Get Your IM in Shape: A Workplace Guide for 2004

Here are some New Year's resolutions that can benefit you and your colleagues. Unlike that new gym membership or low-carb diet, you might even find yourself using them in February.
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In keeping with tradition, the onset of January is greeted with a flurry of activity in athletic clubs and health food stores as people attempt to shed holiday pounds, and, more importantly, to start off the new year on the right foot.

In that spirit, unveils its primer on best practices in workplace instant messaging. Making a commitment to follow this tip-sheet is one New Year's resolution that's both low-impact and low-carb -- and cheaper than a new gym membership.

Granted, like hitting the gym after a long hiatus, following a list of best practices in IM might feel awkward or downright pointless. But unlike working out, making better use of IM has immediate results -- in the form of enhanced productivity. You might not lose any weight, but your business communications will become deft and flexible, and lean and mean.

The Basics

Log on, stay logged on, and encourage others to do the same. Paraphrasing Metcalfe's Law, the usefulness of a network increases as it gains users. Faithful readers of already know that IM offers remarkable benefits for the business user: For starters, it's faster for quick conversations than using the phone or e-mail -- even for a slow typist. And since Buddy Lists (also known as Contact Lists or Friends Lists, among other terms) show whether users are online and available to talk, it's an easy way to avoid playing phone tag or the uncertainty of e-mail (is the server down? Did my message get spam-blocked?)

But those benefits are nullified if your colleagues can't reach you because you aren't logged on. Solution: don't log off if you're in the office. If you're busy, or simply don't want to be bothered, set your Away message (AKA your Status message) to indicate this.

On that subject, be religious about setting your Away message. Diligent use of Away/Status messages makes life far easier for everybody. Consider this example: suppose a colleague needs an answer from someone on your team right now. With the help of Away/Status messages, they can see by glancing at their Buddy List whether you're at your desk or available to respond. If not, they know to seek help elsewhere.

For those using IM clients that enable users to create their own Away/Status messages, diversify. I have messages for "On the Phone," "Just Stepped Away for a Moment," "On Deadline -- Please do not disturb," "In a Meeting," "Lunch Meeting" and "Out of Office -- back by the end of the day."

Having a range of specific, pre-set Status Messages enables you to quickly set up a means to provide detailed information to others about your availability -- meaning that a colleague with a pressing question won't be stuck wondering whether you're taking a five-minute break or an entire personal day. You might also consider listing your mobile number in your "Out of Office" message.

Additionally, most systems enable users to create a custom Away Message on the fly ("I have gone to the Megacorp presentation; back at noon.")

If you're forgetful about setting your Away message, allow others to see whether you're "idle" -- a feature typically found under the Preferences or Option menus of the consumer IM clients. Indicating that you're "idle" is tremendously helpful in helping other gauge whether you're able to answer a question. (Just make sure that you're just away from your desk, not asleep at it.)

Similarly, slow typists might benefit from using a feature that enables others to see that you're typing. Like the "idle" indicator, this capability helps information workers locate and communicate with each other faster and efficiently. For instance, if someone sends you an IM, the typing indicator shows whether you're at your PC and trying to respond; there's no need for them to wait for you to peck out an answer in order to learn that you're there.

Both the "idle" and typing indicators are typically turned on by default in most consumer and enterprise IM systems.

Contact List management. If you're like me, you have dozens of contacts in your Buddy List / Friends List / Contact List. Perhaps some of these have been pre-populated by your IT administrator; others you might have added on your own. In either case, it helps to keep contacts organized into discrete categories or folders that you can open and close to view, as needed.

Continued on page two.

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