my manager wants us to IM each other to reduce email

A reader writes:

I’m a work-at-home contractor who is part of a small team (under 10) with folks located in two different cities. Some work from home, others go into the office. We all work for a very large corporation that has contractors and employees scattered throughout the world.

My manager wants to reduce the amount of email that our teams sends by at least a third. We have different initiatives to help us do that, one of which is by using our company-wide instant-messaging system. The system has a few different statuses: green – available; yellow – away, out of office, inactive, etc.; red – busy; red with a line through it – do not disturb.

When I see a person is marked as Busy, I will only reach out to them via IM if I have something that I need answered within an hour or two (or perhaps by end of the day if the person is listed as Busy for a few hours). Otherwise I will email them and wait for a response. My manager disagrees. She says that you can always IM someone, even for something trivial, as long as they are not listed as Do Not Disturb. Her thinking is that it is up to the person to decide whether or not they want to answer, and if you don’t get a response, clearly they are busy, then you can move to email.

Now, maybe for our immediate team that is okay (we actually have a group chat that we can post questions to, so it feels less invasive to me), but I wonder how that would work company-wide. I sometimes have to reach out to folks I’ve never worked with before, work with less frequently, or who are higher up the chain of command that I am, and don’t want to be perceived as a nuisance. At the same time, I don’t want to clutter an email inbox if the question can be answered quickly.

I feel like if a person is marked as Busy, the constant (or even not-so-constant) pinging of messages could be a distraction, but admittedly I love email, and I’m not a fan of IM (and would leave it on Do Not Disturb all the live long day if I could). I’m wondering if there is an unspoken etiquette for IMing that I could look to and reference.

I wouldn’t IM someone whose status said “busy” unless it was highly time-sensitive (and even then, I’d apologize for interrupting them).

That’s the whole point of a “busy” status — to say “don’t interrupt me right now because I’m focused on something important.” Otherwise, how is “busy” different from “available”?

I suppose your manager might argue that “busy” lets you know that the person may not be able to respond right away. But then why not just email to begin with, especially if your query isn’t time-sensitive?

It sounds like your manager might so focused on her quest to reduce email that she’s losing sight of the fact that there are times when it makes more sense than IM’ing or other forms of communication.

Email isn’t inherently bad or something that must be cut down on at all costs. I mean, yes, most offices send too much email and it’s good to create norms that reduce that. But that should be more about things like training people not to “reply all” or including unnecessary recipients or having discussing long, complex, or sensitive things that would be better suited to a in-person or phone conversation. It doesn’t mean just saying “use IM instead.”

And frankly, email has the advantage over IM in many situations, such as when it’s helpful to have a paper trail that you can reference later (when you can’t remember what Jane’s answer was to X or forgot the instructions Bob gave you about how to do Y). And it’s not an immediate interruption the way an instant message can be.

So I disagree with your manager, but of course it’s not my call. I’d try to get a better sense of how strongly your manager plans to enforce this — whether it’s more “I think we should do it this way, but use your own judgment” or “you must do it my way.” It sounds like / I’m hoping it’s more the former than the latter.

{ 174 comments… read them below }

  1. KimmieSue*

    We use IM through out the day. I personally only set to “busy” if I’m attending a conference that needs my undivided attention. I onlet to to “do not disturb” if I’m actually sharing my screen for a presentation.

    I’d recommend asking your manager to host a team discussion about IM norms & boundaries (the ten of you). I would NOT IM someone outside of the team and especially higher up in the food chain, whose status is even set to “busy”.

    1. AnotherHRPro*

      If your manager isn’t receptive to hosting a discussion on this topic, I would recommend reaching out to a few of your team members to see how they handle these situations.

      1. usesofenchantment*

        That’s a good idea. If the discussion does happen, the OP should bring up the topic of boundaries/etiquette as both the IM sender and the IM recipient.

        “If you had the busy status on display, regardless of how urgent is the nature of a message, would you prefer to be sent an IM or an email? Would you be more likely to come to a good stopping place and check your email?”

        “If you had the busy status on display, doesn’t that imply that you wouldn’t be sending an IM’s? You might be sending emails because you’re busying composing them, but you would not be available to reply to IM’s at all?”

        I hope I’m not overthinking it, but the expectations of response may need to be addressed. For example, “If you receive an IM and you are able to answer it, please respond to that IM. If you need to send an attachment or forward an email, then please do so after you respond in the IM that you are going to send an email” ?

        or, “If you receive an email and you are able to answer it, do not IM the sender your answer. Do not reply to the email and then a few minutes later, IM the person to say, “I just replied to your email…unless specifically instructed to do so by the email sender” ?

    2. KH*

      Huh? This isn’t rocket science. “Busy” means “busy.” It means, I’m busy and don’t bother me. “Do not Disturb” means I really mean it. It’s one step short of just going offline but still wanting to let your coworkers know you are actually working.

      Only for the most urgent thing would I bug someone whose status is Busy. If anything, a Busy status would result in me sending an email.

  2. Lebanese Blonde*

    Frankly, I wish my office had IM. I just received an email simply asking if I would have a few hours to help with a project this afternoon, which is a simple enough message that transmitting it via IM is probably a better option. I hate having to go through and delete a million emails moving around a meeting or debating a grammar point in a report title. That said, I grew up with IM, pretty much learned to type on it, and feel very comfortable with it.

    A few things:
    -IM can usually have a paper trail–every application I’ve used has an option of saving any given conversation. So, if anything sensitive or important is discussed, you could look into that.
    -Your color-coded system seems unnecessarily complicated…shouldn’t there just be Available, Busy (aka allow me a several-hour window to respond), Do Not Disturb, and Offline (aka out of the office, in a meeting, etc.)?

    Good luck! I think it’s a system that has potential, actually…just give yourself some time to warm up to it.

    1. HM in Atlanta*

      My company has specifically disabled the option to save any IM. That leaves a number of people copying the IM conversation into an email, then sending the email to themselves.

          1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

            My company is the same – my guess is it reduces the cost that would otherwise be required for database servers, consumption costs, infrastructure costs, etc. So much data kept for how long? Too much to handle – therefore jettisoned completely.

          2. LawPancake*

            In addition to the storage costs, if there’s any litigation these IM conversations could be discoverable and, since people can be pretty causal in IM’s, having these come out can really give your lawyers headaches.

            1. Hlyssande*

              I believe that’s partly why they did it for us – the legal aspect.

              I do, however, agree with the reasoning behind not using IM for important things aside from quick questions. It’s too easy to do that and fail to keep everyone else who needs to be involved/should have input involved. I ran into a lot of problems with that when the support team for the application I test for would push for full resolution within IM.

            2. sam*

              …and that’s precisely why my company requires storage of IMs. We actually had to disable IM for an entire section of our company until a solution could be found for mandatory storage – broker-dealers can’t have unrecorded conversations (by phone/email/whatever).

              We log everything. Even if you think you’re deleting off your personal machine.

            3. Is it conspiracy to commit murder if you could "kill for a sandwich"? :-)*

              It is a little depressing that the default mindset is “We’re probably doing something sleazy even if it doesn’t immediately seem obvious so CYA just in case by making sure none of our messages are discoverable.”

              I mean, judges aren’t robots — don’t they normally throw out spurious lawsuits if everything seems to follow the spirit of the law? I always thought that the reason cases where someone is awarded millions in damages due to some harmless phrase discovered in internal emails end up in the news is because of how rare it is for a judge to take such things out of their larger context.

              So that leaves either companies being overly paranoid or companies who are well aware that something they are doing is wrong who are intent to make sure they get away with it. :-/

      1. Delyssia*

        That would drive me crazy. My company has stopped auto-saving IMs, but we can still save them manually (we use Lync, and Ctrl+S saves the IM, like it would in most other programs). I’m not sure everyone here knows that it’s an option, but I find it incredibly useful for anything I need to refer to later.

      2. sunny-dee*

        Can’t they just check their local chat log? That’s enabled / disabled on your computer, not the chat server. (Unless IT disabled on the local systems, which is possible.)

    2. Hlyssande*

      Not my company’s IM. They actually removed that function because they wanted people to email instead of using IM for important things.

