In August this year, the realities of the pandemic hit close to home. Both of my kids caught Covid-19 after school started up, and my wife also had a breakthrough case. Everybody is good now, but it was an extremely intense two weeks of quarantine isolation.
I’m fortunate to have a supportive team and an employer that offers emergency time off (ETO), a new category of leave that Slack introduced during the pandemic. Still, returning to work after being sick or caregiving for someone else can feel daunting. It’s not like vacation, where you recharge your batteries. If anything, you’re already emotionally and physically spent.
Luckily, I didn’t return to a brimming email inbox or scores of voicemails. Instead, I came back to Slack. I was able to tackle to-dos in order of priority. With a little bit of foresight, I tagged in teammates and set expectations before ever leaving the office. Projects and approvals didn’t grind to a halt, and I quickly caught up on decisions made and actions taken in my absence.
Move through your messages and channels in order of priority.
The first question many of us face is, How should I handle unread messages? Bottom line: Check in with your manager and key partners first. Whether you use private channels or direct messages for these communications, start there. Next tackle the important channels; these might be starred or kept in a specific section. Then you can browse a mix of mentions, threads, and other unread channels as needed.
Many people don’t know about the “All unreads” section, which is like an RSS feed of all the channel messages you missed. There’s even a toggle to sort this “scientifically,” which uses a variety of signals to surface the information most relevant to you. And don’t be afraid of the “Mark as read” button (hint: found within the “All unreads” view). As one coworker put it, “If it’s important, it’ll find me eventually.”
The remind function is your (punctual) friend.
What if you sneak a peek at a few messages while you’re out of the office? Some of them might require action later; you need to address them, just not right now. That’s where reminders come in handy, especially if you know when you’ll be back in the office.
While I was out on ETO, I set custom reminders for important messages to be sent the morning I returned to the office. Like clockwork, they appeared at 9 a.m. On mobile devices, you can even set reminders to be sent “When at my computer” so you can respond at a more convenient time. Other colleagues recommend saving messages to create a de facto to-do list in your “Saved items” view. Simply click the bookmark icon in the message to save it for later.
Use sections to get your sidebar in order.
This takes some foresight, but it’ll pay dividends later. By grouping channels under a similar topic, project or priority-level, you can focus on the ones that matter most first. I created a section with my most critical channels and moved it to the top of the sidebar so I could tackle those right away.
You can also collapse sections with less relevant channels so they don’t clutter your view. The best part? You can mark an entire section as read if you know you don’t need to review it. (I have to say, seeing the bold white channels fade into light gray is a pretty nice feeling.)
Keep work flowing with easy automation.
Do you regularly field repeat requests via email or direct message? You’ve got a prime use case for Workflow Builder. Workflows not only cut out busywork and ensure consistency; they also make it easier to tag in teammates when you’re out.
For instance, Slack’s legal team uses a workflow to manage requests to review marketing and editorial content. With the automated form, colleagues can submit content for approval without waiting for my return, and a teammate can easily jump in to provide feedback. I can only imagine how much triaging I would’ve had to do without the workflow.
Document decisions and processes in channels.
Did you know Slack has a backronym: the Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge? Slack search is a powerful tool and makes it easy for teammates to cover for one another. All the relevant context is readily available in channels (whereas with email, it’s siloed in inboxes). Of course, this only works when the team is committed to transparency. Which is why we recommend defaulting to public channels wherever possible.
Set your status—and expectations.
Out-of-office emails aren’t particularly helpful for stemming the tide of incoming requests because they’re sent after the request is received. But by setting a custom status in Slack, you can let people know your availability before they even ask.
I updated my status to include all pertinent details, like so:
Quarantine thru 8/30. My kids and wife got Covid. Slow to respond. Checking DMs. Call if urgent.
If you wanted to go a step further, you could even link to a document with a more detailed coverage plan. I did this a few years ago when I went on parental leave, and it really helped ease the transition when I returned. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries when you need time off and to take care of yourself.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for returning to work. But hopefully you find a tip or two that makes your own reentry a little bit smoother. If all else fails, the “Mark as read” button is just a click away.