As the world continues to practice social distancing measures, workplace chat applications have gained newfound meaning.
Tools that for many organisations were previously viewed as ‘nice to have’ are now seen as must-haves as employees work from home. This drastic shift has taken place within months, as “conferencing and collaboration apps accelerated by a magnitude of two years,” according to market research firm IDC.
Growth numbers from leading software companies bear witness to this shift. Slack added 9,000 new paid customers between February and March. Microsoft Teams’ daily active users grew by 70 per cent to 75 million in just one month. Google Meet topped 100 million daily Meet meeting participants last month. Meanwhile, Zoom recorded 300 million daily meeting participants at the end of April. (Source: Vox)
Virtual communication tools have been the norm for startups and tech firms for years now. Yet for many other companies, in-person meetings and email still ruled the day. That is, until the world went on lockdown.
Suddenly, what used to be an informal way of communicating became the new normal. But while messaging apps may make communication faster, that does not equal better or more effective.
Just like any other form of good communication, the rules of 1) etiquette and 2) clear communication still apply to workplace chat apps.
Having worked in remote, physically distributed teams for the past three years, I’ve learned a few simple tips that have helped me communicate more effectively over chat apps.
To get the decisions, feedback or approvals that you need, keep these tips in mind:
#1 – Address the person you are messaging and summarise your reason for messaging in the first message.
As chat becomes the default, it’s important to keep in mind that the person you are messaging is also likely to be receiving notifications from others besides you. It can be very disruptive to the recipient who receives a message saying “Hi”, followed by a long pause while the sender is typing the rest of the message.
The person you are messaging may be on a call or busy with something else. They’ll only have a few seconds to scan your message and decide if it’s worth attending to immediately. Plus, although WhatsApp is not as formal as e-mail, it’s still basic courtesy to address the person by name (and title, if required).
Don’t: “Hey.” (Few minutes pause) “Just following up from our last meeting.” (Pause) “How’s it going?”
Do: “Hi John, I wanted to check in on the progress of (insert topic) that we spoke about at our last meeting.”
#2 – Decide what you want to achieve before typing out your message.
Chat messages are not the best format to ramble on or to brainstorm extensively. The ease of shooting off a chat message also means that less context is available. This can lead to miscommunication if messaging apps are not used appropriately.
Roman and Raphaelson’s ‘Writing That Works’ provides a helpful guide to decide how much information you need to provide. First, decide what you want the reader to do. Second, list out the most important things the reader needs to understand to take that action. Finally, compose your message. Before you hit send, ask yourself if you would take the action if you were the reader, based on what you’ve typed out.
Don’t: “Do you have the stats?” (What the reader might be thinking: What stats?) OR “I really hate to be bugging you for this, but you know how these last-minute meetings always crop up, and I would really appreciate it if I could get some stats from our recent Q1 marketing campaign for my slide deck. I tried asking Jane but she told me you would have it.” (What the reader might be thinking: Which part of this message is most important?)
Do: “Could you send me a summary of the results of our recent Q1 marketing campaign? The board just called a meeting and want to see some reporting on this.”
#3 – Used appropriately, emojis and GIFs can build rapport, trust, and increase efficiency.
In the absence of face-to-face or verbal communication, emojis can add valuable context to a message. In the past, they were frowned upon as unprofessional and annoying. But in today’s modern workplaces, where empathy is increasingly valued as a critical skill, their use adds a human touch to an otherwise cold channel of communication.
That said, in more traditional industries emojis may still not be workplace-appropriate. In such environments, a good rule of thumb is to let the other person set the tone, if to use (or don’t use) emojis accordingly. This applies especially if the other person prefers a more formal/professional tone of communication.
#4 – Don’t break your sentences up. Use paragraphs and bullets.
Typing as you think and pressing enter after every phrase may require less effort for you. But for the reader, it’s distracting and hard work to scroll through a barrage of 10 messages at a go.
If you need to space your thoughts out, paragraph your message, or use bullet points, which many chat apps already support.
This helps keep everyone’s chat notifications manageable, as nobody enjoys returning from a 10-minute coffee break to see ‘100+ unread messages’.
#5 – Acknowledge when you’ve read a message.
Many chat apps now allow the sender of a message to see if you’ve read it. However, it’s still common courtesy to acknowledge when you’ve read a message. If you can’t reply right away, update your availability status. Or, send a brief reply to let the person know when you can get back to him or her in more detail.
Extending this courtesy to others means there’s a higher chance others will do the same to you too.
#6 – Set realistic expectations about when you would like a response from the person you are chatting with.
Flexible working hours also means a blurring of the lines between work and home. In many situations, this leads to people working longer instead of shorter hours. Despite the ‘instant’ nature of chat messaging, it’s not always realistic to expect an immediate reply when sending a message.
If you need a response within a certain timeframe, be sure to communicate it. Give the other person a reasonable deadline of when they should get back to you.
#7 – Don’t forget to say thank you.
Often, conversations that take place on messaging apps tend to feel never-ending, with no clear start or end. The next conversation is just another chat message away.
Despite this, it’s good practice when you’ve gotten the information, feedback, or reply that you need to conclude the conversation. How? Just by sending a simple but polite “Thank you” to show your appreciation.
This keeps the conversation from feeling purely transactional. Otherwise, it can come across as if you just ‘disappeared’ after getting what you need from the other person.
This simple act of gratitude will likely be remembered and also go a long way the next time you need something from others.
What other tips have you found to be helpful when using chat applications for work communication? I’d love to hear them and learn from you too!