By Toshi Yamamoto, CEO, ChatWork
Chat applications are taking over the business world, offered up as the antidote to email. People who use chat - especially those who are new to it - love it at the get-go. The real-time, relevant messaging tools are often introduced with the intention of reducing the anxiety caused by overloaded and hard-to-organize inboxes. But as the shiny veneer of chat wears off, users are finding that it’s not the unicorn they’d mistaken it for. In fact, some are finding that chat itself serves up a whole new kind of stress with messages - both relevant and irrelevant - popping up faster then most can respond. One user compared the experience to having 95 inboxes!
However, the problem isn’t with the platform itself - it’s with us, the users. Because, for starters, applications are only good as the people using them. If we don’t start out with the right guidelines and rules of engagement, any chat platform deployment is destined to fail. It doesn’t help that many enthusiastic new users may not know how to pace themselves. Business chat shouldn’t be used as a virtual water cooler. Even more importantly, the introduction of a real-time communication platform like chat shouldn’t set the expectation that employees be available to respond 24/7.
It is essential that users understand what to expect of a chat platform and know how to use it in a meaningful way from establishing upfront training and rules. With that in mind, here are ten essential tips to keep your business chat app from stressing you out.
1. Limit chats to key participants only. It’s a mistake to include too many people and make your chats too large - those chats will end up generating a lot of unnecessary chatter and noise that isn’t relevant to everyone. It’s better practice to create more specific group chats based on, for example, a specific project or department - or even a discipline within a department (like “social media” instead of all of“marketing”). By restricting group chats to only necessary participants, you’ll be reducing the noise, and subsequently, the stress, for everyone -- including yourself.
2. Establish guidelines about your chat availability and response expectations. Share them with colleagues, clients, vendors and other associates. If you’re very clear about the fact that you shut down at 6:00PM, or that you only check chats hourly, you’ll set expectations across your team. Craft a simple message to chat participants that says something like: “I will be checking messages once every hour on the hour. In case of an emergency please call my mobile.” Also be clear about how to contact you when you are in transit: “If an urgent matter must be discussed during my commute hours, please call my cell phone directly instead of trying to use chat.” It may also help to establish with your team that verbal communication is preferred when quick decisions are required. Ultimately, when expectations are managed, so are stress levels.
3. Stick faithfully to topics or conversations within relevant group chats. Keep responses brief, concise and to-the-point. While there may be times when tasks within a project or certain conversations may only be relevant to a handful of team members, those topics should be taken offline - or at least outside the main group - involving only those team members. By the same token, if a group chat becomes irrelevant to you, feel free to exit it. If your part in a project has ended, there may no longer be a need for you stay in the chat. Removing yourself from the conversation may contribute to keeping your own tension at bay. Some teams may also want to consider setting up a separate, casual group chat for things like sharing jokes, office pictures, organizing the next company happy hour, etc., to keep these conversations from occurring in project-based chats.
4. When it comes to topics that require a longer, detailed discussion or response (especially among multiple individuals or teams), create some guidelines regarding alternate communication formats. Sometimes, meetings are actually necessary (GASP!) So, for example, if your message is going to take more than two short paragraphs to explain, or if you need to communicate information to five or more people, it may make sense to set up a face-to-face discussion or a video chat. This will ensure that the communication is heard and understood by all, and give everyone the opportunity to ask detailed questions about their roles and responsibilities.
5. Sending a critical message that requires confirmation of receipt? Send it as a task instead of as a message. When the recipients complete the task by clicking "done," you’ll receive notification in the group chat within which it was assigned. This is a great way to stay in the loop about the status of key deliverables.
6. Use a consistent protocol for naming files you share within a group chat. Find a system that works for you and your team, and stick to it! Successful protocols often include acronyms for different types of teams, file creation dates, dashes or parentheses in between words in the file name, or using keywords relevant to the subject matter or category so files can easily be found even after the project has wrapped.
7. Use quotes sparingly. If you need to respond to a long chat message, but only a small part of the overall message contains the context needed for your response, there’s no need to quote the entire message. Click the "quote" button (available in most platforms) and then edit the message down to the part that contains the necessary text -- and send.
8. Fill out your personal profile completely. By doing this, your colleagues know who you are, and can understand when you should be involved - or run point. (This is especially helpful for big companies and remote office staff.) Definitely add your photo so colleagues know you're human and can, as they say, “put a face to the name.” Lighten things up and make chat even more human by sharing some personal information like your hobbies, favorite movies or music, or places you’ve traveled in your profile. These can be used as conversation starters for more casual chats. Consider too that filling out your profile fully on chat apps that allow all users to browse profiles publicly as it increases your networking opportunities.
9. Pay it forward and reduce the stress for new users. Establish a welcoming protocol for new contacts that join a group chat. A best practice is to do this early on, right when they join in. You should use a warm tone (and include emoji), and make sure they’re clear on who is in the chat, and what the specific topics discussed are. Introduce them to the team and get them chatting right off the bat! In a nutshell, do everything you wish someone had done for you when you first joined a chat at work.
10. Finally, leverage your chat platform’s available features to keep your chats organized. In addition to aligning chats with topics, projects or teams, many platforms have tools to help manage your messages. Here are a few you may want to consider using:
a. If your chat platform offers a “categories” feature to filter your group chat list view, use this to hone in on what’s most important to your workflow. This is particularly useful for users with a large number of group chats.
b. When chatting with someone about a time sensitive deliverable, use your platform’s task feature to turn that chat message into a task right away - and be sure to assign a due date!
c. Whenever necessary, assign tasks to yourself using the task feature. It’s an easy way to stay organized and prevent things from falling through the cracks.
Chat really can streamline business communications, once teams learn to use it efficiently and effectively. The technology itself, designed for real-time, concise conversations, can help alleviate many of the issues created by email - if we let it. Hopefully, these tips highlight best practices for improving team communication, productivity and dramatically reduced levels of stress.