Instant Messaging Etiquette

Here’s an increasingly common scenario at work: You’re laying out a brochure when you receive an instant message (IM) from your colleague asking for your feedback on a web page she’s designed. What makes this interaction somewhat strange is that your co-worker sits in the cubicle next to yours.

Instead of walking to someone’s desk, picking up the phone or sending an e-mail, many workers are using instant messaging programs to collaborate on projects. In fact, research firm Gartner Inc. projects that instant messaging will be the "de facto tool for voice, video and text chat" for 95% of employees in big companies within five years.

However, while instant messaging can be an excellent means of collaboration, it also can be disruptive. Many of the same qualities that make it appealing—the ability to hold a real-time conversation and see who is currently logged on, for instance—also make it frustrating in some instances.

The following suggestions can help you make the most of IM and avoid annoying those on the other end.

Mind your manners. People use IM when they seek an immediate response. But your colleagues have their own schedules and deadlines. Don’t assume your co-worker is available just because the person’s IM status indicates he or she is logged on. If you need to reach someone quickly, assuming he or she will reply right away could cause you to lose valuable time. Your colleague may have forgotten to change the status to "busy" or simply prefer to concentrate on a certain task for the time being. When time is of the essence, it’s usually safest to pick up the phone or stop by a co-worker’s desk.

In addition, don’t send a co-worker a flood of instant messages, then follow up using other forms of communication. Kevin B., an interface designer who works at a large financial firm, puts it this way: "The best way to get me to not respond to your question is to send me an instant message along with a voice mail and an e-mail that all ask the same thing." Indeed, IMs are distracting: They often pop up on the computer screen in front of other open windows and are accompanied by a noise announcing their arrival. Pair an IM with a phone call and e-mail, and you could become an office nuisance.

Keep it short and sweet. No one wants to read your 1,000-word IM rant about a frustrating client who doesn’t understand "true design genius." IM is best for quick back-and-forth conversations. Keep your sentences short and to the point, and give your partner time to respond.

Remember your English teacher. IM often gives people an excuse to ignore the rules of proper grammar or, in some cases, forget them altogether: "OMG LOL CWYL :)." While you want to avoid posts that are full of errors, which can cause contacts to question your professionalism, IM is about communicating in real time. That means speed is sometimes more important than perfect sentence structure. When in doubt, ask yourself if you would be embarrassed if your manager or the CEO saw your IMs?

Don’t cut and paste. Sam C., an editor whose technology company uses an internal instant messaging program, said her pet peeve is when colleagues cut and paste strings of dialogue from IM into an e-mail. "A former direct report would literally copy long conversation threads to prove a point or defend herself for a missed deadline," she says. "It’s ridiculously hard to read through a dialogue pasted into an email." If you want to share information from a previous IM conversation , draft an e-mail from scratch, summarizing the news.

Exercise caution. Like e-mail, it’s easy to abuse this form of communication. People frequently use IM at work while multitasking. But this can lead to problems. Says Kevin: "We’ll often be on a conference call, and members of my team will IM the entire time—usually discussing the ramifications of the topic at hand, but sometimes using it to express frustrations about someone on the call." It’s easy to mistakenly message someone you didn’t intend to—particularly when 10 individuals are in the conversation. And it’s just as easy to miss critical information during a conference call if you’re busy using IM the entire time.

Go with the flow. After a 10-minute IM exchange about a new campaign with the creative director, he writes, "Have to move on" and ends the conversation. Don’t take offense at his brevity or perceived tone. Because IM involves quick volleys of conversation, it’s easy to appear abrupt or rude when no offense is meant. By the same token, pay attention to what you write—if there’s a potential for misinterpretation, try to reword your response.

There’s little doubt that instant messaging will continue to invade the workplace and change how people interact. Knowing the most appropriate ways to use it will help you take advantage of its convenience and efficiency while avoiding common gaffes.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.