can I opt out of our office instant-messaging program?

A reader writes:

My current gripe at my job is the fact that we use an inter-office instant message/chat program and I find it increasingly distracting, which in turn makes me agitated at work. I have it set to NOT pop up in front of me every time there’s a message, which helps, but it still leaves the little icon flashing on the bottom of my screen (taskbar) when I do, which is super hard for me to ignore.

I suspect I have a minor case of ADD, but have never been formally diagnosed and wouldn’t want to be medicated anyhow, as other than this nuisance, I’m able to function and be productive. I do also turn on Do Not Disturb for a couple hours a few days of the month when my heavy reporting is due, but other than that, I believe I’m expected to have it on and be available.

I’ve been tossing around the idea of asking my manager if I can opt out, and am wondering if you think that is advisable. There are a handful of people in our company of 40 or so employees who do not have it because they work on Macs, and this program only runs on PCs. But to my knowledge, nobody else has ever opted out.

If I do bring this up to my manager (we have a pretty good and open relationship), should I use the idea that I feel I’m slightly ADD and this is why it’s so distracting for me? Otherwise, I feel like when she takes it to upper management for approval, they’ll just think I’m silly. But on the other hand, I don’t want them to feel like I’m somebody they have to make special accommodations for. The reason we use it here is that it’s a very sales-driven environment and I see the need for Sales and Support to use it, as they are passing calls and such to each other all day long, but for my role as an admin, I feel people can use email and the phone for whatever they need to request of me.

I also feel like some general guidelines should be put into place, as I feel said salespeople tend to use the program improperly in the first place — for example, sending messages with action items (which should be emailed), which I feel sends the message “you need to drop what you’re doing and fulfill my request.” Also, these types of messages are easily lost if several people are messaging you at once, whereas with email, you can simply flag it as a to-do. I can tell you without a doubt, this will not change, as we have several “old-timers” who just do not change and they aren’t made to, as I’ve witnessed in regards to other things here.

Ugh, I hate it when people send complicated or non-time-sensitive requests or information through instant messages. That’s not how IMs are intended to be used, they’re easily lost that way, and they become more of an interruption than they need to be.

You can certainly ask your manager if it would be okay to keep your IM turned off (or barring that, to change your chat status to something like “on deadline — please email if you need me” at times when you especially need focus). I don’t even think you need to mention ADD; it’s reasonable to simply say, “I’m finding that it makes it really hard for me to focus on tasks that require concentration, as well as to track multiple to-do items when they come in through chat, and most of what’s sent to me there isn’t so time-sensitive that putting it in email would cause problems.”

That said, be prepared to hear no. In part, this might just be an office culture thing, and opting out could leave you out of sync with how everyone else there is communicating. But also, and perhaps more importantly, in a role as an admin, you’re often expected to accommodate other people’s communication needs. If it’s significantly easier for someone to IM you rather than calling you (for instance, because they’re on a conference call or in a meeting but have something time-sensitive to relay), you’re probably going to need to deal with that.

But it’s not an unreasonable thing to ask about, as long as you don’t present it in a way that sounds like you’ll be horribly resentful if the answer is no.

{ 145 comments… read them below }

  1. Illini02*

    To me this is just one of those “work culture” things that you have to deal with. I definitely get being annoyed by it, but as someone who is in sales and does use it often, I think there are valid things that its used for. As mentioned in the letter, I’ll often send a quick IM to someone while I’m on a call to get some information. If OP has info that people may need quickly, I understand there being an expectation that you are on IM.

    I do think though that its reasonable for you to talk with management about HOW its used with you. I think if you say that you need action items sent via email, but IM is fine for immediate information needs or questions, I think thats pretty easy to accommodate and it sounds like that would also decrease how many you have.

    1. Kathryn*

      I agree that it really depends on your work culture – our internal chat is how my department understands who is working at that time. People who avoid it are actively seen as “not working”, “not helpful” or “not useful” – and then they question why they never get pulled in on important projects, even if they have relevant skills. (That said, it does have an off switch, which is used when people are in meetings, need to focus or otherwise not able to respond. I can’t imagine doing presentations and having a notification pop up “Hey Kathryn, do you have a minute?”)

      My work place is pretty drastic in the direction of chat availability = work, so talking to your manager is the best bet here. It could be fine, just something used by sales people and they can figure out email as long as you are responsive there. Or it could be a serious no-no and handling chat is part of your job.

    2. PowerStruggles*

      Hi, Op here. I see what you’re saying but in my role there is seriously nothing that someone needs from me that quickly. But, yes in our general culture sales and support are used to using it in this manner so that spills over to others like myself. I’ve requested a few times for people to please email me actionable items and even my manager has requested this but there’s a few who just refuse to comply

      1. OfficePrincess*

        See that sounds like a separate issue. If your manager has issued instructions that aren’t being followed, THAT’S where you should start when you go back to your manager.

      2. illini02*

        agree with office princess here. Your issue is that a few people aren’t following instructions, not that all IMs should not go to you ever. I’d focus on that aspect

      3. Beezus*

        Can you just respond to the IM with, “Please send me an email with the details of what you need.”? Then if they push back, you can say, “Darla has asked you to email me for tasks like this. I need the email so I have the details when I’m working on it later. Thanks.”

      4. Not So NewReader*

        This actually sounds like you might have a little bit of leverage here, OP.

        I think you need to be more specific about what is happening with your boss. Be sure to include the number of times per day this happens. If you cannot possibly keep track for that long, then track it for an hour or two at random times during the week. (I don’t know- does IM have a message history that could be printed out?)

  2. Ducky*

    That sounds pretty annoying, sorry you have to deal with that! Can you set your taskbar to be invisible so that it won’t show unless you hover your mouse over it? I have that set up on my computer by right-clicking on the taskbar, selecting Properties, and checking off “Auto-hide the taskbar” under the Taskbar tab. Not sure if that will stop the flashing icon, but worth a try?

      1. PowerStruggles*

        Ah yes I suppose I could try that but I generally have a dozen or so spreadsheets open at any given time so then I’d be annoyed with having to do all that hovering every time I switch over to another :o

  3. Anlyn*

    If you’re using Sametime, you can go into your preferences, select notifications, then select the event you want to change; you mentioned you were able to stop it from automatically popping up in your face (which I hate too), but you can change the alert so that it doesn’t flash at you at all. It just appears on your taskbar (I think).

    However, that could mean that you miss important IMs from your boss or customers; if the office culture is such that you are expected to be available and quickly responsive, then that’s something you’ll unfortunately have to live with.

