How to use your office’s chatroom without going insane

Digital communication does not need to imply chaos.
Digital communication does not need to imply chaos.
Image: REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In many workplaces, communication between individuals and teams happens through a constantly running chat tool. These tools offer exciting possibilities for real-time communication, but for many first adopters can feel something akin to an all-day meeting with no agenda, no outcomes, and required attendance.

Who wants that?

It’s hard to blame folks for the FOMO they feel, especially considering the way these apps are being used. There’s an (unwritten) expectation to be always-on, glued to screens and devices, ready to respond in a moment’s notice to any ping, ding, or let’s be honest, random comment—instead of focusing on the task at hand.

The problem is this: the lack of a common set of rules and basic etiquette about how to use team communication tools is driving people nuts, not to mention killing productivity. Zero guidelines mean a nebulous working standard that’s draining, stressful, and ultimately unsatisfying.

Just when we thought we were “freeing” people from their desks, the dreaded inbox, and the constraints of the usual 9-to-5 structure, we have saddled them with something almost worse.

You see, without rules—which, keep in mind, will vary based on team and personal working styles—one is left with unanswered questions. Do I always have to answer after-hours messages to prove I’m a good worker? Can I log out to focus on individual work without my team thinking I’m neglecting them? Or, worse, sending a signal that I’m not actually working at all?

As the product leader for one of these very tools, these are the questions that keep me up at night. Throughout the last 15 years, I’ve watched teams establish a healthy culture around all the communications tools that have come and gone—Lotus notes, email, and now chat—which can help teams navigate this new format of communication.

If you’re struggling with chat apps, it’s a good bet your collaboration culture needs updating. Think of it as a collaboration culture version 2.0 for how to use the tools better … and not get used by the tools.

How to start the shift toward a better collaboration culture

  • Broadcast your office hours: Use your status to tell people what you’re doing, and be as transparent as possible about your activities. Many of us aren’t co-located with our entire team or company and are working in different time zones. That makes it essential to establish some practices and boundaries. Spend time talking with your teammates about how and when to communicate respectfully (and asynchronously) with you teammates.
  • Disconnect when you’re done with work: Consider giving your teammates your phone number so they can text you during an actual emergency.
  • Respect the time and working hours of your teammates: Say to yourself, “Do I need to send this in several separate pings? Won’t that make them think there’s something urgent happening?” Perhaps, consider this: “Would this be better in an email?” It’s a simple practice: let your teammates know how to communicate with you. So they’re not guessing, and possibly stepping on toes they didn’t realize they were stepping on.
  • Use status consistently and creatively: In user testing, we found that people don’t trust canned statuses like “do not disturb” because they were uncertain about how it was being used. Were teammates in a meeting? Working on that project that’s due soon? Out playing golf? Without context or ground rules, even a status update like “do not disturb” can create negative sentiment between users. Instead, put the status feature to good, reliable, and consistent use. Be clear on what you’re doing and for how long.

Remember, transparency fosters trust. The more trust we feel with our teammates, the more likely we’ll feel supported to bring more of our true selves to work. And when we do that, we’re more likely to contribute our best, most creative work.

Next steps

The good news is there’s a simple solution for laying this groundwork: communicate about your communication. Don’t just wing it—develop common practices and understanding. Be open about how you work, and learn how others want you to work with them.

By using communication tools with intention, and learning the nuances of using them well, you’ll establish the collaboration culture needed for individual and teamwork that suits your organization’s workflow.

Tools are made to help, not hinder. Use them mindfully, and watch the free-for-all, Wild West-like terrain of chat become a brave new world of team communication and collaboration.

Oji Udezue is the head of product for Atlassian’s communication products.