Instant Messaging at Work: Pros, Cons and Best Practices

Instant messaging isn’t just a convenient way to keep in touch with loved ones. More than 40% of American workers communicate via instant messaging at work, and that figure jumps to 71% for workers in the tech industry. As instant messaging becomes a workplace staple, you might have some questions about implementing or managing digital communication. Keep reading for instant messenger etiquette essentials, plus the pros and cons of communicating via digital apps at work.

 

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How is instant messaging used in business?

Instant messaging, also calling IMing, is common in today’s business world. Employees use instant messaging for work projects, team-building exercises, and organizational communication. Organizational communication includes client conversations and colleague socialization.

 

Some businesses request that employees only use instant messaging at work, while others are OK with around-the-clock IMing. Instant messaging can replace in-person conversations, but it’s often used as a secondary form of communication.

 

Pros and cons of using IM in the workplace

Permitting digital tools as icebreakers to improve communication in the workplace may make many of your employees happy, but professional IMing isn’t for everyone. Before you encourage instant messaging at work, make sure you consider these potential benefits and drawbacks.

 

Pros

  • Great alternative to Zoom and similar platforms for remote workers who need to connect throughout the day
  • Creates a more efficient workday for some employees
  • Decreases the amount of emails required for business matters
  • Encourages collaboration among employees, including those who work remotely or are in other departments
  • Allows clients and colleagues to discuss time-sensitive matters quickly

Cons

  • Lack of division between employees’ professional and personal lives
  • Can be a distraction for some workers, especially those who hate being interrupted in the middle of a task
  • Creates pressure for employees to constantly be available
  • Can be difficult to print or save as easily as email conversations
  • Reduces physical interaction
  • Friends or family may accidentally view sensitive information if coworkers send IMs outside of normal business hours
  • Security breaches are possible

Keep in mind that these are subjective pros and cons, so think about your company’s corporate culture before determining the role digital communication plays. For example, some workers may view reduced physical interaction as a perk rather than a disadvantage, especially if you work in a large facility. Your team members may appreciate that they no longer have to walk across the warehouse or take several flights of steps to ask a coworker a question.

 

Fewer emails may benefit some employees, while others may find it difficult to sift through old IMs for important information. Workers may voice fears about personal information becoming accessible to the wrong parties, but IMing from a phone or tablet may actually protect their privacy. This is particularly true for industries where sensitive data can easily be viewed on a desktop or laptop screen by unauthorized parties.

 

Best practices to follow when implementing an instant messaging system

Work instant messenger conversations should follow the same guidelines your business has in place for emails and verbal communication. This should include a zero-tolerance policy for comments that are degrading, sexist or racist. Employees should never feel harassed or uncomfortable while using instant messaging for work purposes.

 

Additionally, you should consider the following practices when implementing a system for instant messaging at work:

1. Encourage verbal communication

Misunderstandings can arise via digital communication, especially for employees who do better with verbal conversations. Make sure effective communication is a possibility for everyone by encouraging workers to limit instant messaging at work.

 

If employees don’t voluntarily cap their work instant messenger use, you have options. Schedule weekly check-ins via a video platform such as Zoom or WebEx, or ask employees to meet once or twice a month for an in-person meeting at your office. Unless distance or employee health are concerns, you can also organize onsite training sessions rather than offering everything remotely.

 

2. Limit digital distractions

A quick IM about a time-sensitive task encourages efficiency in the workplace. Unfortunately, messages about sports, TV shows or personal matters may distract employees and decrease productivity.

 

That doesn’t mean conversations should always be about work, though. Discussing off-topic matters can boost camaraderie, but it’s good to separate these topics from workplace issues when possible. You can do this by creating separate channels for non-urgent matters or encouraging workers to discuss personal topics during lunchtime and breaks.

 

3. Support a work-life balance

Remember, just because you can send a message 24/7 doesn’t mean you should. Encourage employees to limit work instant messenger conversations to normal business hours unless something urgent arises.