    1. De Minimis*

      We had Sametime at a former workplace, some people used it all the time, others left it shut off. Younger employees tended to use it more. The higher level someone was, the less likely they were to use it. There was no formal thing about opting in or out of it. If someone didn’t use it, they were never listed as available on Sametime and people would just call or e-mail them instead.

  4. Rebecca*

    We use AIM where I work, and the most annoying part is the message window pops up, and if you’re typing an email or otherwise using the keyboard, your typing is automatically redirected to the reply window. And if you happen to hit enter without realizing the window popped up, that person receives the snippet of text you were typing. This leads to more questions, and more back and forth. So annoying.

    My biggest pet peeve with this is the people who say “Hi Rebecca” and I respond…and then nothing for an hour. I realize people get interrupted, or have to drop everything, but a quick “get back to you later” would go so far.

    1. Sweets*

      This is my biggest pet peeve – those lonely “hi” IM’s that just sit there after you respond “hi” back. My preference is to present my question/request in the first message, such as, “Good morning, can you send me spreadsheet X before you go to lunch? I need it for Y which is due today.” – which conveys what I need and how time sensitive it may be.

      However, with more and more screen sharing through IM, I now do send just a “hi” since often times people are screen sharing and haven’t disabled the pop up or gone on do not disturb (not sure you can when screen sharing since it is through the IM program.” I even watched a recorded training that was done via WebEx where the presenter’s IM popped up with a message. Good thing it was harmless and not a rant! So, now I still hate it, but find the opening “hi” useful.

      Still no excuse if you sent the greeting and got a quick response to not respond back timely, though.

      1. carlotta*

        Yes! I prefer this too, but there is a culture at my work that you have to say ‘hi’ – then wait for a response, then a ‘how are you?’, then wait, then you can move forward. I forgo this most of the time unless I am having to contact someone new at short notice (and therefore cannot email).
        The funny thing is that almost everyone thinks it’s a bit silly. I caught my Italian colleague teaching a new starter about it. There was much rolling of eyes involved.

    2. Beezus*

      YES. Don’t even start with a separate greeting message. IM contact is inherently an interruption – don’t interrupt me to greet me and then interrupt me again to tell me what you want, I don’t care if it’s 30 seconds or 30 minutes later. Just dive in with what you want.

  5. C Average*

    I’m going to go entirely another direction with this question.

    A couple years ago, I read a blog post (and I wish I could find it, but I can’t) that changed my working life. The gist of it was, “interruptions ARE your job.” It was a huge departure from so much of what I read–“ten tips for eliminating interruptions,” “how to minimize interruptions,” “how to manage interruptions,” etc.

    My job isn’t this static list of tasks that I make in the morning and then carry out. Most days, it’s a short list of must-do action items and enough slush time to accommodate the inevitable interruptions. There’ll be IM questions and drive-by conversations and unexpected crises and other people’s projects that intersect in unexpected ways with my projects, sometimes requiring a quick change in direction.

    There are aspects of my job I’m not great at. I’ll never have a good eye for graphics, aspects of web navigation confuse me, and office politics sometimes flummox me. But I manage interruptions like a boss! And learning that skill–how to love rather than loathe the interruptions–has been really valuable. I’m probably more widely networked than anyone else on my team because people on other teams know I’m available. I get interesting projects and fun questions because my door is open. I have the capital to be able to go to others with my own weird questions and requests because I’ve been willing to help them.

    Also, being willing to deal gracefully with interruptions on most days gives me license to eliminate them when I truly need to. When my IM status says “do not disturb, on deadline,” no one disturbs me because they know I mean it! And when I tell someone, “Sorry, I need to focus on the teapot project until next week. Can you reach out to Wakeen?” they know I’m not blowing them off just because I don’t want to be helpful.

    Being the person in the office who can roll with the unexpected is not a bad gig.

    1. Keith*

      You are right, but some interruptions aren’t worth the effort you have to put into them.

      Instant Messaging tools are used poorly. At my last job I saw loads of people having 15-30 minute IM conversations, where a 5 minute phone conversation would have sufficed. My coworker would get PO’d when I asked what he was typing, but our jobs didn’t involve writing big emails or letters or anything so when you hear someone typing for half an hour (and you are both very busy and have a million other things to do) you want to scream “pick up the phone!!!”

      1. Alex*

        IMHO, spending 10-15 minutes hashing something out via IM is less distracting to me than a phone call. I don’t know why, maybe just how my brain is wired? Maybe it’s just because what I’m working on is usually visual and IMs are visual, so it feels more seamless and I an multi-task much better this way, vs going from visual working to a phone conversation, which feels like I have to really shift gears.

        Plus, in my environment, everyone is constantly on back to back web meetings as most of us are remote. IM is perfect for this environment.

        1. PizzaSquared*

          I agree, I’d MUCH rather have a longer IM conversation than a phone call. I can be having multiple IM conversations if I need to, I can look stuff up more easily, I can pause it for a minute if I need to do something else, etc. An IM conversation takes a fraction of my time and attention, while a phone call takes all of it.

          Thankfully at my office most of us don’t even have desk phones (and almost no one has each others’ cell phone numbers), so at this job it’s not much of an issue.

          BTW, not to go into a tangent, but this reminds me of another thing that bugs me. When people reply to an email thread and says something like “this thread is getting really long, I’m ending it now and setting up a meeting.” I get why a long email thread is annoying, and sometimes a meeting is the right thing to do. But taking 100% of 10 peoples’ time for an hour is not necessarily better than taking 0.1% of their time for a couple of days while the thread plays out. Plus then everything that was discussed is documented in writing. Yeah, a decision might be achieved in less total time in a meeting, but it often still adds up to MORE total disruption.

          1. Liz*

            Also, I can log my IM chat history so I’ve got a record of what was discussed and when. Phone calls don’t have that, and are sometimes the bane of my life!

        2. carlotta*

          Agreed! Massive team conference calls are made bearable by IM – the ‘back channel’ – and I can sort out other people’s smaller issues while on the call.

          1. carlotta*

            Oh and don’t ask why we have these conference calls where no one is truly paying attention. I’ve asked and it is a whole lot of pain and culture change to get rid of them – but I am working on it and hopeful that we will one day stop doing them.

      2. LQ*

        I don’t mind when I actually get to have 5 minute phone calls but so often on the phone people want to make small talk. But in an IM I can be to the point and no one complains about me not being friendly enough because I didn’t ask how their grandkids are and what they got for christmas.

        I do have a director who will call and have 2 minute conversations which are great. “LQ, do this thing.” “Give me 10 minutes and it will be done.” Click.

