We’re talking about Slack, Mattermost, Matrix, Rocket Chat, Jabber, XMPP, ICQ, and other services supporting direct communication with remote team members either at the same time or asynchronously.
You’re responsible for leading a group of people who work distributed in a team. Besides email, chat can be a useful tool to coordinate your collaboration.
You and your team cannot communicate directly with each other due to space or time constraints. Therefore you want to give your team a possibility to exchange information easily and without problems. In order for this exchange to be goal-oriented and fruitful, a suitable tool and a set of rules must be discussed and set up.
Everyone is invited to participate actively while following rules that have been negotiated and agreed upon by all team members thus enabling a smooth communication and avoiding misunderstandings.
Whenever you choose and set up a chat system you should as well implement a netiquette and best practices for you and your team members from the start.
Below are a few suggestions that might make it into the set of rules for your team to make everyone feel comfortable and more productive when using the chat.
Define the purpose
Be clear what can be communicated via chat in your team. Chat does not completely replace email, but helps sufficiently keeping your email inbox organized and communication regarding specific issues or topics better inline - with a chat tool. For example, do not share bits and pieces by email, use the chat instead.
Propose chat rooms
Make sure to create different chat rooms for different topics in case your team is involved in various activities and interests in different constellations. However, avoid cluttered communication, e.g. originating from too many chat rooms.
Offer space for socializing
Besides topical chat rooms, offer a „town hall“ or “campfire” for off-topic conversations. Keep off-topic conversation appropriate for your professional setting and limit the amount. Also use it to chat with only three or five of the team, e.g. to find a time to meet and to avoid the creation of additional chat rooms in any combination possible. Other team members will appreciate it to see that their peers are alive even if the chat isn’t something they are directly involved in. You even may use it to send out a “ping” each morning to let others know that they are not alone.
Foster direct chat communication
Beyond chat rooms with three or more team members you might foster direct communication for asking and answering quick questions, sharing immediate information, getting in touch to arrange voice or video calls at a later time, or clarifying and discussing facts in a lively back and forth communication without phoning each other.
Define response times and urgency
Clarify what the acceptable and expected response time is. A direct chat might be urgent in some cases whereas a chat room most likely is not. So make clear statements and agreements on the response time to be expected - if there are any to be expected.
Set a status message
Include details in your chat profile you want others to see thus giving them more information about what you are up to, where you are and whether you are available. It helps others to identify if you cannot reply quickly, e.g. when attending a meeting, or if you are not available in person, e.g. when being in home office. Also, be aware of the status messages of your peers.
Respect the working methods of your peers
end chats only to relevant people or to the relevant room. Use chats only for short conversations so you do not take too much time away from the people on the other end. Don’t be distracting - if a status message indicates that your peer is away or busy you may postpone the communication or send an email instead. Also, take care to get not distracted by chats from your work you currently focus at - find a routine to come around from time to time.
Stay structured and organized
Stay on topic and keep the conversation short. Send consolidated messages, avoid sending several messages in quick succession. Reply only to messages directed at you or reply if you are able to contribute meaningfully. Use threads to organize discussions by replying to a specific message, if possible.
Be friendly and inviting
Start with a short greeting or seek permission. Reply quickly or communicate that you cannot, e.g. by using a status message. End conversations with a short closing and a thank you, when appropriate.
Be particularly cautious about joking, humorous comments, and sharing personal information - things may come across differently than expected when not talking in person. Also, never write anything you wouldn’t say aloud.
Be aware of the limitations of written communication
Never send bad news via chat or negative feedback. Do not use chat for emotionally loaded topics. A face-to-face communication or a talk in person includes nonverbal behaviors - e.g. the gestures and eye contact you make, your posture, and your tone and pitch of voice. These wordless signals cannot be given and received in a chat and limit the communication. Emojis were introduced to help in this regard for private chats but should be used wisely in professional chat communications.
Be mindful of spelling, formatting, and other mechanics
Check your wording and spelling and possible mistakes produced by autocorrection. Be appropriate with emojis, all caps and exclamation marks. Be careful with abbreviations and communicate clearly - use enough words to make your message understandable to all chat participants and avoid slang.
Use encryption for sensitive and personal information
Keep an eye on data privacy and protection. Never share sensitive or confidential information in unsecured chats or infrastructure of which you are not sure it is operated within your legal constraints, e.g. outside the EU. If there is a possibility that you share sensitive or personal information via chat - the probability is high if you do more than share cat videos - make sure that you use end-to-end encryption for your chat, or point-to-point, if it is a requirement that your infrastructure provider can listen in. Many clients have plugins for encryption with PGP, for direct communication between two users with OTR, or for group chat with OMEMO.
Stick with other communication channels
If communication started through a different channel than chat, stick with it! When changing communication channels in-between then a communication breaks apart and others will be lost. For example, don’t change meeting times or venues in a chat, use the medium originally used to set up the meeting.
These recommendations have been created in collaboration with Maryna Bondarava (HMGU), Patrick Preuster (FZJ), Carsten Schirnick (GEOMAR) and Mario Strefler (KIT).
Comments or Suggestions?
Feel free to contact us.