    3. Koko*

      Yeah…I agree with Alison that I wouldn’t IM someone marked “Busy”…but then, what’s the point in distinguishing between Busy and Do Not Disturb unless you’re being invited to disturb someone who is merely Busy? I have never seen those exist alongside each other before and I’m not sure how I would handle that.

      The larger point that others are hitting on, that IM doesn’t create as neat of a documentation trail, is the bigger issue to me with the manager’s request. I tend to use IM for quick questions like, “Where is file X saved?” or “Do you usually include Stakeholder Group C on minor status updates?” One-offs where I am not going to be called on the carpet later to explain why I made the choices I made.

      1. Jules*

        Busy means ‘I’m in a meeting or up to my eyeballs, but IM me instead of calling if it’s urgent’

        Do Not Disturb is exactly that: IM or call me and I will not only rip your head off for interrupting my focus, my manager will back me up….

        Or at least that’s how it’s used where I’m working!

        1. Jerry Vandesic*

          Busy often comes from your Outlook calendar, so if you are in a meeting you are listed as busy. That doesn’t mean you can’t answer an IM though.

          1. Liz*

            Yes, Lync pulls your status from your calendar. One of my colleagues often looks Busy but replies to IM immediately, just because of how he allocates work within his calendar.

            1. Becky B*

              I’ve set my Lync option to override default settings. If I don’t block off time on my calendar, I may never get to the little daily tasks because of all the other things that are suddenly priority #1. But I’m still at my desk and ostensibly available, so I stay greenlit unless I’m really submerged.

              I’ve also bumped up the Show Me As Inactive minutes as well as the Change Inactive to Away minutes, which works great except for those moments where I forget to mark myself as Away when I’m going to be away. :/

          2. Witty Nickname*

            Yes – we use Lync (or Skype for Business or whatever they are calling it now), and I never hesitate to IM someone whose status is busy. I just expect that they will see it and respond whenever it’s convenient for them to. (I assume the same thing when their status is available too. Just because my IM says I’m available doesn’t mean I’m twiddling my thumbs waiting for you to IM me. I’m probably concentrating on something and will look at the IM when I have the time and focus to do that).

            1. Tanith*

              We use Gchat, and most people who put themselves on “busy” forget to take it off. So it’s not really an accurate depiction of the person’s status. I personally just leave mine on green all the time.

      2. The IT Manager*

        In my email/IM system (MS Outlook and Lync), “busy” is an automatic state for anyone with a calendar item marking them in a meeting or OOO; it may not be a manual process.

      3. Turtle Candle*

        My company’s IM system does distinguish between “Busy” and “DND.” (And as we have a lot of remote workers, myself included at the moment, IM is used heavily–basically, the same way that a quick casual conversation would be used if we were all physically in the same office.)

        The way I treat it is that if they’re set to “Busy” but I have something of moderate to high importance that I need them for, I’ll IM with a “hey, I have a question (or request or whatever) when you’ve got a minute, no big rush.” And then I STOP until they get back to me (so no constant pinging). If it’s something of low importance I’ll just wait until they’re set back to Available. It’s basically a way of saying, “I want to talk to you when you’re ready, but I see that you’re busy, so you don’t need to drop everything.”

        If they’re set to DND, on the other hand, I only IM them if like… the live production build has crashed and I really do need their attention right this second.

        1. BeenThere*

          This is exactly how it should be, if you are going to IM a busy person have the entire request in one line. There is nothing worse than being busy and have that user that just pings you with a Hi and nothing else waiting for you to respond. Gold Star for you Turtle Candle! :)

          Unfortunately I’m a programmer I don’t get any peace and quiet if I’m set to available. Every Tom Dick and Hermione thinks it is special request hour to tell me their latest idea for an application or wonder why X doesn’t happen. So my status is permanently set to busy and occasionally to DND when my boss overloads my plate or production blows up. DND is particulary helpful because it forces eith phone or email, email is great for paper trail (much easier than searching through IMs and phone means I can only communicate with one person at a time as opposed it five different users leaving the hanging Hi message.

      4. Stranger than fiction*

        Not only that, but important things with action items can too easily get lost in the shuffle if several coworkers are pinging you at once. The program we use is old and doesn’t have statuses, you’re either On or DND, but if I did have a Busy status then had to go through a slew of messages later, I’d be supremely annoyed.

    4. AW*

      The ability to save an IM if it turns into something sensitive or important is a nice feature but it still makes sense to use email if you know ahead of time that the conversation is going to be important.

      That said, I’m really surprised that there are companies who purposefully turn that feature off.

      1. Lalala this is not my usual name*

        So, uh, many many years ago my company got sued by a client because reasons. We counter-sued. There followed a massive discovery phase where lawyers demanded and companies produced all relevant files, emails, etc. End result: both sides settled, deciding that it was not going to end well either way.

        The files found, however, included some IMs I had saved that had information I needed to reference later (including for CYA), but also, because they were unedited, included a director’s…candid opinions of the client’s position on a couple matters. To the director’s great embarrassment. He was NOT thrilled with my having saved that.

        That sort of scenario, or worse one where files that may cost the company a law suit might be found, might be one reason. Conversely, the LACK of discoverability might be a good reason to refuse to let people save – you then know that IM is like phone conversations while email (which is handled, and can be backed up by, IT) is…email, and thus discoverable.

        Of course, I heard through the grapevine that one former company is going to prevent people from saving email to local files, put it on servers, and age it out so they never have anything over X months – to avoid having to “discover” years of files in a lawsuit. (If I had to guess, since sometimes you need that information more than X months later, people will now print to PDF whatever they want to keep, and the cycle will go on.)

        1. Meg Murry*

          Yes, I worked for a company where the official policy was for emails to just disappear after a certain length of time (I think 6 months). The unofficial reason was lack of storage space. The real, behind the scenes reason was so that the older emails couldn’t be subpoena’d if they didn’t exist anymore – the company had gotten burned by subpoenas requiring emails going back years and years, and since they were on the server, they had to be turned over – if they were destroyed by company policy, they technically didn’t.

          We were supposed to save important project related email into our terrible document management system, but that was a pain to do, and the document management system wasn’t as searchable as the email client was. Instead a lot of us set a calendar item a few days before the end of the month, found all our emails that were 5 months old that we cared about, and reforwarded them to ourselves and filed in our CYA folder. Super annoying.

  3. The IT Manager*

    It’s a culture thing, but I will IM people who show busy. Busy happens automatically when your Outlook calendar shows a meeting so I will assume a “busy” person is in a meeting. If they’re participating, they can ignore the pop up window; if they’re only half listening and multitasking (happens lots around here) they can respond.*

    Personally I rarely change my status to busy on my own, but I am a manager and not a maker. Despite my fondness for IMs for things I need an immediate answer to or a quick answer, I find the goal of reducing email by 1/3 through IMs odd. Some things work for IMs – short answers and other things like long, thought out, researched answers work best through email. Also my IM conversations do get logged in my email so I can access them later.

    * If anyone is leading a meeting and sharing a screen they should mark themselves as Do Not Disturb so messages do not pop up in the shared window for all to see. (You can prevent this by sharing a program instead of a screen.)

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Totally. I once worked with an idiot who I had a short lived friendship with, that was stupid enough to leave our very private chat convo up on his screen as he was setting up for a meeting. Shares his screen and walks away to go to the restroom! I literally ran to his desk and shut the program down. Lesson learned.

    1. T*

      We don’t use a “real” IM client (i.e. one that interfaces with Outlook) so we must manually change our status. My pet peeve is co-workers who permanently set their status to busy. I suppose they think they are too important to be bothered. Because of this, I just ignore everyone’s status.

      1. BeenThere*

        T you should be aware that Programmers need long stretches of uninterrupted time however are often not permitted by their managers to go completely off IM systems for reaons. So busy status is as far as they are allowed to go to be uncontactable. They don’t think they are too important rather they are just trying to do their jobs, in open plan offices, with streams of meetings and users interrupting them for the first time they had more than an hour at their desk that day.