        But with anyone else I don’t want to chance a phone call black hole of doom.

        1. PK*

          This is what I was wondering– I personally would find someone typing to be less distracting than hearing them talk on the phone, but I am in a heavy-typing industry so maybe I’m just super used to it.

    2. Alex*

      I love this comment! I totally agree, at least in my company/industry/role. Interruptions are absolutely part of my job, and when you manage them well, you get recognized for being dependable, consistent, and just a good get-things-done kind of person.

      1. PowerStruggles*

        Nah I get things done and it’s recognized by all the reports I send to management not stupid I and IM requests for menial tasks or personal chatting

    3. Adam*

      This makes a lot of sense. Most of the time people don’t like being interrupted, but sometimes the work day just demands it, although agree that IM systems are not the greatest way to communicate. I see nothing wrong with blocking out times where you have your “Do Not Disturb” sign on. Most people should get what that means. In most jobs it’s about finding a balance.

      Tangentially related, I remember reading an article about how the majority of people’s work days are actually spent. We list off our accomplishments and important duties at work on our resumes, but (and I’m quoting from a hazing memory) the piece said somewhere around 60% of your average office employee’s day is spent responding to emails regardless of whatever it is they actually do. But “no one” ever mentions anything about email in their resumes or even cover letters. It’s just part of working in today’s world.

    4. Annie*

      That’s a great way of looking at it. I think there’s obviously something to be said for avoiding unnecessary or unproductive interruptions, but interruptions are definitely a huge part of most jobs.

      I really struggled with my first admin job because I just didn’t deal well with being interrupted. I had to figure out how to keep a running to-do list, and reprioritize it throughout the day as different situations came up and coworkers asked me to assist them with other tasks. What was my #1 priority at 7:30 this morning is now bumped to #3 because my boss needed to delegate a couple of important tasks to me while she attended an unexpected meeting. Keeping an Eisenhower decision matrix open on my desktop at all times helps me keep things straight even with constant interruptions, although I’m lucky that I don’t actually have a huge to-do list at the moment.

    5. Kelly L.*

      This idea became part of my philosophy too, after I spent a lot of time dealing with impostor syndrome centered on “I can’t get anything done with all these interruptions.” I realized a large part of why I was there was to deal with all these random emerging things, and that dealing with them was getting stuff done.

    6. HM in Atlanta*

      I am copying and pasting your comment into an email for myself as a reminder. You made this point so well.

    7. Not So NewReader*

      There is an old-old quote that goes roughly like this:

      Be grateful for the challenges of your job. If it were not for the challenges of your job, ANYONE could come in and fill your position. It is because of the challenges and because of your unique abilities with those challenges that NOT just anyone can start doing your job.

      I have used this one when something about my job has gotten under my skin and is really starting to fester and grow. Typically the annoyances were something that I could see was not going to go away any time soon.

  6. periwinkle*

    We use Microsoft Lync for IM. It has a handy Do Not Disturb status which prevents other users from IM’ing you when you need to focus, are hosting an online meeting, or otherwise need to block incoming messages for a while. If your software has a similar function, perhaps you can use DND mode when you’re concentrating and set your chat status to “call for urgent issues, otherwise please email me”.

    1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

      We moved from Sametime to Lync years ago, and I miss the Sametime hiding feature. I could be invisible and reach out as needed and get replies while staying hidden. With DND in Lync, I can still reach out but unless the person responds immediately, I have to switch status to receive the reply.

      Many of us use DND for periods of the day, but usually not an entire day. In that case, it’s easier to just sign out.

      1. Beezus*

        I use Microsoft Office Communicator, which also has a DND feature. You can set it to exclude people with Team status from the DND. Lync is also a Microsoft product, so it might have the same feature.

        I almost never use DND, but I did have occasion to use it a few months ago when I was 100% devoted to a project for a few weeks and had alternate coverage for my normal job. I gave Team status to the people covering me, then switched my status to DND, so they could IM me and no one else could. It forced people to go to my teammates first for questions, but left me available to my teammates if they got a real stumper.

  7. majigail*

    Agreed, you probably won’t be able to get out of this or really even get it changed. I especially wouldn’t use self-diagnosed ADD or any other self diagnosed thing in your argument. If you did have a professional diagnosis, you might have reason to use that as a reason successfully.
    My advice, for those things that are really to be done later things, copy and paste them into your Tasks list or some other to do list.

    1. Big Tom*

      “I especially wouldn’t use self-diagnosed ADD or any other self diagnosed thing in your argument.”

      I would expand that to ANY argument. I tend to disregard anything with the label “self-diagnosed” in front of it, and it makes it hard for me to take the speaker seriously. I understand that there are situations where disorders or conditions seem blatantly clear and people may not think that it’s worth the cost/time/effort in being diagnosed by a professional, but there are many reasons those people have the ability to diagnose and others do not. It’s especially grating to hear it from people who obviously only have a pop culture knowledge of a given condition.* Being easily distracted is not the same as ADD, social anxiety is not the same as Asperger’s, and sadness is not depression.

      *I’m not saying this of the OP in particular because of course I don’t know the extent of their knowledge of ADD or the diagnostic criteria. But even professionals really can’t diagnose themselves effectively or objectively.

      1. C Average*

        Second this.

        I went a lot of years assuming I probably did have ADHD because some of my symptoms were so textbook.

        When I finally went in for a full battery of tests, I learned that I had an entirely different issue (a learning disability) that looks a lot like ADHD to the untrained eye but wouldn’t have responded to meds or other traditional ADHD treatments. I’ve learned some really helpful coping mechanisms and made some behavioral adjustments and am doing well. I’m so glad I spent the time and money on the testing. It’s been a life-changer to know why certain things are hard for me, why other things come easy, where I need to focus my efforts, etc.

        If you have issues with focus, attention span, etc., that are actually affecting your quality of life, and if you’ve had these issues across a wide variety of work and life settings (in other words, if you’re confident that YOU are the common variable and that you’re not just dealing with a workplace with a higher-than-average number of distractions), it might be worth your while to get evaluated by a professional.

        1. PowerStruggles*

          Op here again that’s all very interesting about other learning disabilities and such but I did state that other than this I’m able to function pretty normally. It’s just that certain reports I do require my undivided attention. I am using DND more often than I used to though …and also want to mention NOBODY at my office ever asks if you have a minute AND I should mention a lot of the interruptions are personal like “hey how was your weekend” and I’ll say “pretty good, wow busy with these new accounts though” and then they’ll proceed to go on and on even though I just said I was busy!!

