Using Instant Messaging Effectively
The Dos and Don'ts of Quick Communication
Not too long ago, instant messaging (IM) was a novel and quirky way to stay in touch with family and friends. Today, it's one of the most popular ways to communicate with anyone – you can add co-workers, customers, and suppliers to your list of IM contacts.
Many people rely on IM at work to ask questions, to collaborate on projects, and to keep in contact with colleagues. Yet using IM efficiently and appropriately isn't as simple and risk free as it might seem.
In this article, we'll explore the pros and cons of using IM at work. We'll also discuss how to choose the right platform for your needs, and we'll look at IM etiquette.
The Pros and Cons of IM in the Workplace
We often take the advantages of instant messaging for granted. For example, it can reduce the amount of time that we spend on the phone or writing emails, and it's a fast, relaxed way to share information.
IM is also a great way to communicate with remote colleagues, and it tends to be less intrusive than phone calls. Plus, IM allows you to notify people of your availability, and to keep records of your conversations. Most platforms have extra features like file sharing, video and voice calls. This brings greater flexibility and choice to the art of getting in touch.
Equally, though, there are downsides to being instantly contactable.
It can, for example, take longer to explain something via IM than over the phone or face to face. And IM poses potential security risks, depending on your IT set-up.
IM also promotes the "always on" culture, and encourages people to expect immediate responses. This can lead to stress and burnout, especially for those who send and receive out of hours work-related messages through apps on their personal devices.
The variety of communication channels now available can make contacting people more complex. Not knowing which options to use, or flitting between them, adds another layer of confusion and pressure.
There are other downsides, too. IM can lead people to communicate less in person, and be a major workplace distraction. Instant messages are hard to ignore, and they may be "gossipy," lengthy, or completely unrelated to work.
Choosing the Right Platform
There are many different options for using IM at work.
Some organizations embed customized IM technology in their intranet services or email software, while others use providers such as Skype, Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Spark. Others use the IM functionality built into team and project management applications such as Podio and Asana. Many also use specialist software to offer outward-facing "live chat" facilities. This enables them to provide real-time online customer service.
If you're looking to introduce IM, start by deciding what you hope to achieve with it and what you need it to deliver. Ask these questions to identify an appropriate provider:
- Do I just want to provide a forum where people can ask questions and get quick-fire answers, or to encourage deeper, more integrated communication between teams?
- Will people need the facility to share files, to make video calls, or to keep conversation logs (or archive and back up messages)?
- How many communication channels do we have already? Will adding another make life easier, or more confusing?
- Will we need to integrate chat with other tools, such as our email or project management software?
- What level of security do we require?
- How much are we willing to spend?
- Is instant chat even necessary, or will regular email or one-on-one conversations do?
How you answer will depend on your sector, the size and structure of your business, the demographics of your workforce, and your objectives and values as an organization.
Whichever IM solution you choose, get buy-in from both senior leaders and the people who will use it before you commit. Senior managers will likely want to see results from the investment, and team members will want a system that delivers what they need. After all, there's no point having a system that no one uses!
If you already use IM, regularly review your policies and processes to ensure that they still reflect your organization's needs. This is especially important if you've gone through a period of growth, downsizing or restructuring.
IM Dos and Don'ts
Instant messaging is relatively new in many workplaces, and research shows that we're still working out an etiquette for it. So, if you do use IM, it's vital to establish ground rules for its use. You may be very familiar with it through personal use, but you may have a personal messaging style that's unsuited to the workplace.
We've listed some common-sense instant messaging dos and don'ts below. However, each organization is different, so add or remove rules and adapt our suggestions to fit your needs.
- Keep it short: remember that you're at work, so keep chats focused. Limit individual messages to two sentences or less, especially in group chats, or conversations can get confusing.
- Have IM rules in place: if you're a manager, set rules for using IM with colleagues, customers and suppliers. These may be influenced by wider company policies, and could form part of a Team Charter. Include guidance on which channels to use for different purposes, whether IM software should only be used on company devices, and ground rules for how to speak to one other.
- Use the IM status: set your status to "busy," "away," or "do not disturb" when you don't want to be interrupted. Likewise, always check the status of others before opening a chat with them.
- Ask for permission to chat: an IM is an interruption, so it's good practice to ask people if they can talk, especially if you expect a lengthy chat.
- Learn to say "no": if it's not a good time to chat, tell people that you'll contact them later.
- Choose a professional username: use your normal name. Avoid "cute" usernames – these can look unprofessional and make it hard for others to find you. This is particularly important if you use IM to communicate with customers, suppliers or other third parties.
- Remember your audience: be mindful of who you speak with, and tune your language and approach to their needs and expectations (see Understanding Communications Skills). This might mean not using IM, if you know that a particular person prefers a different form of communication. Also, while some channels may appear to encourage a very informal, "jokey" style of communication (using emojis and memes for example), keep your work messages professional.
- Log off when you're not in the office: resist the urge to send messages to people on leave, and urge co-workers to log out of the system (or disable notifications) away from work to avoid unwanted interruptions in personal time.
- Discuss sensitive matters: avoid using IM to talk about confidential information or corporate strategy. Not all IM platforms are secure.
- Use IM to deliver bad news or feedback: deliver emotional or negative messages personally. It's a more respectful, sensitive and tactful way of discussing such matters.
- Transfer documents if you don't know their source: IM attachments may bypass corporate firewall protection, which will cause problems if your document is infected with a virus.
- Use IM for things that aren't urgent: email is more appropriate for this.
- Stay logged in to IM when presenting: your audience will see anything that pops up on your screen after you connect it to the projector, so be sure to log out or disable IM notifications beforehand. You don't want to accidentally reveal upcoming projects before their time or share something personal to your whole audience.
- Confuse work and personal accounts: many people have multiple accounts on a platform, which could lead to "stray" messages being sent. Be vigilant in checking which account you're logged into before sending messages.
Test Yourself: to IM or Not?
Which of the following would you deem "acceptable" IM messages to send to colleagues? We've shared our thoughts on whether each is appropriate, but do consider what would be acceptable in your workplace.
"Train delayed. Be 10 minutes late for meeting."
(Fine, as it shares important information and keeps your team informed.)
"Anyone know how to add holiday to the new system?"
(OK, as you're requesting work-related information.)
"Jim is driving me mad today with requests. Any idea how to deal with him?"
(The overall message is OK – you want advice on how to work better with a colleague – but the tone and language is questionable and could be viewed as offensive, and you risk sharing it with the wrong people.)
"Here are the details of our new project..."
(Borderline OK, but such information might be better shared via email, for easy tracking and improved security.)
"Who watched Breaking Bad last night? It was so good!"
(This isn't work-related, so would be best avoided during busy periods. Informal chat can be useful in building strong teams, however, so it may be acceptable, within limits and depending on the context.)
"Kurt is cute! Do you know if he's dating anyone?"
(Not appropriate for the workplace.)
You and your organization may have different views on what's acceptable – if in doubt check with your manager or HR team.
Instant messaging can be an effective communication tool, particularly when you need information urgently. It's also great for communicating with remote colleagues.
When deciding whether to implement IM, and which platform to use, consider factors such as your organizational aims, required functionality, security, and cost.
Keep instant messages simple, use appropriate language for your audience, set and follow rules, and ask permission before launching into a chat with someone.
However, it's best to avoid IM when you need to discuss sensitive or complicated issues. Try to avoid using it to give feedback, too: this usually requires a personal approach. Also, remember that some IM programs are not secure, so never discuss personal information or corporate strategy.
This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!