Get Your IM in Shape: A Workplace Guide for 2004

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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, InstantMessagingPlanet.com 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 InstantMessagingPlanet.com 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.

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Going Mobile

As mobile devices and networks become more advanced, they support an increasing amount of features that help businesspeople remain in better contact with each other. Using IM in connection with your mobile phone or PDA can greatly extend your ability to communicate and be available to clients and colleagues.

For instance, IM-to-mobile forwarding features are a godsend for remaining reachable while out of the office. It's especially helpful for IM users who travel frequently, or who have a number of global IM contacts -- or just contacts that work nontraditional hours -- that are often online while you're at home. Or in the gym.

Most consumer IM clients (such as AIM, MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger) can forward IMs to your mobile phone using Short Messaging Service, also called SMS or "text messaging." Often, you can set up your IM application to forward to your mobile phone any IMs that received while you're not logged on at your PC. Note that these features are subject to whether the IM provider has a deal with your mobile carrier, and whether you have a wireless account that offers SMS.

In some cases, you can specify whether you'd like users who sent you an IM to receive a note that you might not be able to respond quickly (if at all) because you're on a mobile device.

For users of enterprise IM systems, you'll have to check with your administrator to see if your IM service supports this sort of connectivity.

While IM forwarding works well enough for responding to others, taking your entire IM experience mobile -- using a full-fledged wireless IM client -- is a good idea if you're going to be out of the office but want to have the same sort of links to colleagues that you do from your PC.

Fortunately, most wireless carriers support some form of wireless IM client, and with clients available for J2ME, Symbian, BREW, WAP, and SMS, practically every phone in the U.S. is able to handle at least one.

The SMS-based flavors of IM are often the hardest to use but don't require wireless minutes and has the benefit of working for the widest range of devices: about 80% of the handsets in use in the U.S. support SMS. (Again, SMS does require that your wireless account includes text messaging, which is either bought in bulk or per-message, at the cost of a few cents.)

Getting Corporate

With its reputation as a tool for quick notes, it's tempting to think of messages sent via IM as being disposable. Yet many of us find ourselves forgetting what a colleague said only seconds earlier in a just-closed chat window -- or worse, blanking on what was decided during a week-old IM conversation with the boss.

Fortunately, help may be here. Most enterprise instant messaging systems offer high-quality conversation logging out of the box, or in connection with a partner. This feature exists primarily as a regulatory and security tool (much like e-mail archiving or telephone recording systems.) But in some cases, employees can view and search through their own IM logs -- a tremendously useful capability.

Slowly, consumer IM clients are beginning to offer this feature as well. If you're using a system that doesn't provide this feature, there are a number of third-party add-ons that save IM logs to your local drive.

Abbreviations and acronyms. No primer on instant messaging would be complete without a quick run-down of commonly used abbreviations, designed to make responses faster and more efficient.

BRB ("Be right back") and OTP ("On the phone") seem to be two of the acronyms I encounter most often (and which could be replaced by diligent usage of the Away Message.) There's also "YGM," a take on America Online's "You've Got Mail" catchphrase -- used in this context to indicate that the recipient should keep an eye out for an e-mailed document. "No problem" ("np") and "thanks" ("tx" or "thx") also appear frequently.

Then, there are shortcuts born of Usenet, Internet Relay Chat, and other early developments in the evolution of the Internet. "FTF" or "F2F" ("face-to-face") and "IRL" ("In real life") are also significant, if only in that they represent a motion to take the conversation outside the realm of instant messaging.

"IMO" ("In my opinion,") "IMHO" ("In my humble opinion,") "OTOH" ("On the other hand,") "HTH" ("Hope this helps,") "AFAIK" ("As far as I know,") "IIRC" ("If I recall correctly") and "YMMV" ("Your mileage may vary") also are in wide use among more veteran Net-users.

Enterprise IM provider Omnipod, which surveyed 1,500 end users of its platform, also reports seeing "CTRN" ("Can't talk right now,") "DHTB" ("Don't have the bandwidth") and, inexplicably, "BFO" ("blinding flash of the obvious") among the most-used abbreviations.

As IM works its way into the daily routines of businesspeople, it also pays to remember to treat IM as a business tool. In short, that means that you should not say anything over IM that you wouldn't over e-mail -- since both can be monitored by your employer.

It's a fact that ought to go without saying. However, IM's beginnings as a teen phenomenon, coupled with its forte as a carrier of fast, brief notes, encourages even business users to think of it as being something informal, outside of corporate jurisdiction. Yet regardless of the communications medium, no company is going to tolerate harassment, job-seeking, or time-wasting while on the clock.

And while few companies have formalized human resources policies covering instant messaging, abuse of the technology at the very least could be construed as misuse of company resources.

Alas, this IM regimen is unlikely to flatten, tone, or define much of anything. On the flip side, making it part of your New Year's resolutions will beef up your inter- and intra-office communications, render your IM sessions swifter and more effective, and ultimately, help you accomplish more in less time. All without breaking a sweat.

Have a tip you'd like to share on how to more effectively use IM in the workplace? Drop us a line> and let us know!

Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.

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