          1. C Average*

            What you describe definitely sounds frustrating. It sounds like the IM technology is old and clunky and people are using it in ineffective ways and generally not respecting any kind of workflow needs. I can see why that’s something you’d like to change.

            It seems pretty clear that the problem is not with YOU–as you say, you function normally otherwise. It’s with the situation. You have this annoying blinky thing on your screen demanding your immediate attention, you have people who aren’t responding to your trying-to-be-polite reminders that you have actual work to do, you have a laggy program that doesn’t respond in real time, you have action items that are getting communicated in a non-permanent format and with unrealistic response expectations–that would drive anyone crazy.

            I think why I and other people who have ADHD or ADHD-type issues responded strongly to your “a little bit ADD” language is because for us it’s not a situational problem. It doesn’t take an objectively crazy-making situation to bring out our symptoms. Things that are straightforward for everyone else–driving somewhere new, paying our bills on time, keeping our dresser drawers organized, getting places on time, completing multi-step assignments without a lot of help, estimating how long tasks will take, having successful relationships, etc.–can be so freaking hard. We have to train ourselves to disobey the confusing things our minds tell us and to instead obey social norms and behavioral guidelines. There are whole books written about it. For a lot of people, it’s not something that creates minor annoyances around the edges of our lives. Managing it successfully IS our life at times. So it can rankle when someone who’s mostly doing just fine throws the word around casually. That’s all.

            Good luck in getting this particular annoyance to a place where you can retrain your colleagues to use IM effectively and/or adapt the situation to your own needs.

          2. Sweets*

            For those non-urgent ones, can you click on them to read them so the blinking stops, but don’t respond right away? Or would these folks keep IM’ing you for a response? Perhaps a quick response saying, “sorry, can’t chat now – will IM when things slow down,” will keep them at bay?

            1. PowerStruggles*

              Yes you can click refresh to stop the b linking but then . you risk not remembering where you left off when you go back to check on it. That basically marks everything as read.

          3. Student*

            This is why managers exist. Tell the person you can’t chitchat, and blame your manager. “Sorry, can’t chitchat ab0ut cat photos today. My manager asked me to cut down on non-work chitchat just last week!” Loop your manager in, if you feel you need to, but I bet she’ll be 100% on-board with this and thrilled that you’re trying to shut down the chatter to work.

          4. Not So NewReader*

            This may seem a bit off track, OP, but bear with me.

            You say you have numerous spreadsheets open at the same time. I remember a big discussion on the extra concentration that it takes to work with spreadsheets like that. Is there some way you can do something different so interruptions are not so thought derailing? It seems to me that a person with or without attention difficulties would have problems here.

    2. Tau*


      I used to be self-diagnosed Asperger’s and got properly diagnosed a few years back. I can write novels about this subject, but to be brief: there is a serious stigma about self-diagnosis out there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people took your problem (which is valid) *less* rather than more seriously if you brought self-diagnosed ADD into it.

      Honestly, I still try to keep my diagnosis out of things when I can even with an official DX because talking about it opens up this huge can of worms I’d much prefer stayed closed – I wouldn’t have dreamed of bringing it up in a request for accommodation before I started pursuing the official DX.

  8. Mimmy*

    My husband’s job requires IM, and he grumbles about it pretty often. He works from home most days, and he’ll set his status to indicate he’s out for lunch….yet, he STILL gets queued sometimes!! (Most people he communicates with through IM are off-shore).

    1. jag*

      IM seems particularly important to people working remotely or in different locations, such as from home. I sounds like your husband’s coworkers want a quick way to communicate with him and he’s not obliging.

    2. Jen RO*

      I doubt those people expect an answer during his lunch. I often IM people who are away/busy/etc, but I never think they will answer immediately.

      1. V. Meadowsweet*

        exactly! just because I send an IM at 11pm doesn’t mean I expect an answer at 11:01, it means that I had something to say at 11pm that wasn’t email-sized. The recipient will answer when they answer.

    3. VintageLydia USA*

      I would think being available in IM would be MORE important for people who work remotely–either at home or at client sites. My husband’s job heavily relies on IM as the substitute for poking their head into people’s office/cube. Phone calls are for things that are urgent and email for things that really needed to be documented, but quick questions and requests are perfect for IM. You don’t have to respond immediately, but the question/request is right there so if you’re busy or on lunch or in the bathroom, it’s there ready to be answered whenever you are done with whatever.

  9. Ann O'Nemity*

    I wish I could opt out of voicemail, like Coca Cola did recently.

    I don’t mind the messaging tool as much. The one we use is easy to disable or mute so it’s not as disruptive. And I have a few custom replies I can send with a single click – “pls email me this info” is a handy one.

    1. AVP*

      I find myself copy/pasting “please email me this” to almost half of the IMs that I get. Luckily only a few people here use the system and none of them are above me in the hierarchy so I can do that! But seriously people, if the information will be relevant more than half an hour from the time of sending, it likely needs to be searchable and file-able in the email system.

        1. HM in Atlanta*

          The IM program I have is specifically set up not to allow saving of chat sessions, and if you accidentally press escape (or your laptop freezes and requires a hard restart), the chat session is lost forever. That’s been handy in people not using it as an email substitute.

          1. Linguist curmudgeon*

            That’s terrible! You’d think a company would want to CYA regarding record-keeping, logs, etc. at the very least!

  10. Allison*

    We have an IM system too, and I use it to communicate with remote co-workers on projects I’m working on, and in-office co-workers can use it to chat with me when I’m working from home. I don’t get a lot of IMs during the day so I’m usually available, but I definitely see co-workers indicate when they’re busy, in meetings, away, etc. Also, it’s not difficult to figure out how people wish to be contacted during the day, especially if they explicitly make it known, or make a point at being more responsive to preferred communication methods. Have you asked people who frequently IM you to e-mail you instead?

    If you’re concerned that you’re expected to always be available, is that something you could discuss with whoever manages you directly? I feel like unless that expectation is communicated to you (or in this case confirmed), you shouldn’t assume that’s the case.

  11. Dawn King*

    My manager decided she wasn’t going to use it and just ignores it when people try to IM her. Eventually they give up and email or call. She tells people she does not use it. I don’t think she had to ok not using it with her manager. It’s just how she decided she would work, however, the culture here is pretty laid back about new technology.

  12. Raine*

    Don’t mention anything about ADD! I do not have ADD and I found it so incredibly distracting when we moved to Outlook and the first several sentences of each new email popped up in the corner of my screen. (I turned that particular function off.) I know it’s an office culture thing, but there’s honestly nothing unusual about your reaction.

    1. PowerStruggles*

      Yes I won’t mention that everyone is right about that I almost regret saying that in my letter was obviously very frustrated that day!