    2. Cost savings*

      If a company is using a bunch of email and people are saving every single email and never deleting them, it can take up a lot of server space, which can be quite expensive. It would make sense in this scenario to reduce email usage as much as possible to save money/not have to invest in additional infrastructure if it means a slight change to the culture.

    3. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Yeah, sometimes meetings are verbally cancelled at the last second or they end early, and I usually remember to set myself back to Available….usually. But we don’t use IM all day every day here, and I don’t have a lot of meetings, so it’s rarely an issue for me anyway.

    4. DMented Kitty*

      Our IM software integrates with our calendar, and automates some statuses but it has a few defaults of its own that you can set – green for ‘Available’, yellow for ‘Busy’ where it tells everyone my responses may be delayed, red for ‘DND’ wherein the software will receive the message but your chat window will not flash in the Taskbar.

      It automatically has yellow for ‘In a call’ or ‘In a meeting’ if you are on the phone/meeting, and if you are doing a WebEx it goes red and says ‘Presenting’.

      So I may still IM people who says they are on the yellow statuses, I’m not expecting responses immediately and I typically put in my inquiries in one line as well so the window doesn’t flash annoyingly. If it’s in ‘DND’ mode, same but I’d expect twice as long wait time or I’ll just wait until they are available. If they are ‘Presenting’ I will definitely wait until they are done before I bug them.

  4. Beth*

    We use IM ALL THE TIME at work. We have no problem IMing someone who says busy. Outlook will automatically change your status to busy for anything on your calendar, so if a meeting got cancelled but its still on the calendar, or if it got out early, or whatever. Or if you have an “appointment” on your calendar that is just really a reminder. The Do Not Disturb doesn’t actually LET you IM the person so that’s what we use if we are giving a presentation or something and don’t want IMs. Or you can set yourself to look like you’re offline, which I will do if I’m really concentrating and don’t want interruptions.

    Usually if I’ve never talked to someone and it’s a question that’s not important enough for email, I’ll just call.

    Just comes down to office culture, I guess.

    1. Heather*

      The software works the same at my company. We recently started using Skype for Business (used to be Microsoft Lync). It is integrated with Outlook so that my status automatically goes to busy during an appointment on my calendar. I never actually bother setting my own status, though I reset it to “Available” if my meeting ends early or I’m not actually attending the meeting. And the status will tell you if someone is presenting or sharing their desktop. If I see someone’s status is busy, I can confirm if they have a calendar appointment and when it ends. If I see someone’s status is “Away X minutes”, then usually they’ve stepped away or are at lunch and I can’t predict when they’ll receive it. Outlook automatically saves the IM conversation (at least that’s how our system is set up), so a record exists (and I think the IM goes to their email inbox if it sits unanswered long enough).

      I find that the people that have taken to using IM tend to do so in lieu of a phone call, since they’re looking to discuss something straightforward in real time. A more complex request still tends to go over email. But our work involves a lot of communicating with others in the company, and luckily we are pretty free to decide whether to walk down the hall, phone, IM, or email.

  5. Anonsie*

    What a weird target. “Stop using one kind of electronic text messaging, use this other kind of electronic text messaging! It’s better!”

    I get that there are cruddy email practices that lead to a lot of clutter and missed information, people waste a lot of time dealing with that, etc. but having people just send an IM instead doesn’t seem like it would solve that problem in any way. Methinks perhaps someone read one of those “email wastes time at work” pieces and came away with a nice hamfist of a solution.

    1. Lee*

      I worked at a call center that greatly limited the amount of email you could retain. To me it seemed bizarre (the company constantly was featuring new specials, or sent out descriptions of new packages to sell, etc). Then again, I don’t think the system allowed customer service reps to even send email out of the company’s system to a customer, so, they just had a thing about email (and about printing out anything off the computer — you basically couldn’t do it). There must be Reasons — I always thought they really must have gained something in customers getting a different answer from every representative about the price of a cable service package — but I couldn’t give them to you and the company certainly didn’t articulate it.

      1. Anonsie*

        I always assume any call center’s motivation for any management practice is specifically to jerk around their employees.

        Ok but really though, if you’re talking about sales or anything involving money and pricing, I think preventing their customer facing people from being able to share/get information is a tactic to make customers take whatever they’re given right away because they can’t reliably try to do better. Or if they try again later, maybe the price won’t be as good, you know? Or you need the thing and can’t guarantee the price or terms of the thing but you know the person you’re dealing with won’t be able to give it to you, so you just take the deal.

        1. Lee*

          I know it sounds insane to believe this might actually be a business practice, except this is exactly what the primary result is — and for years it’s been a primary complaint of customers (that they never get the same answer on pricing for cable packages) that there almost has to be something to it.

          It also makes it exceptionally easy to have a reason to fire an employee when there are literally dozens of conflicting emails on package pricing, and deleted emails because the account literally only holds one screenshot-sized page of email.

          1. Anonsie*

            I wasn’t going to dip my toe in the “easy way to exploit employees and remove evidence of wrongdoing” waters but I am definitely in agreement with you.

            Oh call centers.

      2. BritCred*

        That honestly sounds like a “we don’t want anyone making a papertrail” system. Eg. someone giving a promise, sending out records that could cause issues for the company etc.

    2. Desdemona*

      Right? Email and IM each solve different problems.

      It still cracks me up to remember, my boss at the old job ordered me to uninstall IM from every computer on our domain, because he couldn’t see the point of IM given that we had email, then ended up walking around our office all the time handing out sticky notes for anything that required immediate attention. I always wondered if he honesty couldn’t see the connection or was just too proud to admit he’d been wrong.

  6. SL*

    We have IM, but I hate it and don’t ever log in. I don’t want to give people yet another way of distracting me (as if calling, emailing, texting, or physically coming to my office aren’t sufficient). I also don’t want people to think I’m “available” at all times just because the IM program says I am.

    1. Just Plain Ornery*

      I also hate IM, but it’s the only way some of my colleagues communicate, so I try to leave it on as long as I can stand it. To me, it is more distracting than calls, emails, or even in-person visits. For some reason, I find the flashing icon at the bottom of my screen impossible to ignore.

      Plus, most people like to start by just sending “hi” or “you there?” with the result that I never know whether responding is going to be a 30-second thing or get me dragged into a quagmire. I tell everyone that they will get better results from me if they just come straight out and tell me what they want, but not all of them believe me.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Here’s how I’ve often handled that:

        Other person: Hey
        Me: What’s up? (reasonably polite way of saying “tell me what this is about”)
        Other person: (long complicated thing that isn’t high priority)
        Me: Would you actually paste that into an email and send it to me? It’ll be easier for me to respond that way later (can’t right now). Thank you!

        1. scmill*

          Really? We do that all the time as a courtesy in case it’s not a convenient time. I can count on one hand the number of phone calls I’ve gotten in the last month without a ping first, and I like it that way.

          1. Mpls*

            If it’s not convenient, can’t you just…not answer? If it’s important, they can leave a voicemail or send an email.

            1. Cat*

              Except when the phone is ringing, you have no way of knowing whether it’s urgent or not. When someone pings you first, you know it’s not (because if it was, they’d have just called) and that it’s okay to say no. Plus, a ringing phone is an irritant like no other in my book.

          2. Anonsie*

            If it’s not convenient, I won’t answer. Taking attention with the IM to ask the question and make them answer is considerably more disruptive than just calling and making them hit the straight to voicemail button or whatever.

          3. OfficePrincess*

            I prefer it too. If the phone rings, I have to answer it, even if it means running back across the room to grab it. But an IM first means I can see it when I’m back at my desk and then take the call or wait until I’ve finished my current train of thought to check and respond to the message.

        2. Ad Astra*

          I actually don’t mind that, but I’m of the generation that hates talking on the phone. On my cellphone, I actually prefer “Can I call you?” before calling me, because I could be anywhere in the world doing who knows what. It’s less necessary at work, but I prefer an IM asking “Can I call you?” to a phone call asking “Can I email this to you?”

