As with all communication mediums, there are a couple of rules everyone should follow to be seen as a courteous coworker when it comes to instant messaging. By developing good habits with your IM, you can bring new consideration to using this tool in the workplace.
- Be Unassuming and Respect Availability Settings. When using Instant Messaging, remember that your colleagues have their own schedules and deadlines. Don’t assume a coworker is available just because the person’s IM status indicates he or she is logged on. Your colleague may have forgotten to change the status to “busy” or could simply prefer to concentrate on a different task for the time being. Use your availability settings to let others know your status. This is also a great tip if you work in an open work environment – setting your status to “unavailable” let’s others know that you are busy and not to disturb you at the moment.
- Seek Permission to Enter. Just as you would over the telephone or in the doorway of an office, always ask whether it is a good time to IM with the user on the receiving end. Try, “Jason, do you have a moment? I would like to ask a question about last month’s finance report.” Not only are you asking for availability, you also drop the subject of the query. If they are busy, ask them when a good time to follow-up would be.
- Be Brief. A good rule of thumb is to consider the length of a “tweet” for your instant messages. IMs are best for quick back-and-forth conversations; many IM programs even limit the amount of text. If you’re approaching that limit, it’s a sign that you are trying to cram too much in to one message. Avoid long conversations – if your IM session begins to drag into overtime, suggest a face-to-face meeting so you can maintain an efficient work environment.
- Exercise Caution. People frequently use IM at work, but it’s easy to send a message to someone you didn’t intend to contact — particularly when chatting with multiple people at once. If the subject matter is sensitive, be extra careful.
- Watch your tone, and don’t take it personally. Attempts at humor or sarcasm can fall flat or be misinterpreted in an IM. Make sure you are familiar with the recipient’s sense of humor before attempting to be funny. Using emoticons can indicate a more lighthearted message, but when used excessively, they can come off as unprofessional. When in doubt, be straightforward and don’t get offended if the person on the other end is direct. The purpose of IM is fast, direct answers, not flowery prose.
- Go with the Flow. After a 10-minute IM exchange with your manager, she writes, “Back to my work” and ends the conversation. Don’t take offense at her brevity or perceived tone. Because IM involves quick volleys of conversation, it’s easy to appear abrupt or rude when no offense is meant.
- Be responsive, not dormant. When chatting in IM, return your reply in a timely fashion. Try to respond to the other person within a few minutes and generally not longer than five minutes. If you are going to be away from your computer but wish to continue your IM exchange, tell the other person you will BRB (be right back).
- Keep it in Proper English. When sending instant messages regarding work, keep slang and IM acronyms at bay and use proper English instead. Not only is it more professional, it helps avoid the distraction of a “What is IMO?” conversation with a less-than-net-savvy IM user. Don’t forget the punctuation, either.
- Business-Friendly IMs. Remember, your communications to other associates, your boss or outside clients and vendors should always boast professionalism, even when instant messaging. Therefore, put away the political IM icons, the bright orange text and the pop culture wallpapers in lieu of Arial or Times New Roman (10 to 12 pt. font).
- Avoid Pop-ups. There’s a time and place for IMs, but not during meetings. Remember to log out of your chat feature before presenting a meeting using your computer or laptop. Constant IMs popping up, especially if they aren’t business-related, can be distracting.
- Sign off properly. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a five-minute IM conversation that ends with someone waiting for a final response. Let the person on the other end know if you must curtail a chat session. It’s nice to offer a short reason why you are signing off, such as a scheduled call, or simply a “TTYL” (talk to you later).
- Know when NOT to use IM. Sometimes its best to just pick up the phone, or walk down the hall and have a quick face-to-face chat. Be smart about what topics you IM and what things you do in person, or on the phone.
Interested in implementing an instant messaging system in your organization, or want to learn more about the risks associated with IM platforms at work? Check out our article on the topic here.