  13. Jen RO*

    In my office, calling instead of emailing would be a faux pas, so yes, it’s a matter of company culture. Honestly I’ve never understood people who say that IM interrupts them, but phone calls don’t. I can reply to an IM *after* I’ve finished whatever I am doing; phones need to be answered immediately and need 100% focus.

    1. OfficePrincess*

      Exactly. During the 5 minute phone call, you expect my undivided attention. During the 10 minute IM session, I can answer other emails, send a supply order, file a couple things, eat part of my lunch, or whatever else needs to happen.

    2. PowerStruggles*

      Well yes but if it’s THAT important they need to call and oh yeah people here wil message you email you AND call you all within a few minutes and all things that are not urgent!

      1. Jen RO*

        That sounds annoying as hell, but it also seems to mean that it’s not IM that’s your problem, it’s actually your coworkers who don’t know where to stop.

  14. CaliCali*

    While I agree that IM is not an ideal mechanism for action items, I think we also have to self-manage our action item lists quite a bit. Email is the most convenient method for tracking tasks, but we all receive to-dos via phone calls, meetings, in-hall conversations, and other methods that we can’t click and streamline. Personally, I either employ old-fashioned pen and paper or create a really basic spreadsheet and track status there. It’s about whatever works for someone individually.

    Also, as a very crude workable solution — put a small, opaque piece of paper up on your screen that blocks the taskbar notification.

  15. Z*

    I think this just may be something that’s changing and many folks will just have to deal with it. I am on the younger side (though not young!) and people my age have been IMing for everything for years. People younger than me are eve more wired that way.

    1. Jen RO*

      I didn’t want to get into generation stuff, but IM is just… natural to me. I have been using instant messaging for 15+ years and I hate phone calls. I IM every day, for work and for personal reasons, to the extent that I can’t even understand how an office could work if people started to ignore their IMs. Granted, I work in a multinational and my boss is remote, but we would waste so much time if we started calling or talking in person for everything! I could never get any work done. One of my biggest office pet peeves is people coming to my desk instead of writing an email/IM!

      1. PowerStruggles*

        Op here. It’s ok you might be on to something I did just hit the 40 mark but cmon the personal chigger chat has got to stop . I think the real problem here is that we don’t use the IM correctly and that’s not gonna stop

        1. SCMill*

          I’m considerably older than you are and have been using IM for years. It’s the way we communicate quickly and efficiently in our department since few of us are located in the same state. If you were on our team and stopped using IM, you would quickly become irrelevant.

        2. Jen RO*

          I personally *like* chatting about random stuff over IM. Often with my boyfriend who happened to have turned 40 this year…

        3. ReanaZ*

          The personal chitchat thing is also heavily cultural (and regional). I’ve worked in environments were it would be seen as horribly inappropriate and irritating for me to ask about someone’s weekend and I’ve worked in environments where I would be seen as aloof, rude, and overly brusque if I didn’t ask a “So how are you?” and make small talk for a couple of minutes first. I’ve actually been snapped at in a latter situation for popping my head in someone’s office and asking a quick question, with a “Well, hi, and how are you too.”

          I’m a fairly private person, introverted, efficient, and not prone to idle chit-chat. But not everyone is wired like that. I try to think of making chitchat as something that does increase my efficiency, because investing in a) cordial relationships with coworkers and b) communicating with them in ways that they prefer to communicate is valuable.

          I also think that saying “You’ll get a faster response if you call me” or “I need to you to email me about that request if you want me to action it” are totally reasonable, but totally opting out of the culture’s dominant method of communication, being rude and dismissive of your coworkers’ preferences, and self-diagnosing yourself with a disorder rather than taking any concrete steps to take responsibility for your own needs and work responsibilities to others is not super helpful to anyone.

  16. AW*

    for example, sending messages with action items (which should be emailed)

    If you are using Office Communicator there is an option to save your conversations in Outlook but you’ll probably need IT to enable it. Hopefully whatever IM program you’re using has a similar program.

    which I feel sends the message “you need to drop what you’re doing and fulfill my request.”

    I agree. I don’t know why people do this.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      Yeah, if asking them to email the requests (in the IM conversation) doesn’t work, then saving to Outlook is a good option. (Although you said this is old and not very functional, so that may not work for you.) But if you can’t get them to change, then the only option is for you to change, and somehow figure out how to get those tasks in to a place where you’ll remember to do them.

      I do like the low-tech option above of putting a small piece of paper over the part of the screen where the notifications flash. Make sure you check your IMs by hand regularly, but at least the flashing won’t distract you when you need to concentrate.

  17. Case of the Mondays*

    Regarding losing track of IM’s, you can just copy and paste it into an email and email yourself. I use emails to manage part of my to-do list and sometimes I email myself so I don’t forget an action item I was given verbally.

    I also agree that getting interrupted is likely part of your job and IM is a huge part of office culture at many places. That said, I feel you on the distraction piece because I do have ADD and I CANNOT FUNCTION when the red light is blinking on my voicemail. There are days that I am on a deadline and put my phone on DND but go nuts as soon as I see the blinking red light. There is no way to turn it off. I tried coloring it with black marker. I tried putting post its on it. I might try just sticking the phone in a drawer. Usually, I end up stopping what I’m doing and just listening to the voicemail.

    I have also found regarding email interruptions that if something will take less than 5 minutes to respond to, I am more productive if I just do it, get it out of the way and move on.

    1. Nicole*

      I thought I was the only one who felt this way! That red light is so annoying and I’ve done the post-it note coverup as well. I would much prefer an IM to a voicemail.

    2. Allison*

      ADHD here! I have a Galaxy phone, and it’ll use a little blinking light to indicate new text messages, e-mails, or app notifications. It’s helpful most of the time, but if I’m ever in a real-life conversation and the light starts blinking (especially if it’s a bright color), it’s really difficult to ignore the light and focus on the person I’m talking to.

      But I’m very careful about using ADHD when discussing work-related issues, because lots of people say they’re “a little ADD” as a reason for missing deadlines, forgetting this or that, letting e-mails slip, or not being able to focus on a task.

    3. AW*

      I tried coloring it with black marker. I tried putting post its on it.

      Have you tried Duct Tape? I’d be really surprised if any light go through that.

          1. HM in Atlanta*

            Thank you for sharing this! I have electrical tape over all the tvs/anything that charges in my house because I can’t sleep with the bright blue LED. These will work much better.

      1. Willow Sunstar*

        There are registry hacks for Windows computers to get rid of the pop-ups and blinking lights. Google them. They will come up.

