Instant Messaging Tips

Recommended Tools

PC-based Instant Messaging client application.

Instant Messaging (IM) technology can have a very positive impact on virtual team productivity. To be effective, everyone on the team must run the same IM client, all team members must be a buddy on everyone else’s client, and the client must always be running (set to start on boot). IM is not a substitute for a phone call or an e-mail when more detailed discussion is needed. It is, however, extremely useful for:

  • Quick questions—Asking if someone is available for a quick question, either via the IM channel, by phone, or in person.
  • Reminders—Reminding someone of a phone conference he/she is missing or a late deliverable.
  • Coordination—Passing along phone conference numbers or NetMeeting IP addresses to someone brought in at the last minute.
  • Teamwork—Helping someone gain a feeling of being together with the other team members from the presence (availability) information shown in the buddy list.
  • Multiple languages—When teams consist of people with different native languages, even though everyone speaks at least one language in common, IM can help greatly with communicating clearly. Many people understand a foreign language better when it is written than when it is spoken.

We also found in our group that IM had an incredible impact on voicemail. It all but eliminated it! This probably wouldn’t be the case for a sales team where external calls are common, but for an internal project team such as our engineering group, the reduction in voicemail was astounding.

For recommendations on an IM client with a feature set good for virtual teams, see the IM tools topic.

There are some rules and guidelines that users of IM should follow:

  • 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.

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