Communicating Effectively in Virtual Teams: Part 3 of 4

In this part of the series on optimizing virtual team communications, I’ll cover Instant Messaging, or IM as it is commonly called.  IM has evolved a great deal from the early consumer versions in the mid 90’s. It is now recognized as an important additional channel of communications in the corporate world, filling a hole between the telephone and email. A phone call requires extra time for greetings and salutations and often includes casual, non-work chit-chat. For this reason, those of us under pressure to meet critical deadlines will use IM to get an answer to a quick question rather than make a phone call. The other option we have is email, but most people do not reply to email immediately, so urgent questions go unanswered.

IM allows team members (whether they work virtually or not) to send short messages to each other, often a few words or short sentences, instantly.  Likewise, replies from IM messages are usually expected within another few seconds. Since the sender’s name appears in the message box, there is no need to include a salutation. And, since IM messages are most often directed to a single person, there is also no need for a formal greeting.  The result, quick questions can take a few seconds to get answered.  Example:

Loyal: hi, time for a quick q?
Mary: yes, go
Loyal: when does sue need that project status report?
Mary: tomorrow by noon
Loyal: ok, tnx
Mary: np

Total time, 30 seconds.

In addition to the efficiency of short message traffic that IM provides, it gives virtual teams several more benefits: 

  • Very useful with coordinating events such as meetings, lunch, software compiles, test plans, etc.
  • Makes an excellent back-channel for adult note-passing in meetings. 
  • Allows for multiple conversations at the same time, so there are fewer ‘busy signals’ encountered by an already stressed-out team
  • Great way for people with different primary languages to better communicate in real-time, as most people can read and write a second language better than they can speak it
  • Creates a sense of teamwork as all of the team member’s names and their availability (usually called presence) can be seen in your buddy list in the IM window. This usually shows up as ‘away’, ‘on-line’, ‘off-line’, etc.
  • Allows people to politely ‘knock’ before making an unscheduled call or to check that a scheduled call is still convenient. This greatly reduces the rudeness aspect of the telephone.
  • Allows you to pass information such as Web links and files wihtout having to compose an email message
  • Much cheaper than a phone call for international communications
But, as with every other useful technology, IM has its downsides.  Here are a few of the worst:
  • Unless you are using an encryption add-on with your consumer-grade IM client, or you have an internal corporate IM service where all your messages stay behind your company firewall, you risk loss of private information to internet snoops.
  • IM can get overwhelming when everyone wants to talk to you at the same time. It can also soak up a lot of time if you get into a conversation that should have been done on the phone or email.
  • Unless you turn off the pop-up notices that say, “Mary has just come on-line,” you will be interrupted throughout the day with these annoying peripheral-vision distractions.
  • The temptation to share company private information with business partners or customers is strong. Unlike email, this traffic is often not logged as required by various Federal and state regulations, so don’t do it!
And, finally, you can maximize the benefits of instant messaging in a virtual team, or any team for that matter, by following a few simple rules:
  • Be courteous—If you know someone is in a meeting, don’t IM them, unless you are responding to a question pertinent to the meeting. Don’t overuse the IM channel for things better sent in e-mail. IM is intended for urgent requests or questions.
  • Don’t hide—Use the ‘appear offline’ sparingly. Being in Do-Not-Disturb (DND) mode for long stretches of time destroys the benefits of IM.
  • Keep your buddy list short—Make it clear from the outset that everyone should and will regularly remove buddies they no longer work with. This is important for minimizing interruptions and controlling the number of buddy state pop-ups you receive (e.g., ‘Mary is now online’).
  • Shutoff notices—Unless you are waiting for someone to come back to his/her computer, or you are easily able to work productively despite those annoying pop-up notices that indicate one of your buddies has come online, turn off the buddy state notices. Most IM tools provide a switch for this.
In the final installment of this series, I’ll discuss the beast of communications tools: email.