Group chat is a tool that helps people communicate, just like email, phone calls, and meetings. Used correctly, these tools help people work more effectively. Use incorrectly, they hamper work. Jason Fried’s post about group chat as yet another interrupt generator started a lively discussion — some interesting posts are here and here and here, but there are many others. This is clearly a topic people care about.
Group chat, in various forms, has been used by specific groups for literally decades. However, as this technology goes more mainstream, the human etiquette is still evolving. Here are five guidelines on group chat etiquette that I found helpful me over the years, and which I hope help others:
1. Ensure everyone is using group chat. Email and phone calls are successful because they are ubiquitous and interoperable technologies. For group chat to work, everyone should be using the same shared group chat. After all, the idea is to reduce barriers to cross-organizational communications. Find a chat system that most people in your organization like and standardize on that. Once this is done, you can easily and quickly message someone in a totally different part of the organization, be confident they will see your chat message and be able to reply.
2. Carefully create a minimal viable set of channels. Having too many channels, or too few channels, encourages interruptions. Too few channels means each channel has a lot of unrelated cross-chatter noise. Too many channels make it hard to figure out where to post about a particular topic, leading people to use whatever channel feels close enough — which in turn means others cannot tell which channels to monitor.
Here is a “Goldilocks” arrangement (not too many, or not enough, but just the right number of channels) that has worked well for me:
- Private group channel: Membership is restricted to employees reporting to a specific manager. Each group has its own private channel. This channel is the pulse of the team, where you all talk about various internal team projects, as well as the socially bonding small talk that happens normally within a group throughout the day.
- Public group channel: This public channel is where other co-workers, in other teams across the organization, can reliably expect to find your entire group. People from other groups will join/leave as they need. The name of this public channel should be posted on wiki pages and distributed widely, so everyone in the company clearly knows where to find your group when needed.
- Public cross-group role-specific channel: This is a separate public channel for each recurring cross-group event. For example, channels here could include topics like production outages, release-day-logistics, recurring weekly company-wide meetings, and company-wide social chit-chat. Even if there is no production outage right now, having these channels created and well-advertised in advance means everyone knows where to go when an emergency suddenly arises.
3. Moderate the channels. Once these channels are created, they need active moderating. Small amounts of social banter is normal in any work environment (including meetings, conference calls or group chat) and helps us to remember we are all human, build a sense of community, and defuse tensions in high-pressure situations.
However, if social chatter starts to get in the way of doing work, politely and firmly move the off-topic chatter to another channel, so work can happen in the appropriate channel. Consistently moderating like this raises everyone’s overall awareness of group chat etiquette. Once the social norms are well understood, most people will do right by default, reducing the need for future moderation.
4. Remember that group chat is transient. If a discussion in a group chat channel reaches a decision that others may care about, that decision needs to be clearly communicated to all stakeholders. You’d do the same thing with an important decision reached over lunch, on a phone call while driving, or chatting at the coffee machine. Summarize the decision into a group-wide email, a project tracking system, or whatever is the single-source-of-truth for your organization. Sometimes, a quick copy-paste of the group chat discussion is good enough, but sometimes the act of summarizing a brilliant impromptu chat will uncover crucial missed assumptions. The important point is to keep everyone informed, without requiring everyone to continuously read every group chat channel for possible decisions that might be of interest later.
5. Mention people by name when appropriate. If you have a topic you want a specific human to read soon, then mention them by name. This will ensure they get notified and can quickly find where they are needed. However, be careful when you do this. This is almost like calling someone’s cellphone — you are choosing to interrupt without knowing the importance of what you are interrupting. Consider the urgency of your discussion, and consider if using another, less intrusive, medium might be best.
If you aren’t careful, group chat can become yet another endless stream of interruptions that people struggle to keep up with. However, with a careful combination of good technical organization and good human etiquette, group chat can speed up internal discussions, reduce email churn, and reduce the need for some meetings. A recurring daily gain for everyone, especially people in distributed organizations!
There are, of course, other things you can do to make group chat more effective… If you have suggestions for other ways to improve group chat, please let me know – in the comments below or by email. I’d be very eager to hear about them.
(Modified from my post on medium.com, and my forthcoming book “Distributed”, published by O’Reilly later this year.)