Keeping Up the Casual Conversation

By Stefanie Chen, Department of Biological Sciences

The current pandemic has us missing many experiences – travel, eating at a restaurant, going to the movies – but one interaction that may have previously gone underappreciated is the hallway interaction with your colleagues. How many times have you gotten up to go to the bathroom, started chatting with a colleague, and gotten a new idea, either for a research direction or even your personal life?

Now that we are all at home, how can we recreate that valuable experience? While Zoom is a great option for planned meetings, and has increased inclusivity for many kinds of meetings, it lacks the spontaneity and casual feel of a hallway run-in. One option is a free group chat service like Slack or GroupMe. Once invited, participants can post messages directly to other participants or out to the whole group. Messages can also be categorized into channels on specific topics, such as humor or teaching, and participants can check messages and participate on their own schedule.

The use of Slack as a means for communication and information dissemination has also been adapted by research labs, professional organizations (including NSF), and individual REUs for the participants to find a community. Some meetings have also used Slack as a means of simulating the poster session, with users dropping by the various “channels” to have a chat conversation about the poster topic.

In the Biotechnology program, Slack has been useful to keep in touch, particularly across instructors teaching multiple sections of the same course, two of whom started as NC State employees on December 1st, 2020. The casual “texting” nature of the program lowers the barrier for reaching out with a quick question, link, or comment without the invasion-of-privacy feel of texting a private number. The included emojis and reactions also allow more personality to come through, adding to the casual feel. This has allowed the new instructors to get to know the group and have their “just wondering” questions answered without having to schedule a formal meeting.

“Email has a cultural etiquette that was never designed to be about facilitating relationships with co-workers remotely,” says postdoc Carly Sjogren, one of our new instructors. “Slack clearly was designed with teamwork in mind.” Jake Dums, another recent hire who started in August, agrees. “Slack has significantly improved my professional life and interactions. I wish my lab had used it in grad school. There is no way my previous postdoc lab would have remained as cohesive as it was without Slack or a different equivalent.”

What methods have you used to keep in touch during this unusual time? Have you found other uses for Slack? We would love to hear from you!