8 Rules for Instant Messaging at Work

Start here if you're new to workplace messaging or just need a refresher

Messaging at work
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Instant Messaging (IM) has gained popularity as a way to collaborate at work. However, as with all types of communication, there are rules you should follow to maintain courtesy and professionalism. By adhering to these guidelines, you can use messaging productively to do your best work. 

  1. Mind availability settings. Take a look at the recipient's availability settings before sending an instant message to them. If their status is set to “away,” “in a meeting,” or otherwise unavailable, and your matter is urgent, consider using other methods to contact them. Conversely, always set your availability status to let others know when you’re available. 

  2. Seek permission to message. Just as you would over the telephone, when initiating an IM conversation, ask whether it’s a good time for the receiver. Try, “Michael, do you have a minute? I have a question about last month’s finance report.” This script is useful because you’re both asking for permission to continue the conversation and mentioning the subject of your query. If the recipient says they’re busy, ask when would be a better time. 

  3. Keep messages and conversations brief. IM isn’t the place for lengthy descriptions or complex ideas. Keep your messages brief and to the point. The conversation itself should be short as well. If your IM session lasts longer than five minutes or so, suggest a face-to-face meeting or a phone call to delve more deeply into the topic you’re discussing. 

  4. Use proper English. When sending messages regarding work, keep slang and messaging acronyms to a minimum. Not only is this mode of communication more professional, but it also helps avoid the distraction of explaining slang or abbreviations to someone who may not be as online savvy as yourself. Use proper English and don’t forget about punctuation and spelling.

    Consider using an online grammar checker like Grammarly.

  5. Follow office policies. Don’t just download any old messaging application to your computer. Find out which applications and platform your company approves, and use them exclusively for work. 

  6. Get a screen name for work. While your friends might think your personal screen name is cute or funny, you might be jeopardizing your professional reputation, or even offending some coworkers if you use it at work. Instead, create a work-friendly alternative.

  7. Keep messages business-appropriate. Your communications with your colleagues, boss, clients, and vendors should always be professional, even when using what you might think of as a casual conversation mode such as IM. Save the political GIFs, the bright orange text, and the funny images for IMing with friends. For work, stick with traditional fonts like Arial or Times New Roman, and use emoticons sparingly. The same goes for your platform profile: use a professional photo and include your work-related contact information only. 

  8. Be careful what you write. Keep in mind that messages can be stored on a server, or saved by the person you’re messaging with. Never write anything that could incriminate you later, such as badmouthing a colleague or, worse, the boss.