  18. INTP*

    Don’t use ADHD when you discuss this. Two reasons.

    1) It’s better to be seen as “silly” than deal with the stigma of ADHD. People might not say it out loud, and they might even consider themselves someone who is tolerant and supportive of and open-minded about psychological illnesses or disabilities while feeling this way, but it’s likely to affect their perceptions of the type of work and amount of detail and responsibility that you can handle. I have a pretty severe diagnosed case and never disclose it at work. (It doesn’t present as the stereotypical hyperactive case, so I’d possibly be pigeonholed into work that I can’t even do well and excluded from work that I can.)

    2) If you reveal that you’ve self-diagnosed this, there’s a good chance you’ll be seen as “silly” anyways.

  19. Lamb*

    Definitely do not cite undiagnosed ADD as the reason for this. If your manager has a self-diagnoser in their life (or an armchair psychologist) this will likely trigger an eye-roll even if you are otherwise a model employee (and even if you really do have ADD that would be diagnosed if you saw a professional). The issue is the instant messenger distracting you/disrupting your work flow, not how your brain wiring interprets the urgency of instant messenger.
    As for what to do about it, have you tried sticking a post-it over the icon on your screen that shows messages received? You can still click on it and check it through out the day when you are between tasks, but you don’t have to see the message indicator all the time when you’re working. The issue with that is you would need to be vigilant about checking it so you don’t miss the messages entirely, especially those action items!

  20. Jillociraptor*

    I think there is some element of adapting to workplace culture that’s needed here, but it’s also possible you can sort of train the people you work with to communicate in a way that’s more effective for you.

    I also hate getting complex action items via chat, and often paste the chat into an email to myself since I manage my to-do list via my inbox. One thing I’ve tried is being super responsive by email, but much slower by chat. If someone chats me, I let them know I got the chat and will take care of it by [date & time] but then reply by email. If I get a series of chats that seem like they’ll be a tome of info, I ask the person to just email me the request (“looks like this is a bit more involved. can you just email me?”) If I get an email that requires a quick back and forth, I try to model either calling or chatting to get the details rather than creating an unnecessary chain.

    Most likely, the platform is here to stay. I wouldn’t count on being able to get out of using your company’s IM. However, you probably can make it work better for you.

  21. hayling*

    I have a love/hate relationship with IMs. Great for quick questions when you need someone, but so distracting!

    You don’t say what chat system you use, but with GChat/Hangouts I often put myself on “busy” with the message “DND – writing” or “DND – thinking.” I try not to do it all day long, and most people are respectful of it and leave me alone.

    1. some1*

      The thing I hated about GChat when I had it at a former workplace is that there was no way to minimize the actual message without responding, and we had had the option to upload an avatar of ourselves that would show up when we IMed, so it felt like I was being watched.

      1. sally*

        You probably were being watched. IM is monitored and retained just as email is… be careful what you type.

        1. some1*

          I mean it literally felt like the person who messaged me was staring at me, 6″ from my face because their pic was up on the computer monitor; not like I felt like my IM activity was being kept track of.

      2. Connie-Lynne*

        Gchat has been replaced with Google Hangouts, and while it has a number of drawbacks, both apps now allow you to minimize a message without making it go away.

        In addition, you can find old messages by searching your gmail inbox for “label:chats” (assuming you haven’t changed your defaults).

  22. AnotherHRPro*

    I completely agree with AAM’s advice.

    In addition, I think we should keep in mind that the way people communicate in the workplace changes over time. Remember when we didn’t have e-mail? Some people refused to use it when it first came out. I raise this as a reminder that it is important that we learn how to adapt to new technologies. IM is not going away. You can avoid it for a while, but it will be the new norm. I would recommend trying to figure out ways to manage it.

    1. AW*

      Some people refused to use it when it first came out.

      Heck, some people refuse to use it now. I’ve had multiple co-workers who will call you if you send them an email.

      1. Allison*

        And some people insist that everyone get off the internet and get back on the phone, because e-mail is bad and the phone is AWESOME. I had a manager who insisted I call a co-worker if I had a question about a project, and an e-mail was only acceptable if the person didn’t pick up.

        Personally, I prefer e-mail because it doesn’t demand an immediate response, and people can get back to me when they’re available. No phone tag, no trying to set up a meeting and having to wait hours to discuss a subject.

  23. Gwen*

    The grass is always greener! We don’t have any kind of IM program at my work, and my team and I would really love to have it. I hate calling someone and interrupting, but it feels ridiculous to send so many one sentence emails throughout the day. I generally default to getting up and sticking my head in someone’s office if I need something quick like that, which at least keeps me moving, but that’s also much more of an interruption than a quick digital ping would be (and tends to lead to lengthier chatting).

    In your case, I would agree that putting yourself on DND/busy is probably the best option, as well as sending back requests to have important information emailed to you if necessary.

    1. louise*

      One office I worked at solved that by making the short message a subject line in an email and leaving the body blank. It was really convenient.

  24. AMG*

    I have seen good results from changing your status to ‘away’. People are more likely to email you if they think you aren’t there.

  25. Connie-Lynne*

    Instead of asking to be off of IM entirely, LW, you might consider designating certain hours “down periscope” times so that you can focus on less-interruptible tasks.

    I’m not sure which chat app your office uses, but many allow you in DND mode to have any IMs that come in during that time emailed to you. I find this incredibly useful because it lets the people who prefer to IM use their preferred method while I can still halt distractions for a while. If you already prefer email to chat, this might be a good compromise — be available on IM for a given time daily, but also respond to emailed IMs outside those hours.

    Finally, if you can disable IM notifications (to deal with the distraction), you might also consider just setting a timer and responding to all IMs during the final 15 min of every hour, or the last hour before lunch, or something like that. When I’m up against a deadline, I ignore IMs and then go back through them later on. People will learn your rhythms and most people don’t expect an immediate response from an IM — think of it less as a telephone call than a short, asynchronous mode of communication, like leaving a post-it note on someone’s screen.

  26. AB*

    I love work IM if I have a quick question (and to chat with co-workers at other locations). It’s also great if you need to collaborate remotely with someone on a project. I HATE when people send attachments or requests or anything that requires follow up. Our “chats” can’t be saved, so if my computer freezes or dies on me (a not infrequent occurrence) I lose whatever requests or attachments people send me.

    1. Bea W*

      We have Lync which I found handy, especially for chatting real time with people overseas, but when we got upgraded to 2013, the damn thing would pop up in my face every 5 minutes even with no one contacting me, and for the life of me I could not get it to stop doing that. I had to shut it down. Luckily, it’s not something my team commonly uses.

