“It’s about pushing boundaries,” says Jeffrey Seglin, director of the communications program at Harvard Kennedy School. “Now that we’re getting back to a sense of the new normal, we need to figure out how to capitalize on that [digital] tools and what is acceptable.”
Before we get into the subject, I would like to remind you that the helpdesk is here for you. We want to help you navigate the technology in your workplace and the problems it might cause. We want to hear your stories too. What’s your biggest frustration in the office? How is your job developing? Write to us and we will do our best to answer your questions or address your concerns.
Tell us what’s happening at your workplace.
Now back to Gabby, old Bob from accounting. We spoke to three business and communications experts to help navigate messaging etiquette in the workplace. Let’s jump in.
Q: How do I get a chatty colleague to stop texting me?
The answer to this question may seem simple. Can’t you just tell your colleague to leave you alone? Yes, while that’s always an option, there are a few things workers should consider before getting straight to the point.
First, what is the workplace culture and expectations? Is this an organizational norm or problem or is it just one person? Second, keep in mind that the way people have become accustomed to communicating at work may have changed over the past two years due to the pandemic. This may be a way for employees to get to know each other, as some employees are remote and others are in the office. And third, your social capital may be different if you’ve been separated from your co-workers, see them less often, or have never met in person. As such, you may need to adjust how you deliver a message that could be perceived as confrontational, especially when delivered over a digital platform where tone of voice and body language is lost.
Managers are a good place to start when it comes to defining social norms in the workplace. And now might be a good time to take stock of the team’s work over the past two years and reset some boundaries, experts say.
“Look in the mirror and see what kind of culture you’re inadvertently hiring,” says Dustin York, associate professor of communication and leadership at Maryville University. “Even if you’re a night owl, you can schedule messages [instead of sending them.]”
This is how you can tell if you’re the talkative type
If you pay close enough attention, you might find that you could be the talkative colleague. There are easy ways to spot this on digital platforms, says York of Maryville University.
- For messaging apps: Look at the response rate. If you send six messages and get a short reply, you may need to ease up.
- For video apps: Look for non-verbal cues. If co-workers are focused on another task or aren’t showing signs of listening, you may need to end it.
Email providers like Microsoft Outlook and Google’s Gmail, as well as messaging apps like Slack, allow users to schedule a message to be sent at a specific time in the future.
Companies are (again) rewriting the future of work
You may also want to create specific areas for socialization in the organization. Workers or managers might want to set up separate subgroups on their messaging platforms — in Slack, for example, you’d start a new channel — for people who want to chat more casually or about specific topics like what they’re watching on Netflix, York said. This gives workers the opportunity to choose whether to participate in the additional discussions or simply stick with work-related chatter.
“Don’t expect forced joy,” says Seglin.
Create community and safety in the workplace
If the issue is an organizational issue, you as an employee may want to take the approach of asking it as a question rather than a demand from your manager or team. Framing it as a question to consider that improves worker well-being and productivity might make it less confrontational, says Heidi Brooks, associate professor of organizational behavior in Yale University’s School of Management. “Start by creating the conditions for curiosity and collaboration,” she said. “You could say, ‘I noticed that we’re chatting 24/7, and I think the team is exhausted. Can we talk about this?'”
When a group works together, they can find boundaries that work for everyone and make everyone feel part of the process. The idea is for the conversation to feel like a shared challenge and shared solution. The same approach can apply when it comes to a specific talkative colleague, Brooks said.
But if that doesn’t work, Brooks said, treat it like an industrial dispute. Address the issue more directly by saying something like, “I feel the strain of this constant communication.”
Seglin said the pandemic has forced everyone to be a little more aware of the mental health and well-being of others. So when it comes to a recurring issue with a particular colleague, sometimes vulnerable honesty is the best etiquette.
“You can say, ‘I love that you include me, I’m just not up to socializing,'” he said.
And if all else fails, you can turn to the tech itself, York said.
You can change your notification preferences so that you only get notified about certain messages or at certain times. In some apps you can change your status to unavailable. You can change your phone settings so that you do not disturb within certain times. Some apps allow you to send auto-replies similar to an out-of-office email from within the app, and others can be paired with third-party auto-reply apps.
Or you can simply change your behavior to create new expectations, York said.
“It can be as simple as a text in the morning,” he said. “In a week or two, Chatty Cathy will take the hint.”