Using Instant Messaging (IM) Effectively
Dos and Don'ts for Quick Communication
Phil is in the middle of researching and writing a report that his boss needs by the end of the day, but he's missing a key piece of information.
He knows that his colleague, who works in another building, has the necessary information. However, he doesn't want to call her because he knows that she's busy working on her own reports today. And it could be a few hours before she checks her email. So, he sends her an instant message through his organization's IM software. Within a few minutes, she replies, and Phil adds the information to his report.
Although instant messaging (IM) was originally used as a way to stay in touch with family and friends, it's now proving its worth in the business world. Managers and staff rely on IM to ask questions, collaborate on projects, and monitor home-based or virtual teams.
In this article, we'll explore the pros and cons of using IM at work. We'll also look at IM etiquette, and show you how to use it effectively and productively.
Types of IM
Instant messaging (IM) is a technology designed for one-on-one chats. If you're new to IM, think of it as similar to a series of short emails, sent on-screen in real time.
There are many different options for using IM at work. Your organization might have customized IM technology already available through its intranet service or email software. Or, you can install an independent software product such as Windows Live Messenger (formerly MSN Messenger), Google Talk, Skype, or AOL Instant Messenger.
As well as basic chat, most types of IM have similar extra features such as the ability show people when you're available or busy via a "status," and customizable contacts/friends lists.
Advantages of IM
- When used correctly, IM can increase productivity by reducing the time spent on the phone, or writing emails.
- You can use your IM status to let people know when you're available or busy – this is useful both for IM conversations, and for keeping people up-to-date with your general availability if they need to get hold of you.
- IM is an easy way to communicate with your virtual team or home-based staff.
- IM often works well for coordinating teams and tasks, especially when people are spread out in several departments or locations.
- Telephone calls can disturb others in the office – using IM is less intrusive.
- Most types of IM software will keep an optional history of your conversations – this is useful if you need to make a record of your conversations, or if you forget any information.
- Depending on your IM software, you may also be able to use it to share files and documents, make video and voice calls, and send text messages to cell phones.
Disadvantages of IM
Although IM is incredibly useful in a business setting, there are some possible disadvantages too:
- IM can turn into a distraction for people in your team, especially when conversations become lengthy or unrelated to work.
- IM can interrupt workflow if you don't manage it effectively – unlike the phone or email, it's difficult to ignore an IM message when it opens on your screen. So, if you're constantly interrupted by chat requests, your productivity can suffer. (You can minimize this by using your IM status effectively – see the "Dos and Don'ts" section below.)
- Using an IM program outside of your organization's intranet system may be a security risk, depending on the IT systems in place – see below for more on this.
- Generally, everyone needs to use the same IM software to be able to communicate. (For example, you won't be able to use Skype to contact someone using Windows Live Messenger.) However, some types of IM software do allow you to contact people who are using other types of software.
IM Dos and Don'ts
IM can be used very successfully in a business setting. But there are certain things that you should do, and not do, to ensure that you maximize your productivity.
- Keep it short – Have concise conversations only. It's tempting to keep chatting about personal matters, but remember that you're at work, and you need to be working. Also, IM is not email, so keep each message to two sentences or less.
- Have IM rules in place – If you're in a management position, write down rules or an overall policy for using IM with customers and suppliers. Your team should know what is, and is not, appropriate when chatting.
- Use your IM status – Most IM software has a status feature that allows you to tell others that you're in (available for chat), busy, on the phone, or away. To minimize distractions, set your status to busy or away when you don't want to be interrupted. And be courteous about checking the status of others before opening a chat with them.
- Ask for permission to chat – Remember, IM is an interruption, so if you think that you'll need to have a lengthy chat, always open your IM chat by asking people if they can talk.
- Learn to say no – If it's not a good time for you to chat, tell people that you'll contact them later.
- Choose a professional username – If possible, just use your name. Assigning yourself a "cute" username is often seen as unprofessional, and it may be confusing to others when they're trying to contact you.
- Discuss sensitive matters – Avoid using IM to talk about sensitive issues, especially confidential information or corporate strategy. Some types of IM are not secure.
- Use IM to deliver bad news or performance feedback – Always deliver emotional or negative messages personally, so that the other person can hear your tone and see your body language.
- Transfer documents if you don't know their source – IM attachments may avoid corporate firewall protection, which will cause problems if your document is infected with a virus.
- Use IM acronyms – The reader might not know expressions like "LOL" (usually "laughing out loud") or "BRB" (usually "be right back"). Good writing skills apply to IM, as well as to emails and letters.
- Use IM for things that aren't urgent – Email is more appropriate for this.
IM is a core part of the 21st Century communications mix, and it's particularly powerful when used to "knit together" a virtual team. Don't be put off by its disadvantages!
Many organizations use instant messaging (IM) as an effective communication tool. It provides a quick way of communicating straightforward information or asking a simple question, particularly when you need an answer urgently. It's also great for communicating with virtual or home-based teams.
Avoid IM if you need to discuss sensitive issues or ask complicated questions. Also remember that most IM software programs are not secure, so never discuss corporate strategy or sensitive personal information.
Before opening a long chat, make sure the other person can talk, and don't use IM slang, which can be unprofessional and confusing.