On navigating the Slack-verse

The Ultimate Guide to Workplace Chat Etiquette

Avoiding faux pas and dealing with different chat personas, from the Slack Ghost to the Notification Swatter.

It’s almost hard to believe that it’s only been four years since Slack gained its first million users.

Now, the medium is so proliferated, it’s hard to find a scaled workplace that doesn’t employ some form of chat software. But for all the productivity gains that have come with it, chat also enables a bevy of distractions, inefficiencies, and microaggressions.

Admittedly, I used to go overboard with intra-office chat. At one point, I was the #1 message sender in my company—and #2 was my work wife.

But can you blame me? It isn't like Slack or Microsoft Teams are making it any easier for us. With readily available GIFs and emojis, and the lure of procrastination, workplace chat applications are exceedingly good at blurring the lines between professionalism and casual chatter.

There's no way to sugar coat it. The more research I read about the do’s and don'ts of instant messaging in the workplace, the more guilty I found myself. And so I had to accustom myself to a new set of rules, stepping up my professionalism and communication skills.

Mastering the etiquette of workplace chat was more difficult than I anticipated, but luckily, I found I wouldn’t have to completely give up on the fun side of it, either. And so, having now amassed and tested a wealth of best practices when it comes to chatting at work, I bring you: The Ultimate Guide to Workplace Chat Etiquette.

How to Set Your Tone

Stick to being clear, concise, and most importantly, human. Remember, these messaging platforms are here to cut down on emails, and improve project management on the fly. At least, that's their primary purpose. Inviting peer-to-peer conversations is a sometimes healthy side effect, and the cumulative effect of your chat practices amount to a definitive aspect of your company's culture—but we'll get to that later.

The best way to find your tone is to imagine having that conversation face to face. What I mean by this, is that you wouldn't send your boss the same venting message you'd send your work spouse. But you shouldn't be sending bot-like messages such as: "Dear Chris, per my last message, I wanted to confirm..." either.

Try typing out your message, and reading it back to yourself as though someone else had sent it to you. Does it feel natural, while also passing for professional? If it’s casual, have you established that level of rapport with the person you intend to send it to? By putting yourself in the recipient’s shoes, it’s easier to filter out what might be perceived as over the top or disingenuous.

Let's Talk About Words

In the world of instant messaging, there is no body language or context to minimize the effects of using the wrong words... Sarcasm in chat? It’s almost guaranteed that not everyone in the channel will pick up on it. Being known for having a great sense of humor is one thing, but generally not when it comes to executing on important projects. Ask yourself if jokes or insinuations are worth it in chat, or if you might be better off saving that candidness for in-person interactions when people can better read your body language.

That goes for jargon or slang, too. Trust me. People will interpret it in all the ways that you didn't intend. That doesn’t mean you should avoid using culturally specific references, but if you do, be prepared to explain what you mean in no uncertain terms.

Finally, speaking of words—check your work. While you're not writing an essay, and you're most definitely not Hemingway, whatever you send should demonstrate intention. Don't send your spell-checker into overdrive mode or anything, but do scan important messages for spelling mistakes and to ensure that your message is clear.

The GIFs Dilemma

To be honest, I've lost count of how many GIFs I've sent via Slack while at work. They. Are. Precious. And you can not take them away from me. Indeed, those precious, animated images are so ingrained in how we communicate, that Slack even has a shortcut to auto-generate a GIF based on a quick word search.

But sending a GIF to someone at work can be tricky business. Often, these little snippets are associated with a cultural reference, a TV show, pop-culture phenomena, or the latest viral meme. By default, that immediately should narrow your pool of possible recipients for a GIF, as you need confidence that all recipients will understand the true meaning of your message.

Know your peeps. For example, my boss and I are die-hard fans of The Office. Consequently, whenever any of us make a comment that brings to mind a punchline from the show, we both know to expect a GIF. But that still doesn’t mean my boss can send me the "that's what she said" GIF. Remember, just because they’re GIFs, doesn’t mean they can’t offend.

The Multitude of Chat Personas

The world of workplace chat channels is wrought with a multitude of personalities and approaches. Recognizing the communication styles of your peers is important unless you want to chat your way into a DM-disaster. Here are some personalities to look for:

The Slack-Trovert - This person is a social butterfly on the app. They're on fire all the time with their GIF-game, and when they get going, some of your coworkers become visibly annoyed at the distraction, setting their notifications to silent. Are they actually getting any work done?

The Inactive One - Chat is not their forte, so they’ve opted out. And that’s OK! Recognize that if you want their attention, you’ll need to email them or approach them in person.

The Overactive One - Every team has at least one person that drops super loaded and dense questions, or even full projects, into the chat. Chat is not a place to assign to-do lists or expect instant replies to big, ambitious ideas. Save those for emails, meetings, and your project management software.

The Notification Swatter- Expect to get a response back from this person in less than a minute. This type of person thrives on productivity, with all notifications enabled—including mobile ones. You can get a lot of work done quickly with this person—just be prepared to dive in, and don’t hold back.

The Passive-Aggressive One - Slacking “I’m not doing the dishes again” to the #everyone channel is kind of a weird way to remind that one coworker to wash their own mugs, isn’t it?

The Tourist - This is the person who rarely checks in to Slack, and when they do, they dump 30 messages at once, often when it’s too late for their participation to be useful. Try and stick to email with this person.

The Workflow Champion - The one who makes chat a better place for us all, by putting helpful integrations to use, linking the various aspects of project management, and generally elevating chat as a medium for getting work done. Try to be best friends with this person.

The In-House Media Team - This person isn't afraid to share that they're not working. They share every article they find "interesting" online. If you’re sharing articles in chat—be sure to point out their relevance to your workplace, not your personal set of interests.

The Slack Ghost - This person is forever typing. “...” They will never hit send. You will never ever see their message.

Intra-Office Chat Commandments

As with any form of communication, there are some basic rules that you must stick to if you want to survive. They may seem obvious, but when you cross into the Slack-verse, all lines of professional communication may appear blurred.

#1: Don't talk about job hunting, medical history, banking details, or anything you don’t want your bosses to see. That’s right—your company can see your Slack messages. (I was shocked about this one too).

#2: Don't get in an argument over chat, and don’t trash talk your peers. Your passive-aggressiveness is not welcomed there, and screenshots are a thing.

#3: Don't overdo it. If you’re firing off 100 messages a day, you can’t expect others to reply to you while simultaneously getting their own work done.

#4: Manage your expectations. Some people are slow on chat, whether because they’re busy, or simply because the platform isn’t a great fit for them. Instead of being upset by this, find alternative ways to communicate with this person.

#5: Chat is not a popularity contest, don’t treat it as such. Getting social feedback for making the best meme ever is OK, but don’t lose the forest for the trees. Focus primarily on using chat for what it was intended for—to improve teamwork and collaboration.

Now that you’re ready to master the art of workplace chat, type away, my super friend. You can thank me later when you’ve avoided making the same mistakes I did.

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