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Successful Communication Online: Instant Messaging in Organizations

In my last article, I spoke about how you can improve your EMail communication. In this article, I’ll move on to instant messaging, otherwise known as chat, or IM. You’ll notice that this article is far more focused on the platform, rather than the technology. That’s because IM is not really one thing, it's a bunch of things inside of a bunch of other things.

So while Instant Messaging is pervasive in our personal lives, IM in the organization is less of a communication platform, and more of a feature that’s embedded into of many software tools you use. It can take the form of Teams, Slack, or even appear in Word and PowerPoint, Zoom, or a number of customer service applications as a real-time collaboration feature. Boomers and GenXers frequently struggle to understand the rapid-fire, crazily informal, terse, acronym-filled, emoji-sprinkled chaos of IM. Millennials and GenZers are constantly seeking to understand the right balance of communication norms in IM.

While IM can create fast communications across organizational levels, it’s prone to lots of confusion and misunderstandings. Here’s what organizations can do to reduce the chaos and bring calm to the stormy waters of IM.

1. It’s casual, but is it really?

IM, as a technology, is a far more casual communications medium than Email. Punctuation, proper grammar, and even proper spelling are far less important on SMS or Facebook chat. But digital adapters, such as GenXers, can be put off by the informality or inside jokes of emojis and gifs that frequently invade their corporate IM streams.

Enterprise IM systems can be customized to reflect the organization’s culture (or, more accurately, how IT set it up) more than consumer platforms. But like consumer IM, enterprise IM systems are still influenced by the naturally informal nature of the technology. Organizations should communicate the norms for using IM platforms across all employees, including the appropriate formality and use of gifs, emojis, memes, and other non-text communications.

I still remember the horror of my then corporate council after she saw several GIFs in her company Teams stream, and demanded their removal. We needed to have a long conversation about what is appropriate, why gifs and memes can be a good thing, and which ones we might consider using. I also reminded her that the technology itself influenced its informality, and that we already had many formal communication channels to choose from, but few informal ones. We didn't need to bend the technology too far, and informality between team members was highly useful in collaboration. In the end, we found the right balance of appropriateness and informality to make everyone more comfortable with the technology.

2. Timing is everything

Responses to chats should be faster than email, but organizations need to set appropriate boundaries and expectations for after work hours, especially for non-exempt (hourly) staff. This is becoming legally required in some EU countries, and is likely to spread to others, since responding to chats is defined as working.

During business hours, basic guidelines for appropriate response times should be set, allowing individuals time to focus and be offline when required, but check in from time to time to make sure they are up to date. Many enterprise IM systems are starting to have the ability to "freeze" access to the systems during off-hours time, with the ability to "break the glass" and send urgent messages when necessary.

3. Security

Chat groups can start out small but grow quickly. Confidential discussions between team members, and especially file attachments, could be exposed to others when groups naturally grow. Setting up security groups on IM which limit access to data should be a part of every enterprise IM configuration. Staff need to be be sensitive to the ever-changing membership of IM groups and trained to audit their team and group membership regularly.

4. Acronyms & Shorthand

Creating a shared set of standard organization-wide acronyms is very useful, not only to set the right cultural tone, but to help new employees get on the same page. So, encourage more use of "NP" and maybe try to avoid using "LMAO." Formally documenting frequently used acronyms in a easy-to-find document, like a PDF, is even more useful.

Also, be aware of creeping jargon. IM can easily create diverse groups, which is a major strength of the technology, allowing organizationally separated teams to reach out to the right people. Too much jargon, on the other hand creates silos of knowledge that impose friction into the collaboration process.

5. It’s instant, but it’s monitored and recorded

Most organizations archive IMs for some time period either due to regulatory requirements or internal governance. That means that chats don’t go away and can be used for legal discovery and/or internal investigations. IT and HR organizations should clearly communicate this fact and be transparent about it to all staff. A short dialog box at the beginning of your chat session is not enough. As an IT professional, I can tell you that it is shocking exactly what people will say in chat, thinking it’s ephemeral. Most lawyers know this and go for IM logs as soon as they can during legal proceedings.

Retaining IMs also requires the appropriate security, access controls, and implementation of privacy regulations. These regulations will differ between countries, so organizations with IM platforms that are used by staff with different nationalities will have to have different retention and access control rules for different staff -- even when they are in the same chat room. For example, if a US-based company has a EU national working inside the US, EU privacy guidlines still apply to that employee, since it's based on citizenship, not physical location.