        3. Hlyssande*

          Mine goes like this:

          Them: Hi [my name]
          Me: Hello!
          Them: (30 seconds to a minute of typing)
          Them: how are u?
          Me: [sighs internally]

          I mostly just want people to cut to the chase. “Hey, [my name]! I could use help on a thing and…[questions]. Thanks.” would make me so much happier.

          1. BenAdminGeek*

            Yes! I love those people who give me the whole thing at once, and try to do it myself. Then I also don’t worry about Busy/Away/Available- it’s out there, and they’ll respond when it’s convenient.

            1. Hlyssande*

              I always try to get the point across quickly. I know that niceties are good to smooth the way, but as long as you’re polite and thank them for their time that should be enough.. right?

          2. BeenThere*

            You can train your collegues to do this, I did. They simply do not get a response until they tell me what they want. I’m in an extremely short staffed IT team. Users who can summarise their request get my time because I don’t have the time to play fifty questions with those that don’t.

        4. Anonsie*

          I do get an awful lot of “call me at 555-5555” one line emails from people already. Is it because the issue is better discussed over the phone? No, no, it is always (always) something we could have emailed about but the person wants to tell me they’ve done/not done something they shouldn’t/should have without leaving a trail. Aaaahhh

          1. Elsajeni*

            I got one of these from my homeowner’s insurance agent, emailed her to ask if we could just discuss it over email, and got the reply “No, it will be easier to discuss over the phone.” Turned out to be that I needed to submit documentation that the house was my primary residence, so could I please send her one of [long, detailed list of options] — oh, sure, she can hold on a second while I hunt around my desk for a pen and paper!

            That is the EXACT OPPOSITE of “easier to discuss over the phone”.

        5. DMented Kitty*

          My least favorite conversation:

          Them: hi
          Me: What’s up?
          Them: Did you see my email? (sent five seconds ago)
          Me: Just received it. (starts reading through)
          Them: Can I call you now?

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        Flashing light drives me bonkers too! And mine flashes even when on DND, my low tech solution? I took one of the very small post it notes and folded it in half longways and with the sticky part outside, and stuck it right in the bottom of my display! I’ve also done what Alison suggested, but they don’t always get it and my company loves to harbor unteachable people so issues persist regardless. :(

      3. DMented Kitty*

        Maybe part of it is cultural, but I do either:

        Person: Hi
        Person: How are you?
        Person: Hope you had a nice weekend.
        Me (five minutes later): What’s up?

        ** or **

        I just ignore the monologue until the person finally types in the REAL reason why he is IM-ing me. After a few times I think they start getting that I don’t need small talk.

    2. Snarkus Aurelius*

      Bingo. It’s just like real life. Just because my office door is open and I’m here, doesn’t mean I’m available to talk or help. It just means I’m not working from home.

      If something is important, email me, and I’ll get to it when I can.

      This IM system should be a way to quickly communicate with people not assume that available people are at everyone else’s beck and call.

    3. Koko*

      I actually like IM because it reduces the number of people who call my phone with quick questions. At least with IM I can take 1-2 min to come to a pause in my work before checking it and still be seen as responsive. When my phone rings and it’s an internal line I pretty much have to answer it immediately. There’s only one person on our team who doesn’t use IM. She calls me all the time for trivial questions and the interruptions drive me INSANE. I wish she would just get an IM handle.

      1. BananaPants*

        Yes, this. I like IM for handling the little quick questions that someone might otherwise call me about.

  7. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Someone help me out here.  Why on earth would a boss ever give two figs about whether staff uses email vs. IM vs. interpretive dance vs. smoke signals vs. semaphore flags?  This strikes me as extreme micromanagement.  If you don’t trust people to decide how they wish to communication to each other, then don’t hire them.

    AAM is right that, according to your boss, there is zero difference between “busy” and “available.”  If you were to execute this concept, I bet you’d find a lot more people putting on the “do not disturb” option.  I know I would choose that option for the entire workday.

    Plus email is a Godsent to deal with the teflon employees who enjoy claiming that no one told them anything when something goes wrong.  That paper trail is so valuable that I would be highly resistant to moving over to an IM system.  (Only two people in my life have tried to get out of trouble when presented with the email trail, and even then it was laughable listening to their defense that they get so much email that they can’t be responsible for what shows up in their inbox thus defeating the purpose of having a work email account in the first place.)

    If there is a problem with too much email taking up space, then IT has ways to combat that like auto-deleting all sent mails every six or 12 months.

    1. Kai*

      I think it’s a misguided attempt to cut down on email misuse, like Alison mentioned–the replying-all and so forth. Which can all be very annoying, but yeah, this hardly fixes it.

    2. Joie de Vivre*

      I never gave two figs before but now I want all future communications using either interpretive dance or semaphore flags.

    3. thelazyb*

      Well to be fair you need quite a bit of space for interpretive dance, and should probably do some stringent fire safety assessments before people start using smoke signals. Semaphore probably ok if you’re in the same building but you’ll need to call or IM to get people to look up and then you’ve got the same problem. So i reckon most managers will prefer IM or email :-)

        1. TheLazyB (UK)*

          I was thinking maybe they could do it hanging out of the window? Or open plan offices are good for that sort of thing!

    4. Anonsie*

      Someone needed to make a scenario around which they could use the terms “initiative,” “metrics,” and “baseline.”

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        You’re joking, but I bet this is part of it. Inventing a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist is the calling card of people who want to look like they’re busy and productive to other people.

        1. Anonsie*

          Kidding on the square. Joking on the one hand, and on the other hand this is absolutely a thing and I don’t doubt at all that it had a hand in the LW’s situation.

    5. Three Thousand*

      Extreme micromanagement about sums this up. There are better ways to deal with the limitations of email.

  8. Sassy AAE*

    We’re having a similar issue in my office. As a part of our Office package we get Lync, but not everyone like/uses it. Our entire company is split into thirds among Lync, Google Hangouts and Slack. There’s been a push for Slack because you can use group messages (much needed for teams) and gifs (much needed for fun.)

      1. azvlr*

        And they have cute little animated emoticons! Like ninjas, martinis, hearts and other office appropriate stuff. Not sure why those would be included with productivity software.

    1. ExceptionToTheRule*

      Slack is awesome. It’s also got a mobile app, so you aren’t necessarily tied to your computer.

    2. Loquelic Iteritas*

      > Lync, Google Hangouts, and Slack

      That sounds like Hell. Having multiple IM systems (or email systems, etc) tends to be problematic in my experience. Among other things, you tend to need to know who is using which system in order to contact them.

      This is just me, but I’ve been very disappointed with Slack, especially at work. Which surprises me, because when I first heard of it, I thought it would be super-great. I set up a small channel for my family so we could share web memes (videos, pics, etc) – I thought it would be nice because it supported lots of devices and device types. It didn’t really catch on.

      But then people started using it at work, and oh my! I can’t really go into it too deeply but – it’s just not a winner. There appear to be several products in this general market (hip-chat, and I guess that anasi(?) thing someone mentioned) and maybe one of them will be The Next Big Thing – but so far I’m not seeing it.

      1. BeenThere*

        Slack has been terrible for my team, we had HipChat before and it was much better. I suspect because we are using the free version of Slack and not the paid version.

    3. Noah*

      We use Slack and I love it so much. The group chat feature is perfect for my company and has cut way down on emails.

      1. Long Time Reader First Time Poster*

        Slack is the BEST! we use it at my company (which is primarily remote employees) almost exclusively. We have a separate group channel for each project, which is great because you can stay caught up on all pertinent conversations instead of losing them in email threads. You can private message people, share files, save all threads, etc.

        People are expected to reply to IMs within a reasonable timeframe, not instantly. We pretty much never use email unless we need to talk to a client (and we have client-facing channels for clients on board with it). If we need to TALK talk, we launch a google hangout straight from the Slack client. I love Slack.

        1. JiraMaster*

          We use it the same way – each group and each project has its own channel, and it’s really cut down on long complicated email chains. Also, the /giphy command is the best thing ever.

  9. Rayner*

    I think I’m getting deja vu – has this letter ever appeared before or am I just an extremely accurate dreamer?

