Most of us send text messages on a daily, if not an hourly, basis in our personal lives – and have for many years. Increasingly, many professional organizations are utilizing instant messaging applications at the office as well.

Some organizations use instant messaging for internal use, to enable their agents to communicate more quickly with colleagues, supervisors and subordinates about basic information and task requests (one of the same reasons we often text family members or friends). Other organizations also use instant messaging applications to communicate with clients, potential clients and website browsers.

Are instant messaging tools efficient and effective means of getting work done, or are they merely technological distractions that convolute intra-office communication processes and waste precious time?

The answer to both of these questions is, in one word: YES! The real question is: How can we utilize text and instant messaging applications to maximize their practical utility while minimizing the collateral damage they sometimes create? Additionally, how can managers and executives effectively and affordably provide necessary training to ensure that instant messaging capabilities are being properly utilized?

Instant messaging applications have the potential to assist you and your organization in stimulating workplace productivity, maximizing office effectiveness and cultivating positive relationships on the job. Here’s how.

THE GOLDEN MEAN

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested that virtue, or “the good,” is always located in a balance between two extremes: excess and deficiency. The philosophy of finding such balance, which has since become known as accessing “the Golden Mean,” is the secret to success in nearly every endeavor in life and at work, including all forms of communication.

It is true that too much instant messaging (excess) can become a serious problem that hinders workplace efficiency, impairs project effectiveness and diminishes the quality of interpersonal relationships. Likewise, failing to utilize this efficient, convenient and cost-effective means of rapid communication (deficiency) can forestall productivity and generate avoidable inefficiencies. In short, neglecting to utilize instant messaging capabilities can impede the overall efficacy of office information transmissions.

To find the Golden Mean of at-work instant messaging practices, several basic variables must be understood and carefully considered. The following questions serve as a guideline to help you make smart decisions regarding the use of instant messaging applications in the office – and beyond.

Before sending an instant message, ask yourself:

1. Is there a quicker and/or clearer way to communicate the message at hand?

For example, does the person you intend to IM work in the cubicle next to you? Can you see her and get her attention without leaving your chair? If so, it may be quicker to just talk to her in person. On the other hand, if your neighbor is away from his desk, on the phone or busily engaged in a work project, it may be more considerate to send him an IM (or email) than it would be to interrupt him.

2. How many IMs have I already sent in an effort to resolve the issue at hand without successfully solving the problem?

If you cannot effectively resolve your issue after the first few IMs, it is often more efficient to pick up the phone or speak in person to resolve the issue than to continue sending messages in a futile (and lazy) attempt to resolve it via IM.

3. Will it take me longer to type a description of the issue than it would to explain it on the phone or in person?

If the answer is “yes,” pick up the phone or talk in person.

4. Is confusion more likely to arise if I communicate via IM?

If the likelihood of confusion is moderate or high, talk on the phone or in person.

5. What is the likelihood that my audience will misunderstand my tone in an IM, or even in an email?

If the likelihood is moderate or high, talk on the phone or in person.

6. Are there negative, hurtful or bitter feelings involved in this situation?

If the answer is “yes,” instant messaging is probably a poor tool for communication and may create misinterpretations that exacerbate existing negative feelings.

7. Are there negative, hurtful or bitter feelings in my past experiences or relationship with the person I am messaging?

Sending an instant message about issues that run deeper than basic informational texts or task requests should probably be avoided until you can repair the relationship.

8. Am I communicating bad news?

If so, instant messaging is probably a poor tool for communication.  

9. Do I want or need a permanent record of this conversation?

If the answer is “no,” talk on the phone or in person. If “yes,” then IM – unless emailing or printing a hard copy would be easier or more appropriate for securing an easily accessed, long-term record of the communication exchange.

10. Have I properly edited the content of my IM, including proofreading for mechanics (i.e., capitalization, spelling, punctuation and other aspects of grammar)?

One of the biggest misnomers of the instant messaging culture is that many “texters” believe they can “let their hair down” when it comes to properly editing and proofreading their messages.

It doesn’t matter whether you are writing a 200-page book, a 20-page report, a two-page email or a two-line instant message; editing and proofreading are vital components of effective written communication. Do not neglect this important part of the compositional process.

THE IMPORTANCE OF TONE 

Text or instant messaging is usually the easiest, most convenient and most cost-efficient way to communicate. However, ease, convenience and cost efficiency alone should not dictate whether or not you opt to use this form of communication. Written communication of any form technically eliminates tone and body language, which are the two most prominent variables of spoken communication.

That doesn’t mean that written communication doesn’t carry a tone; it does! However, whatever “tone” written communication possesses must ultimately be interpreted subjectively by whoever is reading the message. This added room for interpretation increases the likelihood of confusion and misunderstandings. Therefore, it’s important to think twice about communicating in writing.

There are, however, many instances in which communication needs are simple and straightforward in terms of the potential impact on the relationship. For example, if I need a copy of a report for an upcoming meeting, instant messaging would probably be the most efficient and effective means of asking my question and receiving an answer.

REMEMBER THE RELATIONSHIP 

Successful professional communicators consider the impact that all communications have on relationships. Never forget that an IM is a message to a real person, not a machine.

Whenever I send a text message, email or other written message, I am concerned with more than merely what I want to communicate or what I want the other person to do for me. I am also interested in the emotions the communication may engender in the message recipient(s).

In relationships – be they personal or professional – people typically return what you give. Furthermore, over time, people tend both to respond to and perform for you based on how they feel about you. Thus, it is vital to remember the importance of showing respect and extending courtesies to everyone with whom you communicate.

As such, it is in your interest to remember your “pleases” and “thank-yous.” And don’t forget to compliment and emphasize the positive in the other person and situation. When bad news or negative information must be communicated, you can sandwich the undesirable message as briefly as possible between two liberal helpings of positivity. When doing so, be careful to be both sincere and honest to avoid coming across as disingenuous and/or making promises you aren’t able to keep.

TRAINING GUIDELINES 

When training managers and employees in the art of composing effective instant messages, the following guidelines can serve as helpful aides:

  • Be an example of what you teach by modeling the principles in this article in your own instant messaging practices. Your colleagues and subordinates will do what you say in front of your face; behind your back, they are much more likely to do what they actually see you do.
  • Become familiar with the practices in this article and in other works while preparing to provide in-house training to your colleagues and subordinates.
  • Consider hiring a professional soft skills trainer with expertise in instant messaging who can facilitate a live seminar or workshop on the subject.
  • Conduct in-house trainings based on past trainings, workshops, and your own research and practice.
  • Provide follow-up trainings and one-on-one coaching and consulting as needed.
  • Take advantage of informal opportunities to remind your colleagues and subordinates of the research and practices regarding instant messaging.
  • Consider ways to provide positive reinforcement for those who effectively implement the research and practices you have promoted.
  • Create a culture that embraces, practices and reinforces effective instant messaging practices through training, signage, rewards, etc.
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