Workplace live chat was introduced in the early 1960s, when workers at MIT’s Computation Center would communicate with up to 30 colleagues at a time over the lab's shared computer system.
Ever since the introduction to workplace live chat, business chat tools have evolved, allowing teams to communicate with each other without having to pick up a phone, walk across the office, or compose an email. But they’ve also allowed these same teams to badger coworkers with incessant questions and unsolicited updates all day long, gossip about coworkers, and flood channels with emojis and gifs.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
In 2020, team collaboration tools became more important than ever as teams transitioned to working remotely. While these tools were useful in the past, COVID-19 made them a necessity for keeping teams in touch.
Business leaders agree on the importance of live chat tools. Last spring, our software buyer survey of more than 5,000 respondents (methodology below) found that software buyers overwhelmingly cited web conferencing (51%) and instant messaging and chat (25%) software as their top two most critical tools during COVID-19.
But while there’s no debating how critical these tools have become for virtually everyone, remote teams can follow a few simple rules to maximize their effectiveness while minimizing their potential to disrupt and distract.
In this article we’ll look at seven rules for business chat etiquette that teams should follow to get the most out of their workplace collaboration tools while reducing employee stress and building a better workplace. (And don’t worry: Emojis and gifs are OK in moderation).
Many people approach chat as spoken conversation in written form. This can make chat conversations feel more casual and relaxed than a formally composed email, but it can also make chats feel more disjointed and broken. A series of separate chat messages can be distracting and annoying.
Look at this example of a chat conversation to see what we mean:
While the series of messages on the left will likely stress and distract the recipient, the single message on the right is much less likely to cause a disturbance.
As the sender, you may be eager to get a quick response from the recipient. But even sending a “Hi!” message, followed by the rest of your query is a major improvement over a string of six messages pinging your colleague’s inbox.
When you see a closed door, you should knock; you don’t barge in and start asking questions. You should follow the same workplace etiquette for virtual doors. If someone on your team has a “do not disturb” status, treat it like a closed office door. They might be in a meeting, on a break, or not feeling well.
Either wait until their status changes to available before messaging them, or—if it can wait—send an email instead. Imagine if you were at work and needed to lie down for a few minutes because you’re not feeling well. Then, your phone starts buzzing with work notifications. You’d probably feel stressed by the notifications, unable to rest, and pressured to reply.
Along these lines, you should always avoid sending work-related instant messages to coworkers after hours or on weekends, unless it is a genuine emergency and you have no other way to reach them.
Bonus tip: Many collaboration tools include a feature to snooze or hide notifications for a period of time. As a manager, you can encourage the use of this feature within reason (snoozing notifications for seven hours a day is probably excessive).
Anyone who has regularly used company email has likely received a reply all that should have just been a reply. This mistake can have a compound effect when others pile on and start replying all to the previous reply all.
Something similar can happen with team collaboration tools when a one-on-one conversation breaks out in the middle of a channel or group chat. This can be very distracting for everyone in the group who is not part of the one-on-one exchange.
It may seem like extra work to create a new conversation, but that’s exactly what collaboration tools are designed for, and it should only take a click or two to avoid distracting numerous coworkers.
While a group text chat with your old college friends may be a constantly ongoing but mostly welcome distraction outside of work, business chat etiquette calls for a different approach. Every bit of small talk you send across your chat tool to recipients that don’t need to see it is just an added distraction, so always think twice before you hit send.
Collaboration tools have many advantages over email, but there’s a reason that email is still one of the most popular forms of communication in the world.
Always try to factor in urgency, sensitivity, and record keeping when deciding how to deliver a message. For example, a face-to-face conversation or phone call is ideal in urgent or sensitive situations, but typically does not leave a record for reference. Email is great for non-urgent announcements that may need to be referenced later, but not so much for sensitive or urgent situations. Finally, online chat and messaging is ideal for casual, ongoing collaboration and project-related discussion, but might be missed in an urgent situation or come across as cold when discussing sensitive matters.