  10. Menacia*

    We use MS Lync which is integrated with our Exchange server and Outlook email. Even if we miss an IM, the conversation is saved in Outlook and can be responded to via email. I usually keep my IM on an “Away” status if I really don’t want to be disturbed because people are IM’ing me with requests/issues that should go to our Helpdesk queue. I have posted in as many places as possible on my Lync account to call the Helpdesk with issues/requests, but people still IM me, and well, I ignore them. I think IM creates a more “casual” environment than does email, we allowed users to use Google chat previously but they were chatting with their families and friends all day, with Lync all the conversations are saved and can be reviewed if necessary by a manager. Email is imperative for business writing purposes, I dread the day that chat lingo is the norm for a corporate environment, hopefully I’ll be out of here by then!

    1. Darcy*

      We also use MS Lync and we’re having company-wide issues with the program so it no longer saves history. I am actually in the “I hate IM” camp, because it feels like it must be responded to immediately (at least how my company uses it) and it’s very intrusive if I’m focused on something. I’ve actually had multiple people IMing me at once, when I’m trying to concentrate, and that’s really difficult. I don’t want to get rid of it, I just want people to use it sparingly when it really is a time-sensitive issue, doesn’t require a paper-trail, or if they’re on the phone and need a quick answer (so I guess time-sensitive again).
      To the letter writer, my only recourse for stopping IMs is by changing my status to busy or DND. If someone IMd me when I had this status selected, I would be really annoyed. So maybe it’s worth discussing these issues with your manager.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        I am so in your camp, and also am one of the few people here whose job often entails deep focus. DND has become my best friend, and I wish I were allowed to use it more. Today I haven’t been able to at all, my boss is out and I need to be available for everyone’s stupid “urgent” questions that aren’t urgent at all.

  11. Rayner*

    I like IMs but emails are a lot easier to work with and they create an easier paper trail unless you want a conversation which flows easier, or are for easy things like, “I sent the Jones file, am about to start work on the Andrews’ Dossier fyi.” If it takes more than two lines, it’s an email thing. And if it takes more than a couple of paragraphs, it’s a face to face conversation. I don’t want you sending me War and Peace via IM and get constant ruddy binging all through the day.

    Also, I find that people will, like the OP’s manager, ignore statuses. Treat it like a door, people – if it’s closed, walk AWAY. *grumpy old lady*

  12. Ann O'Nemity*

    It’s interesting how everyone / every workplace has different interpretations of those statuses.

    Our old IM system had a similar color code as what the LW described. As far as I could tell, most people interpreted “Red – Busy” to mean feel free to IM but don’t expect an immediate response. Like the LW’s manager suggested, the only time you didn’t IM someone is when they had selected “do not disturb.”

    Thankfully, our new IM system has simplified this into two statuses – active and inactive.

    1. T3k*

      Yeah, having grown up with IM, I always interpreted it as that. Sort of like when one texts: you don’t know if they’re busy or what, so it’s more like “here’s a message, respond to me when you can” deal. If it was an emergency, I’d be calling them.

      1. Al Lo*

        I recently texted my dad something totally non-urgent at 3:30 AM, and got an immediate text back saying “And you woke me up for this why?” I told him I didn’t wake him up; his phone not being on silent overnight woke him up. I just sent him the message when I thought of it, and figured I’d get a response from him the next day.

  13. Just another techie*

    I tend to only use IM with coworkers I know well and have decent rapport with. My personal rule of thumb: if I know them well enough that I can “hear” their voice when reading messages from them, I use IM.

    And honestly, I find it really offputting, rude, and disruptive when someone I’ve never met shoots me an IM out of the blue. IM is way more disruptive than email, and has more of a sense of urgency about it.

    1. Ad Astra*

      Receiving an IM from someone I’ve never met is like getting a text from someone who’s not in my phone book: Sometimes there’s a good reason, but it’s always a little awkward.

    2. JAM*

      The done thing here is to IM to follow up on urgent emails, even if you don’t know the person. In fact it’s great for asking if someone is he right person to deal with your problem. Also IT use it to follow up on tickets you submit, so it’s almost always in your best interests to answer the random person who just popped up saying ‘hi’.

  14. Coral*

    I just recently learned about a tool for reducing email, and it addresses some of the problems with IM: (I’m not affiliated with them, and I haven’t used the tool, though it seems kind of like an amped-up version of Slack + an issue tracker, which I have used and liked fairly well.)

    I would have a lot of trouble working on a team where the norm was to disturb one another when we’ve marked ourselves busy. But then, I’ve also been known to make calendar appointments with myself, to protect concentration time, so clearly that’s something that’s really important to me.

    1. SL*

      I could never really figure out Asana at my old job, although my co-worker swore by it. But a lot of people do recommend it for assigning tasks and collaborating on a single project.

    2. Almond Milk Latte*

      I hate Asana with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. My boss is the world’s biggest Asana fan and it makes me want to cry. It’s terrible for collaboration. To write a Google doc and have three people review it, I have to create a task for:

      Me: Write the Google Doc
      Joe Bob: Look at the Google doc
      Jim Bob: Look at the Google doc
      Bobbi Sue: Look at the Google doc

      There’s no way to set recurrence. Every week I have a Do The Weekly Report task. HATE HATE HATE.

      For most of my projects, it’s actually easier to use a Google Sheet and just IM everyone when they need to do stuff.

  15. SL*

    I went from an office with IM (love you, Slack!) to an office without it… I am firmly pro-IM.

    But in the end, it really does come down to office culture. My old job was perfectly suited for using Slack, because we had so many satellite offices (similar to you, OP!), the remote teams loved it because it helped them feel more connected to the company as a whole. They were “in” on the main office inside jokes, they could communicate with different remote offices easily, etc.

    My current office is 4 people. We all sit in the same area. IM wouldn’t make a difference in terms of efficiency (and we’re very good about keeping the email chatter to a minimum anyway). Whether or not IM works for your office really depends on the dynamics at play.

    1. Ad Astra*

      My old job was in a newsroom that was even more “open office” style than your typical newsroom, so we used IM a lot to have “private” conversations with other people in the same room. We knew IT could access the records if they wanted, but we were pretty sure they weren’t actively monitoring them.

      1. SL #2*

        There wasn’t even an IT department so the risk of someone else reading your messages was really low. If you were really, really paranoid, you could text your recipient (office was very cellphone friendly because we didn’t have landlines). Plus Gchat has that feature that prevents your messages from being saved in the chat history– without an IT department, it was super unlikely that anyone was monitoring the messages on the back end.

        God, now that I’m listing them all, there were so many work-arounds at Old Job!

  16. Loo*

    At my last job that I just quit lol… we had two facebook chatrooms, one for Work Information and one for everything else and general chat. I didn’t like it. I feel thankful I no longer have to participate. Because besides bringing work home, it also leads to telling staff members off in the chatroom, the boundaries are not there. And when someone would get scolded by the Manager in the chatroom, everyone stayed silent until someone broke the ice again. I’m not a big fan of IM.

  17. Bend & Snap*

    We have MS Skype (formerly Lync) and I love it! But not everyone does, and some days the IMs are just too overwhelming. You can have my email when you pry it from my cold dead hands.

    This seems like a sweeping, short-sighted mandate vs. something really designed to fix a problem.

  18. Ann Furthermore*

    IM is a blessing and a curse. It’s great for getting quick questions answered, but being logged into it means that anyone can reach you anytime.

    There is one person in particular who harangues me via IM all day long, but I need to be logged into it to communicate with other people. Yesterday she IM’d me: “I need to meet with you today. When are you available?” I told her I wasn’t available yesterday, and she responded asking when I was. We went back and forth a bit. I have 2 huge deadlines that I need to work on, I’m in a training class tomorrow and Friday, and next week I’m travelling to an office in Europe to work with some people there. So I’ve got a lot to do before then. I finally told her that I can’t drop everything to help her every time she pings me, which is what has been going on for about the last year while we worked closely together on a project. We’re in a support phase now, and I’m no longer fully dedicated to that effort. I’ve got other projects to work on.

