The Right Way to IM at Work

The Right Way to IM at Work

Instant messages, or IMs, allow coworkers to exchange information in real time. Yet IMs also present a way for employees to waste time on involved personal conversations. Also, IM technology tends to be insecure and therefore has the potential of leaving corporate networks vulnerable to viruses and hackers. So while most companies are reluctant to eliminate instant messaging altogether, some have also been slow to embrace it -- and even slower to develop clear policies about its use or misuse in the workplace.

Instant Messaging Best Practices

Since many companies have yet to formalize their rules of netiquette as it relates to IMs, an unsuspecting employee who uses instant messaging can wind up in hot water. Fortunately, some general standards and practices are beginning to govern the world of instant messaging. Here are some suggestions from workers who regularly use instant messaging at work:

  • Use Your "Away" Status Message: "If you just leave your portal open all the time, you can get distracted easily with the constant pop-ups, and it can get very difficult to focus on the tasks at hand," says Jason Bergund, who relies on instant messaging to coordinate complicated activities between a suite of editing bays and their production teams for his job in New York City. "I custom-design my status messages to let people know when I'm busy, at lunch, on a phone call or working on a detailed document -- so they know that I'm busy without my having to respond to each and every instant-message query right in the moment."
  • Keep It Professional: "Instant messages can get really lengthy, because they offer such an easy way to communicate," says Dana Bilbao, who works in production for a Los Angeles-based entertainment company. "Also, conversations have a tendency to get intimate very quickly, because instant messaging can almost be like talking to yourself." Bilbao restricts her instant-messaging sessions to pertinent information, and she politely bows out when things start to get too personal.
  • Avoid Talking About Confidential Information: "When you're instant messaging, always be aware that you're on an unsecured line," says Richie Fusco, an office manager for a securities firm in New York City. "I'm always careful not to discuss confidential or sensitive information over an instant message, because it's just too easy for pirates to hack into old conversation logs. And I always make sure that my virus and spyware protection is up to date."
  • Follow Company Policy: "Make sure you know your company's IM policies, if there are any," cautions Bergund. "Many companies, particularly companies in which large numbers of people in different locations have to coordinate their activities, understand that instant messaging is a great interoffice tool. But I've also worked at companies that really frowned on it." Find out if your company has applicable rules, and adhere to them. And if a company policy doesn't exist, use common sense, and don't push the envelope.

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