    2. PowerStruggles*

      Exactly ours can’t be saved either and most annoying are the personal chit chats I try to keep short but people just don’t get the hint

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        Oh, the personal chit-chats via IM are easier (although the distraction to you is the same): respond slowly and then even more slowly.

        If you’re quick on responding to work related email, reasonable when responding to work related IMs, and much slower responding to the non-work ones, people will learn that email gets a quicker response, and non-work gets a very slow response. At least a few of them will learn and adjust accordingly.

    3. louise*

      Yes! I used to have to restart fairly frequently (at least 1x day) and often my computer chose when that would be (i.e. it froze) and I’d lose what had been sent to me. Worst of all, I would continue to appear as active on IM the entire time I was restarting/logging back in/etc so any messages sent during that time truly went into a black hole. Co-workers would get irritated, but I just continued to explain that’s why IM is inferior to email for action items. When it started happening to others (the restart and/or freezing issues), they got it.

  27. Bea W*

    You need to have ADD to be distracted by annoying things. If having the IM on is not crucial to doing your job, mention that -it’s distracting and since it’s not crucial to your work, is it possible to either turn it off or keep your status as “busy” or “do not disturb” or whatever. You might also want to check with your workplace help desk if there’s a way to turn off the damn blinky icon. It probably would be fine if you didn’t have this blinky thing in the corner of your vision all the time.

  28. sally*

    Just turn it off. I doubt it is a mandatory communication option given most consider it a very informal way to communicate (similar to just dropping by your desk).

    1. Cheesecake*

      This! I am surprised people didnt write this earlier. I used to work in a corp with major IM culture that i personally liked (though i so understand OP). There were people who didn’t want to use it – so they did not. It never went through any management or IT or whoever. You just shut it down for today or forever and go do you work.

  29. Shannon*

    We used IM at my last job a lot. But there were 9 in my office, so that may have made it more manageable. However, similar things happened (some folks using it as to-dos, etc.) Here’s what a number of us used to do:
    1. If we received an IM with directives, we’d IM back a request to send it in email with a deadline
    2. If the above didn’t work/wasn’t appropriate, we’d email the sender back via email summarizing what YOU understood from the IM and asking for confirmation via email, and included deadlines, etc., that may have been unclear in the IM.

    It takes a little work on your part, but most people were happy to send an email when asked. I actually really miss IM now, as I feel like I’m sending unnecessary emails for small things that IM could handle.

  30. AnotherFed*

    OP, from some of your responses, it seems like you are just as distracted by people calling you or calling you AND attempting to contact you another way. Maybe you can cut down on the distractions of all varieties by having a standard time it will take you to fulfill standard requests (and communicating it to the people you support) and by providing clear guidelines (templates, forms, whatever works) for exactly what info you need to fulfill the task. Our admin does this, and it seems to work pretty well – if we all know she has all the info she might need and will get to our request within X time, we can wait!

    1. PowerStruggles*

      An that soundsike a utopian company where everyone follows guidelines and requests. But I do see what you’re saying. I don’t have issues with other forms of communication what I meant was people who will blast you via all methods until you respond and then it was nothing that could t wait until the end of the day. I think what we have ferreted out here and some of you have pointed out , is that there’s a bigger issue in my workplace culture that I’m going to just have to find ways to work around. We are a largely Sales driven company and most of the offenders are from Sales and their not following guidelines is acceptable. As long as they’re making their numbers upper management isn’t concerned with how demanding or inept they’re being. The other offenders are Support (customer service) but to a lesser extent. Both departments comprise the majority off our company and have the need to collaborate throughout the day. So you see I’m grated the same even though my tasks don’t really have the urgency . If there IS something urgent my boss will call or email me and say “hey can you stop working on X and pull me some numbers on Y for a meeting I have in 30?”

      1. Not So NewReader*

        It might be up to your boss to have a talk with their boss.

        There have been times where I have found the right voice inflection to say “I can’t get to X that you requested because I am on the phone with you. I can either answer the phone or go do X.” You have to have just the right tone of voice and just the right context, though. So I don’t recommend this as a go-to.
        You know, people are actually surprised to realize that their own phone call is blocking my ability to answer their request.

  31. Student*

    I don’t know anything about your office or the type of work you’re doing.

    In my office, the admins are viewed as assistants who are supposed to help other people get major business done, as well as handling some more minor business tasks independently. They are primarily there to support other people who do the major business tasks of the office, though. As assistants, I expect them to defer to the communication preferences of the people that they are here to assist. I’d happily encourage them to speak up if there was a specific communication method that made things easier for them to track or streamline – like what you bring up here – but if those preferences got rebuffed or ignored by the people they are assisting, I expect the admin to accept that and deal with it accordingly. If it makes things harder for the person being assisted, but easier on the admin, that is generally a net loss for the business. That’s why we hire admins – to make things easier for the employees that handle primary business concerns.

    In your specific case, I’d encourage you to figure out a way to incorporate IM messages into your workflow better, since you know you are going to have to continue handling IM requests. Surely you have people come make in-person requests of you occasionally. Handle the IMs in the same way you handle in-person requests. Heck, if you need to, copy and paste the IM into an email to yourself so that you can track it the way you track everything else. Or, look for a different organizational system that will help you track the emails + other communications. Ask other admins in your office for advice and how they handle it.

    1. PowerStruggles*

      Yes I’m an admin for two managers and they are not the problem one bit and respect my comm preference. The issue is other depts that I do not report to ( see above). I’m responsible for setting up new accounts however, so for example, a sales person might be messaging me about setting up a new account but they do not start service for two weeks

  32. NotThereAnymore*

    I had this problem in a serious way at a previous job. We were a non-localized office with several programmers working out of their homes, and had multiple Skype channels. We were expected to stay up to date, but the signal-to-noise ratio was well under 50%. I work in video game development where crass humor is the norm, but the same chat room could easily contain 2 days worth of joking and popular culture references and youtube links followed by a question “does anyone know how code X works?” or “Everyone ready for a Skype meeting?”

    My first month there, I was really having trouble focusing on work, so I finally decided that I was just going to ignore Skype for an hour. It was literally less than 5 minutes later that my lead programmer stood up and said “Hey! Skype!” because I’d failed to immediate catch one of those important messages. I totally understand that IM clients can be the opposite of work – I wouldn’t recommend opting out completely, but I do wish I had been more vocal about suggesting some changes. My current company generally corrals the non-work-relevant conversations to an optional chat room, that you can then turn notifications off on – which I, and most of my coworkers, do.