Here’s a list of possible scenarios and favorable methods of communication to deal with them:
Even in a work environment, we are still humans and entitled to having some fun. This can include using cheeky emojis and GIFs in work chat conversations. In fact, these conversational techniques can add emotional complexity and tone to a text conversation where it might otherwise be impossible.
However, it is possible to go too far.
An endless string of flickering GIFs and emojis is likely to distract and annoy your coworkers rather than making them feel relaxed.
A good rule of thumb is to read the room. If you’re constantly posting GIFs and no one is responding, it’s probably best to give it a rest for the time being. And remember to use words. If you’re constantly responding to messages and emails with emojis and excessive abbreviation (r u on ur way?), you might be sending the wrong message (i.e., that you’re a middle schooler trapped in a working adult’s body).
While GIFs and emojis can be fun for celebrating a birthday or accomplishment, you generally shouldn’t use them to respond to questions about work. And never use inappropriate GIFs. If it feels at all risque, it’s better to avoid using it.
This may seem like a lot to remember-—especially if you’re part of a generation that hasn’t had a smartphone in your hand since age 12—but just remembering to communicate clearly and respectfully will keep you on the right path.
It is clear that with remote work success comes the need for live chat tools to make communication easier, but don't forget about your workers' mental health. Remember to be friendly and polite, especially when working remotely.
According to our HR in the New Era survey (methodology below), remote workers are working outside of normal hours (70%) and immediately responding to work-related instant messages, even after hours (71%) on at least a semi-regular basis.
One-third of these remote workers (33%) are feeling more stressed than when they were in the office, with 77% feeling some degree of burnout while regularly experiencing symptoms like headaches (32%), difficulty concentrating and sleeping problems (31%), and feelings of isolation (26%).
It only takes a moment for a polite greeting, and this is a good way of getting someone’s attention before launching into your question or request. Besides, the positive rapport you build with your colleague is much more valuable in the long run than the minute or two saved by an impatient request. Begin any chat conversation with a friendly “Hi!” or “How’s your day going?”, even if you are in a rush or need an immediate answer.
With remote work, it is much harder to pick up on visual cues that one of your coworkers might be having a bad day or struggling through something. So remember that a rude or impatient message might be adding to someone’s feelings of stress and hopelessness, while a friendly and polite message may be the ray of positivity someone needs to brighten their day.
If you work at a multinational company, you will eventually have the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from different cultures. For this reason, it’s important to avoid overusing slang and making regional references when making small talk.
Imagine that you’re in a group video chat room for a project and two of your colleagues introduce themselves by talking about the local restaurant they ordered lunch from while using slang terms like “bomb” sauce and “slamming” chicken. You might feel left out. This dynamic can lead to unintentional cliques and feelings of isolation among remote teams.
A good way to avoid this is to use unambiguous language and commonly used terms, and ask questions in addition to talking about yourself.
The rules listed above can help you create a positive communication culture in your company, and help reduce distractions and burnout due to an “always on” remote work atmosphere.
But using the right tools can also help your remote teams collaborate effectively.
Here are some remote collaboration tools you can explore to get started. For each category, we’ve also linked to our Buyers Guide and our Category Leaders directory of top products based on authentic customer reviews:
Remote work software includes features like web conferencing, collaboration, and task management to help connect teams in real time from anywhere in the world.
Instant messaging and chat software includes features like mobile chat, video chat, and file sharing to keep coworkers connected whether they are across the office or across the country.
Webinar software includes features like event management, live chat, and screen sharing to help businesses host virtual events and seminars online.
The software buyer survey referenced in this article was conducted by GetApp from March 25 to April 5, 2020 and included more than 5,500 respondents. The respondents were website visitors on getapp.com, and the number of respondents varied by question.
Gartner conducted the Global HR survey in January 2021 of 922 U.S. workers to learn more about their experience and preferences at work. Respondents were screened for employment status and business size.
Note: The applications selected in this article are examples to show a feature in context and are not intended as endorsements or recommendations. They have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable at the time of publication.
Explore by topic