    So then she emailed my boss, all polite and cordial about how she needs my help but is trying to be “respectful of my time.” I set the record straight with my boss this morning and told her that this woman barking orders at me in an IM window as if I’m a trained seal being commanded to perform tricks is not being respectful of my time. Neither is texting me on the weekend telling me to check my email, or calling me at 11PM and getting me out of bed to help resolve a critical issue, and then calling back 10 minutes later to say, “Oh, never mind.” Grrr.

  19. Ad Astra*

    Your manager makes it sound like the company is charged a fee for every email sent.

    If my status is set to Busy, I expect only time-sensitive messages to come through. When I worked in news and something big happened, I’d usually set my status to Busy but keep using IM to communicate with reporters, editors from our sister paper, etc. about the issue.

    But I do know a few people who set their status to Busy by default when they probably should choose Available. Maybe your boss thinks or knows your coworkers tend to do this?

    Email is the perfect medium for a request or notification that isn’t time sensitive, especially if you don’t anticipate much back-and-forth discussion. IM is the perfect medium for an urgent request or a quick question. If you’re sending urgent emails and IMing people about stuff than can wait, you’re making poor use of your technology.

  20. Adam*

    My organization LOVES it’s emails, but I can only handle so many messages in my inbox before I go crazy and feel like I’m losing stuff. Especially when an email could take me as 20 minutes to type out but only a few minutes to verbalize. So I’ve taken to calling people or walking over to their space when I’m not in the email mood. There will usually be a follow-up email from them for documentation purposes, but it’s a personal relief to get away from giant message strings.

  21. penelope pitstop*

    I hate IM with a passion. I often have to juggle multiple projects concurrently, all of them time-sensitive but in various stages. I have to have a high level of focus so that none of my balls drop and I’m naturally more of a big picture thinker, so this requires effort. I recognize other people love it and it works well for them, but I would resent being forced to adapt my work style to accommodate a system of communication that already works for me.

    There’s nothing worse than a PING when I’m in the throes of work. And a din of multiple PINGS would set my teeth on edge and spike my blood pressure. I find it inconsiderate in the extreme.

    As some have suggested, having a meeting to discuss best practices within and across teams is a good one. Good luck–I hope your manager doesn’t make your team persona non grata within your organization.

  22. Special Snowflake*

    There is one young guy in my office who learned the hard way how essential the Do Not Disturb setting can be. He was conducting a country-wide webinar, involving all our corporate offices, including higher ups. One of his office buddies IM’d him at 9:00 am asking him, essentially, if he was interested in going out after work, drinking excessively, and picking up women with a view to conducting sexual relations with said women. Only he didn’t phrase any of it quite like that – I will leave you imagine what was said – and it was definitely not anything you wanted anyone else to read, much less those at VP level. Luckily, he instantly realized this IM was beaming on every webinar participant’s screen from coast to coast, and he immediately shut it down and changed his settings, but it could not be unread, and I shudder to think how this would have impacted both their reputations at work. I have no idea if HR got involved afterwards, but it was certainly a mortifying moment for both of them.

    1. BritCred*

      I must admit if my prior employer had IM in use I can see my boss getting this from one of the girls in the office who liked flirting with him. She had no boundaries when there were other people around let alone if she thought it was private… Something that she wouldn’t do in email though.

    2. JiraMaster*

      This is why you shut down any messaging client before doing anything involving screen sharing. I once messaged a co-worker, “Is it beer o’clock yet?” when she was sharing her screen in a fairly high level meeting. (Luckily our company culture is casual enough that it wasn’t a big deal, but she was embarrassed and I felt really bad.)

  23. Hlyssande*

    My company switched from IM 1 (saved logs) to IM 2 (does not save logs). They even recently removed the ability to view previous conversations within the same day if you close the chat window.

    I know that the reason we moved from IM 1 to IM 2 is due to the amount of sensitive, important discussions that were had via IM rather than email (with a good paper trail with all necessary people included), and they wanted everything to go back to using email for just about everything.

    IM is so wonderfully convenient for a quick question or conversation that can be summarized in a follow up email, though. I’m so glad we have it.

    1. Hlyssande*

      I should also note that we’re a big, global company, and the other people on the same team I am are located in Manila and Costa Rica, so IM helps us feel more connected as a group. I think it might be different if we were all in the same place.

      …I may also use IM to kvetch with coworkers when the Jerky McButts coworker is saying terrible things again or the manager keeps talking over people in conference calls.

  24. scmill*

    I’m old enough to be on Medicare, but I prefer my current employer’s culture of IMs over email. We’re a distributed workforce, and many of us are also WFH. We get enough email about project specs, requirements, system issues, etc as it is without having to sift through a lot of quick back and forth over email, and our days are packed with meetings. IM is much better suited for functioning in a fast-moving environment, and I am more productive using it.

  25. MBA*

    My office uses Lync and we all love it (I do work at a tech company…) As other people have said, outlook automatically changes our calendars to busy if we have a meeting scheduled. Often times, it’s a phone meeting and you aren’t actually paying attention, an hour long meeting became 15 minutes, or the meeting was canceled last minute. So we for sure all IM each other when our status is set to busy. In fact, I would much rather get an issue to deal with during an unexpected free 30 minutes than when I’m actually “available” but had planned to crank out some work.

    At our office, emails tend to be for very formal or important things. Almost everything goes through IM so I actually find it MUCH more disturbing to get an email pop-up because I feel like I need to check it right away where as an IM can wait (because if it really was important, the person would email me, call me, or walk over.)

    The point is, in my particular office culture, a manager would probably talk to someone who was uncomfortable sending IMs when someone was busy and was pinging little questions through email.

  26. Suz*

    I absolutely hate IM. I find it so much more distracting than email. Especially when it’s a back & forth conversation. First you’re interrupted with an IM. You have to stop whatever you’re doing to respond. Then as soon as you have your concentration back, you get another IM with a follow-up question. Repeat 20 times. People complain about phone calls being too disruptive but a 5 minute call is better than 20 minutes of IM-ing back and forth.

    1. Brooke*

      When I need to focus I’ll close out my IM program. We use it a lot at work but no one’s expected to have it open at all times.

    2. T3k*

      Except if you have that person that talks really slow on the phone, or you can tell they’re having trouble piecing together their thoughts “so ummm… about this problem… one sec, let me pull it up here… there’s this problem, and there was something else… I can’t remember it right now…” Probably not as bad with coworkers, but having to deal with that on a regular basis with customers makes me want to bang my head against the wall in frustration (I did not sign on to do customer service help, but that’s a whole other story). Also, with IM, I can easily switch between tasks far easier when one hand isn’t being taken up by a phone (don’t have headsets).

  27. Mockingjay*

    On our project, we’ve unconsciously set up a line of demarcation for using IM (chat) and email.

    IM isn’t a required tool for us. It’s generally used between team members and is very informal. Most of us only “friend” certain team members, so our user pool is limited.

    Email is used to communicate with team leads and bosses. Email and IM aren’t linked.

    I have a couple of IM statuses set up: “Available,” “In a Meeting,” and my favorite, “Out to Lunch.” I also have “On Deadline” for when I really can’t be disturbed. I will ignore any attempts to communicate when that one is selected, just as I will ignore phone and email. To be fair, I only put up that status when I really do have to finish something critical, which is not often.

    My rule of thumb for IM: can my question be answered in a sentence or a paragraph? If sentence, IM. If paragraph, email.

  28. other rick*

    Last place I worked at started using IM specifically so one manager could eliminate the paper trails of his poor management from the remote office. When the remote office was closed and the staff moved to the main office, he stopped using IM and started using one-on-ones exclusively.

  29. LCL*

    What is this newfangled IM of which you speak?
    Seriously, my company doesn’t use IM yet, thank deity. So far I have been able to be strict about not doing business by text. Of course this takes excellent IT support to keep outlook up and running well, but we are a big company and email is still working for us.

  30. voyager1*

    I wouldn’t be surprised it is cost of storage. Emails are small but they add up. And many use email as a personal filing cabinet. Get a few hundred or thousand employees doing that and it adds up.

    1. The Billable Hour*

      You’re probably right this is indeed the company’s logic, but I’d argue it isn’t sound. This kind of thinking prioritises savings on supply costs at the expense of employee productivity. I mean, you’re pulling a few hundred or thousands of employees into meetings (or making them read up individually) to explain new ways to communicate and you’re making them communicate in a non-preferred format.