6. Emojis are confusing, even to digital natives

The meaning of Emojis is inconsistent across national boundaries.

The folded hands emoji in the US is usually interpreted as prayer, or a high-five. However, it was originally meant to represent please and thank-you in Japanese culture. So, when a chat may include individuals of different cultures, you might want to limit and define emojis you use to better manage confusion. And no. I am not going to talk about the eggplant emoji. But that only supports my point.

Yet, emojis are extremely helpful to convey emotion when used correctly. 🙂 is a very useful emoji to convey the emotion of happiness. 😮 can be useful at conveying the emotion of surprise. It’s a little harder to tell the difference between 😞, 😔, 😟, 🙁 and ☹️. Emojis representing the peace sign, thumbs up, and the OK sign can have one meaning in the US, and very, very different meanings elsewhere (yes, you should look it up).

7. Attachments

Oh, the attachment problem. While most of the chat applications are multi-platform, many of the attachments are not, or require large PC-based applications to open. Locating where a file is, what the current version is, scrolling endlessly through the chat to find it, and having IT manage backup and disaster recovery has made file management more difficult. Not to mention, some team members may not have the application to open the file.

IM users need to be instructed to put links to files, not actual files, in the chat for reference. Or, shared team folders can be used as an alternative to simply dragging and dropping files into an IM stream.

8. Distraction attraction

Is instant too instant? If there’s always a constant stream of communication going on, how are you supposed to get your work done? Employees should be instructed on how to set up rules for how they can be interrupted, based upon their availability.

For example, I can set up Microsoft Teams so that if I set my presence status to Busy, certain individuals will still be able to interrupt me and get my attention. When working with one major Fortune 500 company, I observed that most managers had their status always set to busy, and junior staff had it set to available at most times. This is probably as it should be. There are even finer settings, such as do not disturb, which are manually set, and “on a call” or “presenting,” which are automatically set based upon what the person is actively doing.

These presence settings go a long way to making IM productive rather than intrusive. Using them makes IM a far more effective communications tool.

9. Notifications kill productivity

Those who know me know that I’m not a fan of notifications. Frankly, you DO NOT need to know the instant any email, IM, website, or file update happens. If you install a PC from scratch and install all the major Microsoft Office applications, Outlook, and Teams, you will literally be bombarded by beeps and boops, screen pop-ups, and notification windows every time anything at all happens on any application. This is true of most Macintosh applications as well. It’s destructive to your attention and productivity.

IT teams should go through each application used in the organization and turn off notification settings in those apps. Sure, staff may wish to turn on some they find helpful, but make them work for it. Notifications are time sucking, productivity killing parasites that seek to steal your attention at every opportunity. And almost every time an application is updated, all the notifications will get reset back to “on.” It’s like an annoying game of whack-a-mole for the IT organization. But reducing unnecessary notifications has a huge positive impact on productivity and how people feel about using their computers.

Kill notifications. Practice calm computing.

10. Create a style guide

There’s a reason why the New York Times Manual of Style has been so successful. Setting up the rules for appropriate language usage is not restrictive – it’s freeing. Rules allow people to reduce the time they need to pay attention to exactly how they need to communicate and focus on what they should be communicating, and, well, just communicating.

Setting up a style guide for how to use IM, and its associated emojis, gifs, and acronyms in your organization is extremely helpful to staff who are on-boarding, and even those that have been with your organization for many years. It will communicate a shared, common, normative style of communication. That norm can be formal or informal, proper, or sprinkled with a touch of irreverence. In the end, a style guide is a tool that creates language guardrails so that people can get down to communicating, and to resolve conflicts when they arise. It's also a reflection of your brand, and reinforces your brand when employees use it well.

It’s not a complete solution, since where there are people there is conflict, confusion, and misunderstandings. But a style guide goes a long way to resolving many of the most common issues before they become problems. Invest in creating a style guide and keep it updated as your organization grows.

Wrapping it up

As you see, this article was more focused on organizational management of IM platforms, since IM varies so much in capability and sophistication across different software, and is largely defined by how an organization sets up its systems and regulates their use. This is different from Email, which, being older, simpler, and less capable, is far more definable as a specific technology.

Next up, we'll talk about ways you can improve your communication effectiveness when using video.

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