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Has Instant Messaging Become More Annoying Than Email? 5 Steps for More Productive Pinging

03/10/2015 12:54 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015
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Fifteen years ago, I was asked to introduce instant messaging (IM) and other electronic collaboration tools to NBC's owned-and-operated television stations. Email was widely used at the time, but some station managers felt typing was beneath them. They would ask their secretaries to print out the emails they received so they could dictate their replies. How was I supposed to get these Mad Men dinosaurs to see the benefits of instant messaging?

My first real success came when sales assistants at one station started messaging their bosses about who was calling in on another line. The sales numbers went up and soon other stations started using the tool.

Instant messaging can aid workplace productivity -- a 2008 Ohio State University study found workers who used instant messaging reported less interruptions than colleagues who did not. But as the use of instant messaging grows, I worry that it's becoming even more disruptive than email.

Since my time at NBC, I have worked or consulted for 10 different organizations, each with a different communications culture. But it seems that instant messaging is becoming the communications tool of choice for many large companies. Ask yourself -- how many work emails do you write on a typical day compared to the number of messages you send to your colleagues?

Every day, I see countless examples of instant messaging not being used effectively. Using IM thoughtlessly can drive your co-workers crazy and make it more difficult to get the information you need.

Here are five strategies for pinging more effectively.

1. State your status and respect the status of others.
I love when my colleagues are transparent about their IM status. They're not afraid to say they're unavailable because they're out running an errand or snowed under with a project. But unfortunately, at many companies, it's considered slacking if you're not instantly available for 10 or 12 hours a day. So people just show themselves as constantly available except when they're in meetings.

Whenever possible, put yourself on "do not disturb" or "on deadline" or "thinking!" when you don't want to be interrupted. If you're lucky enough to work at a company that values you according to results rather than time spent in front of a screen, tell your colleagues when you're not actually working.

And of course, don't ping people if they describe themselves as unavailable. I have had more than one supervisor pay absolutely no attention to my "do not disturb," but most colleagues will honor your request if you don't use it constantly.

2. If it's likely you'll need to exchange more than three or four messages, consider another communications tool.
How many times have you gotten sucked into an IM exchange that lasts 10 or 15 minutes? You try to keep working in between the interruptions, but it's nearly impossible. The next time you want to contact a colleague, don't automatically ping them -- think about which tool is best for your needs.

Use email if your communication is detailed, involves more than one topic, includes several recipients, if it's important to keep a record of it, and/or if it's likely to be forwarded. Or perhaps you actually need to talk to someone. Send an instant message asking if the person is available for a phone call or even a face-to-face visit. And if you've gotten yourself into a long-winded IM exchange, don't be afraid to ask if you can switch to a phone call.

Don't forget about "pull" communications, which are much less disruptive that "push" communications like email and instant messaging. Do you really have to send a weekly status report to your project team or can you just post it on a collaboration site where they can "pull" the information they need?

3. Ask teammates how they like to use instant messaging.
When I worked at Deloitte, the graphic artists on our team loved to IM all day long. But the writers found it much more disruptive. I strongly believe every workplace would be much more productive if we asked our teammates what their communication preferences are.

For example, my preferred workplace communication tool is email because I turn off the automatic notification and try to check it between tasks, rather than constantly responding.

Of course, if one of your teammates uses IM almost exclusively, you already know that's his preference. But what if your preference is email? Have a conversation about it. Tell your colleague why you prefer other tools and perhaps he might start using them with you.

I have found that people who don't consider themselves strong writers or are communicating in a second language often prefer IM. They don't have to worry about grammar, spelling or sentence construction. If this seems to be the case, you could tell your colleague that you prefer emails for matters that don't require an immediate response, and his writing doesn't need to be any more polished than an instant message.

4. If you have a short question or request, include it in your initial instant message.
It's supposed to be good IM etiquette to make your initial message along the lines of "Hi there" or "Hey?" The idea is that you're knocking on a person's door rather than barging in. But I find empty messages annoying. The initial IM takes my attention away from whatever I'm doing, regardless of whether I respond or not. I have to waste time reading a message that conveys no information, then I have to write back some kind of acknowledgement, and then I have to wait for the person to type out what she wants. If she had just sent me her question in the first place, I could have quickly responded, instead of waiting for her to get her thoughts together.

Some people may skip their request in the initial IM out of politeness, but I think many do it because they don't want to waste their time in case I'm not available. Start writing your request in your initial email to close colleagues and ask them to do the same. I guarantee this will save you both time and frustration.

5. Make the most of your system's features.
Instant message technology is evolving rapidly. You are probably able to easily invite more colleagues into the conversation, share your screen or switch to a phone call. Making your chat more robust will often improve it. If you don't know all the features of your company's IM system, spend an hour or two studying it, and then coach your colleagues.

Instant messaging is probably the type of workplace communication that we put the least amount of thought into. But approaching it more mindfully will help improve the productivity of both you and your colleagues and ease the frustrations that come from mismatched communications.