      This company has multiple “Initiatives” to cut down on email. If these employees spend an hour acquainting themselves with a new policy and clearing up questions with their managers like OP had to – that’s an hour in labour costs per employee (think about forty bucks for an employee making 80 k a year, so if we’re talking thousands of employees, that’s some tens of thousands of dollars just on explaining it to your workforce). Presumably, someone had to draft and spearhead the initiative, which packs on a couple of hundred bucks on top of that. And then, if your employees are choosing IM over mails because of an “initiative” instead of whether that’s indeed the right format, they’re presumably losing a few minutes over that every day. And again, that’s tens of thousands of dollars if you add up the “hundreds or thousands of employees”.

      Meanwhile, a gigabyte of storage is pennies.

  31. Hannah*

    I love IM but I never use the statuses. They remind me of middle school AIM *’~away messages ~’*. I’m either available or I’m signed off. I do my best to answer IMs immediately, but there are moments when I’m deep in thought or in a discussion about something else so I can’t, and that needs to be the expectation from my coworkers (luckily that is the case in my office). I don’t agree with adding another layer of complexity to it where you have to remember to set your status to “busy” if you want the freedom to respond a little later instead of immediately.

    In my experience, people are either responsive or they’re not, it doesn’t matter which technology you’re using for the communication. Managers who obsess about the technology are probably just lost and don’t know what else to do. With any technology you will still have people who are great at multitasking, people who aren’t, and people who are unresponsive because they’re actually working their second job as a cashier instead of working from home.

    1. TeapotSweaterKnitter*

      Your second paragraph is spot-on. Switching from email to IM is one way to reduce email, but it’s not necessarily a way to get things done faster/better/etc.

      Also, as I’ve read through the comments the general theme seems to be that every office has it’s own “culture” around IM – mine certainly does – but I know from experience that it happens naturally. It’s hard to force employees into very rigid ways of using technology like this. At my old job, everyone used IM for everything. At my current job, when they rolled it out some people immediately started using it, others didn’t – and you just have to know who you’re dealing with. (We also have the distinction between “Busy” and “Do Not Disturb” and, as others have commented, our “Busy” can be manually turned on and off but also syncs with our Outlook calendars). So in that instance, in my particular office culture, I would go a different route than Alison – I absolutely IM people when they’re “Busy”… but only certain people.

      TL;DR – Agreeing with Hannah re: people are responsive or not no matter the technology; you need to know your company’s culture around the tool to make it work.

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      Eh, I don’t know if I agree with your second paragraph entirely. It seems like I know a lot of people who are more responsive on their preferred method of communication. I know that I’m far more responsive on IM, especially since I usually only check email 2-3 times a day.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      As I am reading down through I keep thinking, what is OP’s company’s actual concern? My first thought is that productivity levels are down so someone put 2 and 2 together and got 5. Productivity levels are down because people are using too much darn email, let’s cut down on email usage.

      Better idea, why not let the people in the situation figure out what they need to get their productivity up?

      1. Graciosa*

        Even better would be if they figured out that the way to improve productivity would be to make it easier to interrupt people who are working …


  32. Chriama*

    It seriously depends on your company. We use skype for business (formerly microsoft lync) which is linked to outlook. This means that the status automatically switches to busy when we have meetings. There are a few mass meetings that I never attend but appear on my calendar anyway, and I’ve never actually changed my status to busy — the most I’ve done is switch to ‘away’ when I’m checking emails on my days off and don’t want people to know I’m online. In my case, I always ping people when they’re online whether they’re listed as available, busy or away (if they’re offline or ‘do not disturb’ I get a notification saying the message couldn’t be delivered). I suspect most people are like that — changing your IM status is too disruptive to do regularly. My rule of thumb is to ping people if you want a response within a few hours and to email if there’s a lot of information/files attached, their response will take time (a quick question vs. something they’ll need to research), or we need a paper trail. Sometimes I’ll send the long official request by email and ping them to let them know it’s coming. To me, a ping is the virtual equivalent of stopping by someone’s desk with a quick question, and an email is a little more formal.

    Is your boss monitoring your sent email count? If she is, you have bigger problems. If she isn’t, increase your IM usage with your team and continue to do what you feel comfortable doing with people outside your team.

  33. Kiryn*

    This feels like a failing of the IM software itself, honestly. I know some don’t do this, but Skype for example won’t ping your computer at all if you’re set to busy. My previous employer used Skype primarily and I used this all the time when I was busy so that I could focus on my work. No sound effects, no flashing bar, nothing – though the message would be there for you if you happened to have a moment to check it from time to time.

    I was in several group chat rooms and it was helpful to just be able to poke in from time to time and read what people said, without constantly having the program demand my attention.

  34. Colorado*

    I really dislike IM! To me it’s for more personal messages like “why isn’t this day over yet?” to friend-colleague. But then again, I’m old fashioned and will pickup the phone if I need a direct answer or have something complicated to discuss.

  35. LBK*

    I disagree here, but I think it’s probably about knowing your office culture – as far as I know, no one in my office actually sets their status manually except for the rare usage of Do Not Disturb, so I pretty much always ignore whatever the status is and IM anyway. It shows me as busy a lot when I’m not doing anything particularly urgent and ergo I assume does the same to others. If I’m truly busy enough that I can’t respond to IMs, I’ll just log out.

  36. bad at online naming*

    So much of a culture thing. At my current job, my team heavily uses IM – real IM, not lync. It’s so popular because of a few idiosyncratic reasons:
    – A truly frightening number of internal people have email signatures with videos in them (just… why), which destroys the readability of email threads in 1-2 responses.
    – All emails are deleted locally within a few weeks (even though we have to store them on servers for years for legal reasons), but IMs are not, making IM so much more searchable and reliable than email.
    – Almost everyone on the team uses macs but corporate uses windows/ the office suite, and these two things don’t play nicely together all the time.
    – Enough people over the years decided that “oh! the system should sent out email alerts when bad things are happening!” that when bad things are actually happening we have taken down internal email. Sigh.

    I have highly customized my alerts, and I love it! Urgent things get through ASAP and non-urgent things don’t disturb me. Email is now so much noise…. I also work a lot with people that are scattered about the globe, and IM feels a bit more personal than email.

  37. GrittyKitty*

    In our workplace, paper trails are essential. IM would not work for anything other than “free for lunch?” type comments.

  38. Camellia*

    Don’t have time to read all the comments so sorry if someone has already posted this.

    In our company, unless the status is Do Not Disturb, we first IM a discreet little ‘yt’ (you there?) or gm (good morning). That way, if they have someone is at their desk, a whole involved thing doesn’t pop up looking like ‘you must read me now’. And if they don’t want to be interrupted they don’t have to respond.

    Then we go on with our work and wait for the person to respond. If they can chat, they reply and off you go. If they do not reply you leave them alone, use email, whatever makes the most sense.

    And I always copy my IM conversations and put them into emails with a descriptive subject line “Juno and integration question”, but I don’t mail them to myself, I just save them as drafts. They live happily in that folder for easy reference.

  39. Kbelly*

    It depends entirely on what the IM service is. Is it Lync-directly connected to your IP phone and Outlook calendar? If so, it may be ‘busy’ because you have time blocked on your calendar, it may not be because someone set it to busy.

    So many people in my office have permanent spots blocked off every day, even though they aren’t actually in meetings, so they would appear busy when they truly aren’t. IMs aren’t that interruptive, I would IM even if the person appears busy (how is any different than an Outlook pop-up for new email?).

  40. Gene*

    I’ll preface this with my belief that Machiavelli was an amateur.

    I’m sure you’re not the only one who feel this way. Is there someone, preferably at your supervisor’s level or above, you have a rapport with who also thinks this is ridiculous? If so, plan a time when she is marked “Busy”, send her something that would normally go be email over IM, then she can go off on your boss about it. As in, “After Jane disturbed me with an IM that should have been an email when I was marked Busy, I asked her why and she said you told her to ignore Busy. WTF?”


