Best practices for instant messaging at work

“I will let you go.” In workplaces around the world, the name of the popular online messaging system has become a verb, as has Google. Slack has been enthusiastically integrated into the day-to-day functions of legacy enterprises and fast-growing startups, with the company claiming to serve over 10 million daily users in 2019. It also has competitors including Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

The benefits of these tools quickly became apparent. Back in the early 2000s, researchers noted how instant messaging helped reduce unnecessary phone calls and alleviate communication problems. Instant messaging is supplanting email, providing immediate and clearer solutions to business problems that may have gone undetected in inboxes.

There is only one problem: we are still trying to figure out how to communicate properly and professionally using instant messages. These systems can create disparate communications in which teams tightly integrated into one platform cannot collaborate with services based on another. Ease of communication also leads to distraction and informality, with instant messaging becoming a natural way to share non-work-related information, including sometimes inappropriate personal details of employees. And unsurprisingly, instant messaging has created a legal trap for organizations; Ironically, such lawsuits can use instant messaging to discuss a potential lawsuit.

None of these problems are insurmountable. But they remain a challenge, pointing out that companies do not yet know how to design and implement policies that properly guide and regulate instant messaging in the workplace.

How a particular workplace decides to use instant messaging, if at all, depends on them, but as Slack and Teams are becoming the norm in most organizations, here are some recommended best practices.

1. Use the tools your employees are already using.

Popular instant messaging dates back to the early 2000s and Slack in particular has been gaining traction over the years. Rather than starting from scratch with instant messaging in the workplace, companies should build on what employees already know and love. This includes identifying what people are currently using; choose one that is both popular and suitable for your organization; change it according to your needs; create policies for proper use, archiving, and storage; train managers in the use and risk factors; training of personnel of the personnel department; and regularly adjust processes and procedures to improve them.
For example, in a small tech startup, many team members may already be using Facebook Messenger as a communication medium both on and off the site. By itself, this platform does not have to become the official IM standard of the company, but it can be integrated into a larger messaging system.

2. Use all kinds of instant messaging, but set some basic rules.

Slack and Teams can be distracting, especially when used as an online repository for employees for GIFs, jokes, and debates about sports games and TV storylines. They can also be unintentional sources of intimidation, abuse, and harassment when group messages are spread about a colleague’s dress, manners, or sex life while that colleague is sitting at only two tables.
But there are also benefits for employees to post on non-commercial topics. These digital interactions create camaraderie and people are less likely to quit when they have friends in the office. Love for colleagues also increased engagement by 700%.

To reap the social benefits of these tools while minimizing the risk of distraction to employees or worsening mental health, organizations need to clearly define expectations for private messages. They should be immediately developed and made available to existing staff and introduced to new employees upon hiring. They should also be repeated carefully over time. And HR teams need to be trained in protocols for handling complaints and concerns.

3. Respect your work-life balance.

Instant messaging systems allow us to connect with colleagues, reports, and executives at any time – in a way that may seem more urgent than email. If the conversation is not overly urgent, resist the urge. Most messages can easily wait until the next business day.
You can justify your behavior by stating that the problem is your priority, that you do not want to be forgotten, and that you do not expect the recipient to respond right away. But the person receiving the ping can give the message a sense of urgency and feel pressured to respond to you, even if it takes up personal time.

One way for an organization to address this problem is to encourage people to endorse instant messaging tools and respect messages about other people’s absences from work. Explain to everyone that any requests to coworkers should be accompanied by information about when they are needed and that most conversations should take place during the workday, be brief and specific.

4. Also encourage face-to-face communication.

Digital messages are not always easy to interpret. A boss who says, “I think you can do better,” personally, can be motivating or disappointing, depending on whether the comment comes with a smile or a disapproving look, outstretched or folded hands. If you get the same message on Slack, it’s harder to read if you don’t regularly communicate with that manager in person.
Therefore, even if your workplace is mostly remote, it is important to provide some kind of personal communication: face-to-face meetings, team and department meetings, presentations, and on-site seminars. Even videoconference calls can help.

And, by encouraging online communication, make sure it happens in the real world too; Think of corporate picnics, community dinners, and volunteer days.

If you follow these protocols, any instant messaging platform will remain a useful working tool, not a nuisance.

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