8 Rules for Instant Messaging at Work

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

Instant Messaging (IM) is a popular way to collaborate with co-workers. However, as with all types of communication, there are rules to follow to maintain courtesy and professionalism. By adhering to these guidelines, you can use instant messaging in the workplace more efficiently to do your best work.

How to IM at Work

Follow these rules to have enjoyable, productive, and effective conversations with your co-workers over IM:

  1. Mind availability settings. Take a look at the recipient's availability settings before sending an instant message. If their status is set to away, in a meeting, or unavailable, and your matter is urgent, use another method 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. Start the conversation with something like, "Michael, do you have a minute? I have a question about last month's finance report." This script is useful because it asks for permission to continue the conversation and mentions the subject of the 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 messages brief and to the point. The whole conversation should be short, as well. If your IM session lasts longer than five minutes, suggest a face-to-face meeting or a phone call to delve more deeply into the topic.

  4. Use proper English. When sending messages regarding work, keep slang and messaging acronyms to a minimum. This mode of communication is professional, and it avoids the distraction of explaining abbreviations or slang to someone who may not understand these terms. Use proper English, and don't forget about punctuation and spelling.

    Consider using an online grammar checker such as Grammarly.

  5. Follow office policies. Before downloading a messaging application to your computer, find out which applications and platforms your company approves. Then, use these 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 jeopardize your professional reputation or offend some co-workers if you use it at work. Instead, create a work-friendly alternative.

  7. Keep messages business-appropriate. Communications with colleagues, managers, clients, and vendors should always be professional, even when using 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 messaged with. Never write anything that could incriminate you later, such as badmouthing a colleague or, worse, the boss.