Communication tools have made leaps and bounds in the last 20 years. We have moved from phone calls and faxes to emails and text. With those changes came a new language and new rules for professional communication etiquette. Experts advised leaving humor out of emails to avoid misinterpretation, and arguments ensued over the use of salutations and signatures in replies and forwards, not to mention the battle over personal quotes in signature blocks.
Flash forward to today. Now many productivity tools include instant messaging in their team spaces and have taken that challenge a step further with the introduction of emoticons in their systems. While many of us use smiley faces, sad faces and "LOL" in our everyday informal communications with friends and family, should they be used in professional correspondence?
"Those types of communication tools allow for flexibility," said Dennis Collins, senior director of marketing at West Unified Communications. "Many times the communication tools get blamed, not the user, for inappropriate use. Instead, managers should focus on the results of increased and immediate communication, and not the means of getting there."
The pros and cons of digital communication tools
There are many positives to using Slack, Teamwork Chat and the wide variety of similar communication tools. Sharon Schweitzer, an international business etiquette expert, author and the founder of Access to Culture, said collaboration tools provide teams with a designated platform on which to discuss and develop projects, allowing everyone to share and consolidate their ideas.
"The open exchange between co-workers allows them to transmit and receive information as quickly [as possible], amping productivity and cross-team communication," she said. "For a project that includes multiple teams or people working remotely, these apps help reconnect employees, provide progress updates and facilitate collaboration. The apps also provide a designated platform for workplace communication without the distractions of Facebook Messenger or Google chat, allowing for greater office efficiency."
Guiding that open exchange can be a challenge. While Collins encourages small business owners and managers to embrace the technology and go with the flow, he also encourages setting parameters.
"Set expectations," he said, "and provide guideposts for their use. The appropriateness of different media makes a difference. You may 'talk' one way in an email and express the same sentiment in a chat message, only differently because of the more informal nature."
This includes the use of emoticons. Collins has several reasons why using emoticons in chats is a good thing, primarily when it comes to context.
"Content that is not relevant is just noise," he said. "We are being flooded with content. But when content has context, it is easier to understand. Emoticons provide that context, making one-dimensional messages more robust and showing inflection." It gives what the person is saying a visual communication feel, adding an extra layer to tell if the words typed are meant as a joke, serious or sarcastic, for instance.
Instant communication has other benefits as well. It breaks down hierarchal boundaries. Instead of an email to a boss, then another one to their boss, one to the big boss and back down again, now a question can be asked in real time. Because people don't have the attention span they used to, shorter messages at greater frequency elicit better and more immediate responses, keeping a project moving forward instead of waiting on a question and answer that is traveling up the ladder and back down.
There can also be a downside to the use of emoticons, inside or outside of your organization. According to a new study from Amsterdam University, including smiley faces in your email correspondence leads readers to view you as less competent. If that is a concern, Schweitzer has some advice: For professional exchanges, leave out the emojis, LOLs and memes.
"Remember that your online work platform is first and foremost a professional sphere designed to facilitate efficient and effective dialogue," she recommended. "Spamming your co-workers with GIFs is a sure way to cause problems and irritate your teammates. Keep your messages short and sweet."
She also endorses using professional communication platforms internally only. "External tools risk exposing private, confidential, trademarked, financial, or other sensitive information to the public or competitors. Open the channel to the in-house groups that are collaborating together, and be sure to close the conversation to all not involved in the project."
Another negative is the use of the platforms for personal business. It shouldn't be used to send messages to co-workers about non-business topics such as weekend plans or personal problems.
Advice for managers and employees
Within an organization, however, the use of common emojis, memes and GIFs can promote familiarity and foster that teamwork feeling. The key is to provide and enforce the guidelines for appropriate types of communication over the workplace communication tool and channel.
"Use it as a leadership opportunity," Collins said, "not a boss action. Sit down with the team and explain protocol for inside and outside communications and work on those protocol points together. Explain what is OK and what isn't. Once determined, monitor and engage – practice what you preach."
"Management can coordinate with HR to prepare written guidelines for use of the platform," added Schweitzer. "HR managers can train and debrief employees on the platform's function, tools and guidelines so that its use remains professional. Guidelines prevent personal and unauthorized use (for example, office gossip). Instruct employees to refrain from sending personal or sensitive messages; be clear that, as with any online messaging system, messages are not private."
Also, to prevent your team from distraction by notifications, create a management override or policy requiring them to adjust their settings so that they only receive alerts pertaining to them and their workgroup. This cuts down wasted time and increases productivity.
Finally, emphasize that a messaging platform is not a substitute for in-person meetings, phone calls or video conferences, all of which are more personable and effective communication. While online apps are convenient, they should never take the place of real-time interpersonal interactions. It is OK to instant-message to see if someone is available to talk, but discussions of substance should still take place in person. No electronic smiley face or "LOL" can take the place of a true smile or a team laughing, discussing and working together.