How offices can use instant messaging to truly get more done

Social office communication tools like Slack and Yammer can seriously boost your company’s productivity—but only if you use them right

Chat bubbles sliding into a black hole

(Justin Poulsen)

Unlike many bosses, Chris Izquierdo is a big fan of chat technologies. His Edmonton-headquartered enterprise IT consulting business, DevFacto Technologies, employs more than 120 people in three offices, and he feels it’s his duty to ensure everyone is in regular contact with one another. Over the years, Izquierdo has implemented everything from Microsoft Messenger to Skype to proprietary software to keep people in touch. Today, his company is using both Slack and Yammer, the corporate messaging darlings du jour. In his view, these programs foster a healthy workplace culture at a time when it’s often hard for co-workers to gather around physical water coolers. “People need a way to show their human side—their fun side—not just their corporate image,” Izquierdo explains. “[Chat makes them] feel connected and part of a team.” And that, he says, boosts productivity.

The idea that programs like Slack, Yammer and HipChat allow people to get more done might seem absurd if, like many, you see them as dumping grounds for inside jokes and silly cat videos. But nearly half of the employees recently surveyed by Ipsos Reid for Microsoft said using social tools at work helped them increase their productivity and foster teamwork; 31% reported they’d be willing to spend their own money on the technology. Furthermore, more than one third said their employers continue to underestimate the value of social platforms on the job and restrict their use. That’s a missed opportunity. Group-chat and collaboration platforms are changing the way companies operate, and, as Izquierdo and other fans can attest, they can improve business if they’re used correctly. Here’s how to make sure your productivity flows as smoothly as the witty one-liners.

1. Lay some ground rules…

It’s helpful to put guidelines in place from the get-go to make sure your employees know what is—and isn’t—appropriate behaviour on social tools. DevFacto, for instance, holds lunch-and-learn sessions in which management and employees discuss how Slack and Yammer should be handled. “These are honest conversations about what we want to use the tools for,” explains Izquierdo. “We talk about what’s allowed and about applying common sense.” Others use the technology itself to instruct, by, say, creating a Slack channel on usage tips and reminders. “Education is really important,” says Derek Ting, CEO of Waterloo, Ont., software developer TextNow. That’s especially true for new hires: “Don’t assume employees know how-to use it.” You might expect your 60-year-old sales lead to be unfamiliar with the technology, but your 22-year-old recruit may have never used social media in contexts that aren’t, well, social and might benefit from a clinic on professional use.

2. …But don’t micromanage

Many leaders are skeptical of chat platforms because, frankly,they seem difficult to monitor. Johann Starke was not one of them. When his Toronto-based digital marketing firm, FCV Interactive, implemented Slack a few years back, he was cautiously optimistic it would not require micromanaging and has since spent very little time policing activity on the platform. For instance, when one employee was spending too much time goofing off on Slack recently, it was his coworkers—not his boss—who raised it as a problem, and the behaviour stopped. In fact, Starke feels his light managerial touch helped prompt a grassroots evolution of FCV’s Slack platform into a hub that has increased transparency, facilitated better feedback, accelerated workflows and improved collaboration. “At the heart of any successful business is the ability to effectively communicate internally and share valuable ideas across teams, and [Slack] has helped us stay ahead of the curve,” he says.

3. Stop the tyranny of the pings

“A big problem we see in any work environment is constant interruptions from technology,” says Dawn O’Connor, director of Calgary productivity consultancy Think Productive Canada. Instant messaging is a big offender: Depending on the size of your team, you could get dozens of pings a minute—a recipe for madness. O’Connor recommends either turning off alerts altogether or opting in to only those you need to follow in real time. She also suggests choosing specific intervals of the day to check your channel and downloading the tool to only your mobile device so you can reserve your desktop computer for more focused work.

4. …And meet offline every once in a while

It might be tempting to start using chat platforms for all communication, but TextNow’s Ting says they work best when their use is limited. “Chat is not a substitute for face-to-face interaction,” he advises. “It’s a way to better organize non-face-to-face communication.”