department’s work, which has no interaction or connection with sensitive patient information or health records (requiring additional privacy considerations), we pursued piloting Slack purely for our internal communications and teamwork. Any clinical teams who work with patient health information should not adopt Slack without consulting IT Security first. An existing approved platform for Unity Health is Cisco Jabber. The Library also doesn’t use Slack to share licensed content from any of our vendors or suppliers. It’s used by our team solely as a communication platform to replace/supplement office conversation, quick question and answer, team huddles, and to support one another from afar.

Other positive outcomes of adopting Slack include significantly reduced inbox clutter and streamlined communication (i.e. assigning the use of Slack for quick answers, confirmation notes – i.e. “thanks for sending that!”, gaining consensus on ideas or action items, sharing Zoom details, etc.). Rather than sending an email, picking up the phone, or starting a Zoom meeting, it’s often much quicker to send a Slack message to get the information one needs. Slack also saved the day during a Code Grey in mid-March, as we could continue to communicate and work together while the email server was down for several hours.

To sum things up, the Library team has been very satisfied with Slack for its piloted purposes. Having a team-based platform to connect with each other while working virtually from home has been an asset to our continued productivity, and a valued outlet for communication and collaboration.

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