Chats (Instant Messaging)

5 minutes, 7 links


Updated September 6, 2022

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Real-time chat (or chat or instant messaging or IM) allows for instant transmission of text between individuals or groups across a variety of devices.

Some forms are designed exclusively for one-to-one communication, while others allow for group conversations or the separation of conversations into different channels that can be public or private. Beyond text, different chat tools incorporate rich media like images, animated GIFs, voice memos, and emojis. Examples include Slack, Microsoft Teams, and messaging via social media like Twitter or Facebook.

Chat Advantages

  • Semi-synchronous. Chats can be used in either a synchronous or an asynchronous manner. This can also be a pitfall, if your company isn’t clear about expectations about how to use chat.

  • Instantaneous. Chats allow for instant transmission of information. This is great for getting immediate responses to questions, but often sets unhealthy expectations regarding immediate responses (see below).

  • Informal. Chats are a less formal method of communication, so people can spend less time thinking about how to craft the perfect message. This can be good or bad, depending on your message and who receives it. The conversational nature of chats also encourages more interaction between people. This can be great when people want to clarify questions or just have fun, informal discussions.

  • Scale. Information can be shared instantly with a large audience. This is harder with instant messaging, but tools like Slack can end up supporting chats with a big group, even an entire organization.

Chat Risks and Pitfalls

  • Interruptions. Chats have largely replaced in-office distractions and interruptions. Notifications popping up and direct messages (DMs) are now your virtual colleagues tapping you on your shoulder, pulling you out of your focused work.

  • Proxy for presence. Chat tools can also turn into implicit representations of presence. If you’re not on Slack, are you in fact working?

  • Lower quality. The casual, low-friction nature of chat can lead to lower-quality communication, which is sometimes hard to discern from more important, business-relevant messages.

  • Easier to misunderstand. Instant messaging can escalate heated discussions much faster when the need to respond immediately overcomes mindfulness. The lack of emotional context and cues in rapid-fire text messages can lead to misunderstandings and hurt or angry feelings. Additionally, the broad participation of a large audience can make it increasingly intimidating for others to share or participate, especially when they are newer to an organization.

  • Hard to track. Chat moves fast, and if people are requesting information from or assigning tasks to people on their team, those messages can get lost quickly. Chats are also not usually easy to search, and if your company has substantial history with a particular tool, search may become largely useless.

When to Use Chat

Chat tools like Slack and Teams are best used carefully and intentionally in your communication architecture for:

  • Asynchronous, non urgent questions to other people.

  • Asynchronous unidirectional broadcasting of information to a team or larger group (sparingly).

  • Synchronous non-work chit-chat and fun conversations.

Tips for Chat

  • Before you send an IM or chat message, consider using less distracting methods like emails or issue trackers. Being mindful of others’ time and interrupting less frequently will make it more likely you’ll get attention when you actually need it.

  • If your organization relies heavily on chats, consider using status updates or fields to communicate your availability and set expectations for others. Examples include:

    • “💻 focus time, getting work done”

    • “🥗 out for lunch, back at 1pm ET”

    • “🏝 out of office until the 18th; talk to Courtney”

  • It’s a good idea to disable the presence indicator for yourself if you can, and stop relying on it for others. It takes a village to encourage and reinforce practices that support focus over chats.

  • Instead of waiting for a response to a greeting before you state your request, you can group the whole statement. “Hi Jenn, do you know where I can find the wireframes for X?”

  • Sarcasm is very difficult to gauge tone over written conversations and therefore is best avoided. Emoticons :) and emoji 😬 may help, but can also have different meanings across age groups and cultures, and look completely different across devices.

  • Emails or forum posts may be a better way to get non-time-sensitive questions answered across different time zones than instant messages, since they allow recipients to batch requests and manage their outbound responses easier.

Further Reading About Chat

Phone and Video Calls

Phone and video calls allow one or more people to have a conversation in real time, either via telephone or online video conferencing services. Calls are an exclusively synchronous communication channel, but can also be used to broadcast information when only one person speaks to a group. Example tools include Zoom, BlueJeans, Google Hangout and GoToMeeting.

Call Advantages

  • Synchronous. Calls are great for resolving questions quickly or realigning when miscommunications over written mediums like email have happened.

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