Instant Messaging Etiquette for the Workplace

The use of instant messaging at the workplace is very prevalent these days. While instant messaging is very convenient for everyday communication, don’t treat it the same as email, face-to-face meetings, or phone calls. There are several significant differences between instant messaging and traditional forms of communications:

  • Instant messaging is not necessarily one-one-one. At any given moment, one person may be engaged in several simultaneous instant messaging conversations.
  • Even though your messages will be displayed on the recipient’s screen immediately, the recipient may not be able to read the messages and respond immediately.
  • With most instant messaging applications, the recipient cannot read your messages until you press the Enter key to send it. This limitation inherently makes instant messaging significantly slower than voice conversations.
  • Most people can speak faster than they can type.

Here are some guidelines on basic/everyday instant messaging etiquette that will help you and your co-workers make the most out of this communication medium.

Instant Messaging apps - AIM, MSN Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk, ICQ 

Include Relevant Info/Questions in The First Message

Avoid typing greetings or non-essential messages separately first. Include the question or relevant information in your first message.

Not-so-good examples (avoid this)

Conversation 1

  • Jane (10:54:50 AM): Hi
  • Mike (10:55:01 AM): Hello
  • Jane (10:55:06 AM): The test server will be restarted in 1 minute.
  • Mike (10:56:11 AM): Thanks for the info

Conversation 2

  • Jane (2:15:08 PM): Good afternoon
  • Mike (2:15:13 PM): Good afternoon
  • Jane (2:15:13 PM): Do you have a few minutes to talk on the phone re project A?
  • Mike (2:15:18 PM): Sure, let me call you.

Conversation 3

  • Jane (4:03:30 PM): You there?
  • Mike (4:03:35 PM): Yes
  • Jane (4:03:42 PM): Can we have a short team meeting in conf room A
  • Mike (4:03:50 PM): Sure. Be there in 5.

Good examples

Conversation 1

  • Jane (10:54:50 AM): Hi, the test server will be restarted in 1 minute.
  • Mike (10:54:55 AM): Thanks for the info

Conversation 2

  • Jane (2:15:08 PM): Good afternoon, do you have a few minutes to talk on the phone re project A?
  • Mike (2:15:13 PM): Sure I will call you.

Conversation 3

  • Jane (4:03:30 PM): Can we have a short team meeting in conf room A?
  • Mike (4:03:35 PM): Sure, be right there.

Every time you send a message, the recipient is disrupted from whatever he/she is doing. The more you can delay this disruption the better, even if it’s only seconds. It’s also not necessary to ask the recipient if he/she is there. That’s what the online status (away/available) is for. You can just type your message or ask your question. One exception to this would be if your message contains sensitive information.

Send Complete Messages

Good:

  • Jane (9:15:23 AM): Hi, all integration tests are failing in the integration environment for the admin user group. Can you take a look?”

No so good:

  • Jane (9:15:23 AM): Hi, all integration tests are failing…
  • Jane (9:15:27 AM): the integration environment…
  • Jane (9:15:32 AM): for the admin user group…”
  • Jane (9:15:38 AM): Can you take a look?

If you have to send several sentences in sequence, compose them in a separate editor first (notepad would do), then type them out quickly in succession. That way the recipient does not have to wait for you while you type your next message, make editing corrections, etc.

Do Not Expect Responses Immediately

Unless the recipient reports to you, do not expect a response immediately after you type a message. The recipient may be in the middle of five other instant message conversations, on the phone, or working on something else more important. If the recipient’s status is not set to “Away”, and you have not received a response after a few minutes, it’s ok to ping him/her again. Maybe they forgot about your message.

Update Your Status and Respect Others’ Status

If you need to step out, change your status to “Away”, or “In a Meeting”, or “Back in an Hour”, or whatever is appropriate for the situation. This tells everyone else that you are not available to respond to messages immediately and save them from having to wait for your responses.

Pick Up the Phone

If the instant messaging conversation starts to go into lots of details and may make take longer than a few minutes, consider picking up the phone and continue the conversation there.

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