Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Hybrid working: digital communication and collaboration
Hybrid working: digital communication and collaboration

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

5.2 Instant messaging

Instant messaging, often referred to as IM or ‘chat’, normally involves written messages that take place in real time as a back-and-forth conversation. They normally take place between two people, although with the use of collaboration tools, group IMs and use of ‘chat’ functions in meetings is becoming more common. ‘Team chat’ channels are slightly different and are covered in the next section.

IM can offer more immediacy; be more informal; and, when working in a hybrid manner, replicate those in-person ‘water cooler’ conversations. Many also have built in emojis and animated GIFs, and, as with email, you can attach files. The use of emojis, memes, stickers and GIFs has become an accepted norm when IMing.

It is important, though, to remember what is appropriate in the workplace: whereas you might be less guarded with IM discussions that are of a private nature than in person, remember that depending on your organisational setup, instant messages are stored on servers, so they are not truly confidential.

IM is instant and less formal, but good practice should be followed, as outlined in the table below:

Table 3 Instant messaging checklist
Item Guidance
Use informally While there are no hard and fast rules, people often use instant messenger once they have established a relationship with the other person, either via emails, meetings or team channels. It is a less formal environment and not often used to reach out in the first instance to someone.
It is instant… usually

Use it for informal, quick messages that require an immediate response or for replicating an across-the-desk chat with a colleague.

The reality is that IM within the workplace has become another place to share information, which is changing its original purpose. Instant messaging these days is not always ‘instant’.

Check before you send

It can be all too easy if having a quick conversation or doing a quick reply not to think about what you are sending. Ideally check your message before you send.

It is worth noting, for those who do struggle with communication, that there is more tolerance working in IM, and it is accepted that spelling and grammar mistakes might occur often due to the speed of the conversation. If you are using an IM tool that has predictive text, this can be a hindrance at times, especially when it ‘helpfully’ changes a word just as you go to hit ‘send’!

It is also interesting that for some people, they only see the mistakes once the message is sent, as often the background colour of messages changes once sent.

Keep it business-like

As you use IM more, you will build different relationships with colleagues and potentially establish your own informal rules. However, if you know people less well, it’s always a good idea to keep your messages on topic and make sure they are appropriate. Sharing experiences using IM when we’re remote working is always helpful to support relationship building (replacing those water cooler or catch-up-over-a-quick-cup-of-coffee moments), but be mindful of what you are discussing and consider whether a video chat might be more suitable.

Respect a person’s availability status

Most workplace IM tools will indicate a person’s status, for example, if available, in a meeting or on ‘do not disturb’.

If someone is not available, you should respect this and avoid IMing. If you need to talk to someone, enquire when they are available and agree on a time to talk to them.

It has become very easy to have IM chats as a ‘back channel’ when you are in a meeting; however, while there are times when this is legitimate, it is the equivalent of having a side conversation with someone, which you probably would not do if you were in a face-to-face meeting.

The rise in the use of WhatsApp and other IM applications

It is also useful to consider that while there are organisational IM tools, possibly as a result of hybrid working, WhatsApp and other IM applications are becoming frequently used for different reasons. When working in teams that include members external to the organisation, these are often easier to use than trying to use organisational channels, as it can be difficult for them to have reliable access, or informal ‘team’ groups are set up that act more as a social space for teams.

These informal spaces bring teams together and have replaced socialising outside work but can lead to a feeling of having to be always present, as messages can arrive in the evening or at weekends. This also raises concerns about wellbeing, equity and online security, if personal mobile devices are being used. Unless you are using a work-issued mobile device and there is an organisational agreement regarding the use of your own phone for valid work reasons, you should consider if it is appropriate to expect people to use their own personal devices.