    1. Connie-Lynne*

      Skype used to have “keyword ping” functionality where you could ask Skype to alert you if a given keyword was mentioned in your chatroom. I alerted on my username and my team name — as did my entire team. We made it clear on team web pages that this was the preferred method of getting our attention in chat for urgent items, especially if you were in a room that was mostly watercooler conversation.

      Skype removed this functionality without mentioning it about 18 months ago — it took us less than 24 hours to discover the change. So frustrating!

  33. Dr. Johnny Fever*

    PowerStruggles, do you have an option to establish open hours – a regular time that you are available for ad hoc items/interruptions so that you can try to batch them later? I have found that for me, this helps cut down the distractions when I’m on deadline since I can mark myself as DND or Away, and others know they can contact me later. The trick is to keep up with those open hours and make them stick.

    Another thought – is it possible to amend your IM status to include a delegate or colleague that your teammates can contact when you aren’t available?

  34. Isabelle*

    Our IM system was so badly abused that our team ended up opting out of it.

    The main problem was that colleagues would IM us mostly to abuse or bypass normal processes. For example, when they made a mistake they wanted to hide from their manager, they would IM one member of our team to ask them to fix it. Or when they wanted to request something without the proper approval, they used IM so there would be no email archive. Then at audit time, whoever actioned the request would have no email trail documenting where the request originally came from. Some staff would also take advantage of the lack of experience of our newer team members by trying to offload some of their duties on them through IM, like getting them to run reports they could do themselves etc…
    We even had people who tried to play us against each other, they would IM an experienced team member who denied a request, then tried their luck with every other team member until they found one who said yes.

    After some time it also became clear that it was interfering with the team workload allocation, because whoever was most helpful or responsive would end up being inundated with requests. This extra work was not visible to our manager and other team members since they were not aware of the requests.

    I’m sure there are situations where it’s very useful, but for us it was just a nuisance. Some of the issues above could have been fixed by better management, but it would have taken a huge shift in culture to get there. I’m so relieved we’re not forced to use it anymore and all requests have to come through our communal email.

  35. AvonLady Barksdale*

    Office IMing can be such a tough thing to navigate. Alison’s advice is excellent. At my last job, our IM system was mandatory– and it was used to monitor us. This wasn’t explicit, but everyone in the company could see if you were at your desk or not by looking at our IM application, and it became a giant pain. I only worked there a little over a year and I still have nightmares. I was constantly being checked up on, and as a remote employee, it was crippling– “Where are you? Why does your status say ‘away’ so much? Why is your status ‘available’ but you didn’t pick up the phone?” (Answers: 1. At lunch– I can still take a break if I work from home. 2. This wasn’t directed at me but at a co-worker who liked to print out documents and read/notate them; she got busted for being “offline”. 3. I’m in the damn bathroom, lady, leave a message!)

    My current office is much healthier. We use Skype to IM and are allowed to ignore each other. The culture, however, is designed to allow blocks of work without interruptions, and it’s understood that if we’re focusing, we’re unavailable, even to the CEO. That would not have flown 2 jobs ago, where I was expected to be “on call” during work hours, and I had to prioritize by title and rank– for instance, if the head of sales emailed or called or came by, I had to drop everything to take care of his request. So it may be best to approach this from an expectations perspective (“Am I expected to drop everything when I get an IM?”), and certainly do not mention ADD.

  36. Vicki*

    Your company has a semi-required culturally “mandated” IM program that “only runs on PCs”?

    Ask for a Mac and be blissfully ping free?

  37. Esther*

    Some people at our work turn it offline for big chunks of time which forces us to send them emails. Saying that, the admin are usually online and we’d be worried if they weren’t.

    They have however trained us to email them for non urgent tasks. I.e. Calendar invites, formatting documents etc. they did this by replying to IMs and telling us to send then emails instead and also explaining this in person and in meetings.

  38. Willow Sunstar*

    Ugh. I loathe IM. My Aspie (probably) coworker abuses it. I used a hidden hack to make it not pop up, but it still sits there, glowing. I wish I could block the guy, but I am afraid that I would get accused of being racist or something. So I have to try to ignore the brightly glowing icon. Even when I am on DND the guy sends me messages to no end. Some people should be banned from office IM for life.

  39. Matt*

    I’d prefer any IM system to the strong phone culture at my place … I’d like to opt out of our phone network and have my desk phone removed, now *that* would be a relieve of distraction :.-)

  40. Rachel*

    In general, I’ve found that Instant Messaging is only ever used in companies that have bigger cultural problems. They tend to be used by entitled people whose main job is to request work from others. Meanwhile, they’re a huge interruption for the smaller number of people actually doing the work.

    Two occasions I can think of from person experience are: 1) A company I worked at with a massive egomaniac co-worker (not a supervisor). He’d IM people constantly, demanding instant responses to trivial enquiries. He was a jerk, management didn’t deal with his obvious personality flaws, I left, so did most of the rest of the staff, the CEO got fired, and that company went bust less that two years after my departure. 2) I worked for a company in the UK that had just been bought by a huge multi-national. The work included liaising with an offshore development team in India. Merely turning on your laptop first thing in the morning to check email whilst getting ready for work led to a barrage of “Hello!” and “How you doing?” -type IMs from bored IT geeks in Hyderabad that didn’t quite realise that whilst it was the middle of the afternoon for them, it was 5 f*cking am in the UK, and I didn’t have time for a chat since I had a train to catch. These were the same geeks whom you couldn’t get to do simple 5-minute tasks without a bucket load of excuses as to why it would take them days, so you ended up doing said tasks yourself. I left that company after only 8 weeks.

    The main problem is that interrupting some tasks, such as software development, is a bit like disturbing someone when they’re trying to get to sleep. Even if you only take 10 seconds of their time, you have not delayed their getting to sleep by only 10 seconds. You’ve sent them right back to the start of the process.

    People have a mental state called “flow” that requires juggling all kinds of information in their heads (that technical article they just read, that requirements document they just absorbed, and that conversation they just had with some that had a problem, plus all the technical ‘stuff’ they know that can actually be used to solve the problem). When you IM them in the middle of all that just to ask if the work is done yet, or to say “hello”, or to ask about some other task that they are not presently working on, you’re chasing that information out of their head.

    Instant Messaging doesn’t work because it places the onus on using it wisely and considerately in the hands of those causing the problem rather than those for whom problems are caused. Unlike email, you can’t ignore a flashing orange number in your taskbar. You can only switch the bloody thing off, and leave it for those doing the interrupting to actually get off their backsides and come and see you if their interruption is important enough. Most times, I guarantee, it will not be.

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