  41. Loquelic Iteritas*

    I’ve been using IM since the days when it would show you individual characters as they were being typed (ie, you could see someone make a typo, then fix it). It wasn’t long before someone figured out that everyone was happier just waiting for the entire complete message when the other person hit Send.

    The IM system I use now has 4 states: Available, Away, In a Meeting, and Do Not Disturb. If someone is in Do Not Disturb mode, you simply can’t IM them. In the other states, you can. A common problem is that people forget to set (or reset) their state.

    It’s a ‘cultural’ thing but if you have a pressing need to IM with someone who is “In a Meeting”, at my work it’s okay to ping them. Sometimes you get back “can’t talk” but other times you get back “I’m in a meeting but I can IM slowly” and other times you get “drat, I forgot to turn that off!”

    I always keep my IM set to record conversations. This is amazingly helpful because, for instance, if you have a running conversation with someone over a period of days, you can easily see where you left off. It’s also useful because all kinds of phone numbers, images, and other misc data tends to get exchanged and it’s been a bacon-saver more than once to have all of that handy. If my company disabled that capability …? That would be weird. I’d probably set up something to do screen captures.

    IMs can of course be embarrassing if they pop up while you’re giving a presentation, so the safest course is to simply kill any IM processes on the machine before the presentation.

    It’s an accepted thing for people to send a message like “Got time for a quick call? (123) 456-5432”.

    Speaking of phone calls, many IM systems have some kind of ‘abbrev’ capability, so you can type “(123” and it will autocomplete the rest of the phone number. This is especially handy if you’ve got a conference call line with passcodes, typing “(888” can turn into “(888) 123-4567 passcode 8765432”. It takes a few minutes to set this up, but once it’s there, it saves boku time.

    Few things are as frustrating as getting an IM that just says “Bob” (or whatever your name is). I get my best results from “Hi – got a minute? I’m trying to yadda yadda …”

    And the very best ‘ping’ sound is a sample of the processed piano note at the beginning of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes”.

  42. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

    It sounds like the organization needs to set standards. Green = available to respond to questions near-immediately; e.g. yellow = available for urgent questions; red = not currently looking at the computer so response will be delayed; red line = do not send at all.

  43. The Bimmer Guy*

    My previous job was a remote web design position. We had something like that (HipChat), and I found it to be invasive. If you weren’t specifically marked “busy”, other team members would immediately expect a response to whatever they’d asked, even if it was something completely unrelated to the company (“Hey, Bimmer Guy, what do you think of pumpkin spice lattes?”). I got chewed out lots for not responding immediately, since apparently coworkers complained. Eventually, I was let go—partially because of my “unresponsiveness”—but really, the culture just wasn’t a good fit for me.

    I prefer to use instant messaging sparingly, and when there are important details or a paper trail needs to be made, like Alison said, email is far better. And even when I do use instant messaging, I don’t expect that someone will immediately answer me, even if I can see that he/she has read the message.

  44. sam*

    I generally don’t like IM except in one circumstance – when I’m actually on a conference call negotiating an agreement, and I want to have a “background” conversation with our “side” of the table even though we’re actually all in different places – my sourcing lead, or business lead and I can basically send each other quick messages highlighting things the other should bring up in the discussion. Or not bring up, as the case may be (like, “don’t offer XYZ – we don’t have authority for that!”).

    The other thing that’s handy is just the status buttons – it’s great to see who is actually in the office/at their desks. At my old company, a lot of people worked remotely and it was used a lot for that. But I find random messages during the day to be quite intrusive. My IM status is generally only reflective of whether I’m in an actual meeting or at my desk – it has no relationship to whether I’m actively in the middle of working on something, and I feel significantly more pressure to respond to an IM immediately as compared to an email.

    That being said, I’m much more likely to just shut down IM than I am to close out of email.

  45. gsa*

    To this is a communication equitte question.

    When I started working, we had pagers, landlines, no voicemail, and a fax machine.

    Next, the above and a radio,

    Next, the above and a cell phone an voice mail on cell and land.

    Next, the above and email.

    Next the above and text…

    Currently down to cell, email, text; at least workwise…

    I have alway learned the best way to get someone’s attention for something immediate and someone’s attention for some thing they might not be able to shoot off their hip or just not have time/priority to stop and make me their first priority, even thought it is a longterm time bound requirement.

    This matrix is massive…

  46. VX34*

    While I don’t particularly agree with the idea of swapping one communication solely for another to “reduce” the need for the one you’re swapping out for, I think that you can have a genuinely good system for utilizing each, separately.

    For example, long drawn out ideas, discussions, etc, should almost certainly take place in e-mail if it’s electronic. The paper trail, the space, the ability to copy others, etc, is valuable in email. This isn’t to say that you can’t have good discussions in an IM, but I’d much rather see the bigger-picture stuff in an email than in a chat window.

    Now, for me personally, I really don’t like picking up the phone to call someone if it’s a question that can be answered in 10 seconds or less, with a few keystrokes or a sentence or two. So, for those types of questions or notifications (“Hey, I’m done with ____, just so you know!”), then IM is in my opinion a beneficial addition to any workplace.

    Also, I do like the connectivity with the communication tool and the calendar to show statuses, meetings, etc.

    Plus, with IM, you can have slightly less formal conversations with your colleagues, especially if you’re all scattered across many regions.

    It does sound like better expectation-setting for responding to messages in the OP’s question is needed, however.

  47. KB*

    Really interesting to read these! IM practices seem to differ. Where I work, it is common to IM someone when they are busy – and fine not to answer. But we have so many meetings that people are essentially “busy” all the time. The IM is synced to our calendars so it will switch you to busy when you’re in a meeting.

    Personally, I feel really strange IMing someone who has never IMed me. No rational reason for it – just seems a little too familiar and like I’m waiting for them to break down that barrier first :)

  48. Melissa*

    Maybe this is where my millennial shows, but I honestly don’t see a functional difference between email and IM in this case. My computer is set up to send me notifications when I get a new email and I get them when I get a new IM too. So either way I am getting a notification. But even if I turn thay off on Outlook…an IM, as OP’s manager says, is ignorable. If I get one I can decide if I want to answer it or not, just like a text. So I wouldn’t mind if someone sent me one during a “busy” time – especially since our IM program shows you busy any time you schedule something I’m your calendar as busy.

  49. Matt*

    We don’t have an IM system, instead, to my dismay, we have a strong phone culture … everyone calls everyone about everything (without any email or otherwise pinging first), and you’re expected to answer your phone when you’re at your desk – it’s regarded as a mortal sin to deliberately leave it ringing. There’s also no voicemail for the desk phones. I always try to condition my coworkers to send me emails instead of calling, but it’ s a long and difficult process that only works very slowly for most of my coworkers and not at all for another awful lot of them ;-)

  50. WorkingFromCafeInCA*

    #1 – You could also start giving outlandish answers and walking away. How much was that salad? On sale for $45. How about those shoes? $10,000 bitcoin. What about your car? I don’t recall, somewhere in the ballbark of 1 billion dollars… As you these answers, you walk away/trail off. After a few times, hopefully she will become deterred by the futility of asking.

  51. Willow*

    IM is one of those things that’s fine if used sparingly. However, my coworker has abused it in the past, to the point where I had to go to the boss because me politely asking him to stop because I was busy fell on deaf ears.

    If I go on DND, coworker will then walk up to me and verbally pester me about him helping. I do data entry. I get Excel forms that can take an hour or two to process frequently. If I give him anything to process, there is a 50/50 chance he will enter totally random data than what is in the sheet. He has mental problems of some sort.

    If I go on busy, he will pester me in IM about me giving him things to do.

    So I usually leave mine on green, even though I may be swamped, just because of him.

    Boss is protecting him so I can’t do anything except wait it out until he finds another job. I think he’s interviewing. This is the same guy who was looking at me over the cube wall last year and not saying anything for several minutes at a time. I had to go to the boss for that, too. Coworker is basically a man-child with his issues.

    My point is, just because the light is not on DND, does not mean the person wants to be bugged. I hate IM more than ever because of this coworker.

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