How to craft chat guidelines for your team (and why they matter)

Illustrated people riding three multi-colored communication icons

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, there wasn’t a culturally appropriate way to start a conversation with someone in an entirely different place. People just didn’t talk with strangers without a formal introduction from a mutual acquaintance. Bell thought everyone should answer the device with a cheery “Ahoy!” It was actually Thomas Edison who decided “Hello” was the culturally appropriate way to receive a call.

The telephone challenged an ingrained cultural practice and required explicit guidelines. So early telephone manufacturers included “Hello” as the preferred way to answer a phone in the operating manuals.

As digital chat programs rose to prominence in the 1990s, no one got a manual with their AOL Instant Messenger account. When chat moved from personal use to the business world, still…no manual.

Now there’s a debate raging about team chat’s productivity value. However, after surveying almost 1,300 chat users, we found it’s not the tool—it’s how we use it.

A whopping 81% of chat users we surveyed are interested in getting clear guidelines from their company on how, when, and why to use the chat tool. However, just 23% of those surveyed got formal chat tool guidelines when starting their current job.

In other words: workers want to know their company’s social norms regarding team chat, but most teams aren’t talking about it—even informally.

We know discussing our communication styles can feel awkward at first. Here’s how to start this conversation with your team.

Conduct internal communication surveys

Chat is just one piece of workplace communication. To define a communication culture and best practices, you need a full picture. Use a Google Doc or other polling program (Stride has a great polling app called Polly) to ask people how they prefer to receive different kinds of messages.

When the item is urgent I prefer: 

Email        Chat Voice Call        SMS In Person

Have people rank from first preference to last. Include questions about why they chose the communication avenue. Try to identify trends and commonalities.

Talk it out, in person

When you get the survey results, set up a time to talk with your team. Everyone works differently, and knowing these work styles helps with team satisfaction. According to our survey, when co-workers share their chat style users feel more connected (54%), more productive (51%), and highly engaged at work (41%).

Let’s say that you want everything to go through email, you have a great system of folders and filters, and you find pings from the chat client distracting. But your coworker needs information from you, or their workflow is blocked.

They usually ping you over chat—sometimes you take a while to respond—and that coworker is caught in a holding pattern, unable to start something new. You see the ping, get distracted and irritated, and respond with a curt tone. No one wins.

What can you do to make sure you both get the information and uninterrupted focus time you need?

The first step is to talk it out. When your colleagues understand your motivations and communication styles they know what to expect and can plan accordingly. For uninterrupted time, use Stride’s Focus Mode to block incoming distractions and respond when ready. Maybe set the Focus Mode status to “Working on reports, will check messages at 10 a.m.”

Your status sends a signal to coworkers, providing important context and clarity.

Identify what you’re doing well and what you could do better

Culture can be described as the behaviors a group decides are sacred or taboo. Culture isn’t what you say is important, it’s what you do.

Your team’s specific chat guidelines are going to depend on what you do and the behaviors you all find necessary to accomplish goals. Guidelines for a fast-paced newsroom will look different than those in a university physics department. The important thing is identifying your group’s priorities and crafting the directions together.

  • Are quick bouts of rapid-fire information sharing important?
  • Are prolonged periods of focus with scheduled chatting sessions more your team’s jam?
  • Look at other teams for inspiration, ask friends how they use team chat, and check the Stride Blog for best practices.
  • Make lists, use post-its, build a Trello board—whatever works for your team.

Question your current communication norms

Do folks find the weekly analytics email helpful? Would it be better in a chat room or on an internal blog post? Are those daily stand-up meetings worth everyone’s time? Could they be done with Stride’s stand-up app?

In many organizations, people started reoccurring memos because they felt like the right thing at the time. But just because you’ve been doing it a while doesn’t mean it’s working. You won’t know what’s helping or wasting time until you ask your team and evaluate it.

Define boundaries

Few people thrive by being “on” all the time. Most people need downtime to recharge and stave off burnout.

We found 55% of chat users feel some pressure to always be available in chat. Another 23% feel significant pressure. That can be stressful—when you’re trying to raise kids, cook dinner, socialize with friends, or enjoy hobbies.

The solution? Talk about it.

If your business is a round-the-clock operation, who’s going to be on duty when? Do some folks come in early and leave at 4:00 p.m.? Well, don’t ping them after 4:00 and expect a response. Once again, you won’t know your colleague’s boundaries unless you talk about them.

Make it fun

Talking about the basics of communication takes practice. So, give it a silly name, like “the great communication symposium” and order lunch. Once you’ve discussed and brainstormed, boil down the key ideas and tactics into a short “communication bill of rights.”

Give this doc to recruits and make communication practices part of the onboarding. Consider doing this exercise every couple years or every time you notice your team communication getting cumbersome, confusing, and distracting.

Teams—just like individuals—work differently. Teamwork is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. But we’re certain of this: having conversations with your team about communication best practices can increase productivity and camaraderie. 

How have you streamlined office communication? Chime in on Atlassian community.

Team Chat Guide
Check out our survey results.