 

Make sure you clarify what constitutes a workplace emergency, as your employees likely have different opinions of urgent matters. You can also use IMs for time-sensitive issues during the workday, like if you’re going to be late for a meeting because there’s a traffic jam or slippery roads.

 

If an employee has an away message or is offline, respect their personal time and send an email instead.

 

4. Use popular instant messaging tools

Odds are high your team already uses some sort of instant messaging at work, even if they aren’t discussing professional matters. Find out which tools your team utilizes, then consider incorporating them into your business routine. This may mean creating a Facebook group for your office, requesting that employees download Skype or using Google Hangouts.

 

You can find out which apps or platforms your workers prefer by taking a quick survey. Limit your survey to a few questions, such as “Which instant messaging tools do you currently use?” and “What do you like or dislike about them?”.

 

5. Define expectations

Don’t trust employees to model appropriate behavior when instant messaging at work. Define expectations for work instant messenger conversations, whether that means establishing set hours for communications or requesting that employees avoid profanity in professional correspondence.

 

You can lay out your expectations in a policy geared toward instant messaging at work.

 

Example of an instant messaging at work policy

When creating a policy regarding instant messaging for work purposes, it’s important to detail your expectations in a clear, concise manner. Make sure employees understand exactly what you expect from them.

 

Here is an example of a brief IM policy for workers at a fictional company called McJackson’s Marketing:

 

1.0 Purpose

This policy details expectations for instant messaging at McJackson’s Marketing, including internal and external digital communication. Instant messaging is defined as the real-time transmission of digital information between two or more parties via an app, platform or other service for electronic communication.

 

2.0 Scope

Employees, including those who are hourly and salaried, as well as 1099 workers, temporary staff and all other personnel involved with McJackson’s Marketing must abide by these guidelines for instant messaging.

 

3.0 Policy

3.1. Internal Instant Messaging

Users who are securely connected to an approved instant messaging platform may communicate via instant messaging. Unless otherwise authorized, users must not submit confidential data about personnel or customers via instant messaging. Messages should adhere to company guidelines for appropriate communication, including guidelines referring to harassment and inappropriate correspondence.

 

3.2 External Instant Messaging

When warranted, users may communicate with parties who are not part of the McJackson’s Marketing personnel team via instant messaging. This may include current customers, previous customers and potential customers as well as third-party vendors. Messages should adhere to company guidelines for appropriate external communication and must not include sensitive information unless authorized by the company.

 

4.0 Violations

Employees who violate this instant messaging policy are subject to disciplinary action, including, by not limited to suspension, termination and legal action.

 

Employees love finding loopholes, so make sure you clearly define terms such as instant messaging, external communication and internal communication. You should also define disciplinary action or encourage employees to refer to an existing discipline policy for your company.

 

FAQs about instant messaging at work

Before you implement a policy for work instant messenger use, make sure you know the basics about IMing. We’ve gathered some common questions about this popular form of communication below.

 

Can employers read instant messages?

In most cases, employers have the legal right to read instant messages that are sent using work equipment, including company laptops, tablets and smartphones. Make sure employees understand this, as workers may unknowingly send personal messages about confidential matters during break times with the expectation of privacy.

 

Why is instant messaging important?

When used correctly, instant messaging improves productivity, efficiency and interpersonal communication. Instant messaging can help workers finish tasks in a timely manner without waiting for clarification via a phone call or email. Instant messaging for work purposes also helps in-office and remote employees stay connected.

 

What are examples of instant messaging?

Examples of instant messaging include Slack, Jabber, Skype, Google Talk, Spark and Facebook Messenger. The chat boxes on video platforms such as Zoom can also be considered a form of instant messaging at work.

 

IMing has numerous benefits for employees and clients, but it’s important to set some rules first. Before you permit instant messaging at work, make sure you have a policy that clearly defines expectations and appropriate use.

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