In a workplace where messaging apps like Slack, Google Chat or Microsoft Teams have become the normal way work gets done and the place where colleagues socialize, creating boundaries can feel like no small feat. It can be especially problematic when one of your co-workers is a Chatty Cathy.
We’ve heard from readers like you about how the lines between work and home have blurred. People are working more flexible hours, sometimes at different times than their colleagues, and they’re using messaging platforms sometimes around-the-clock. So what do you do when Bob from accounting won’t stop sending you messages? And how do you gracefully put an end to his urge to socialize with you at all hours if you’re seemingly always connected?
“It’s about re-creating boundaries,” says Jeffrey Seglin, director of the communications program at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Now that we’re getting back to a sense of new normal, we have to figure out how to use the [digital] tools and what’s acceptable.”
The Washington Post spoke with three business and communication experts to help navigate workplace messaging etiquette. Let’s jump in.
Q: How do I get a chatty co-worker to stop messaging me?
A: The answer to this question may seem simple. Can’t you just tell your co-worker to leave you alone? While, yes, that is always an option, there are a few things workers may want to consider before cutting straight to the chase.
First, what is the workplace culture and expectations? Is this an organizational norm or problem, or is it just one person?
Second, remember that the way people have become accustomed to communicating at work may have altered over the past two years because of the pandemic. This may be the way workers are getting to know each other because some workers are remote and some are in the office.
And third, your social capital may be different if you’ve been separated from your colleagues, you see them less, or you’ve never met in person. So you may need to adjust how you deliver a message that could be perceived as confrontational, especially if it’s over a digital platform where vocal tone and body language are lost.
Managers are a great place to start when it comes to defining social norms at the workplace. And now might be a good time to take inventory of how the team has worked over the past two years and reset some boundaries, experts say.
“Look in the mirror and see what kind of culture you are unintentionally setting” says Dustin York, associate professor of communications and leadership at Maryville University. “Even if you are a night owl, you can schedule messages [instead of sending them.]”
Email providers including Microsoft Outlook and Google’s Gmail, as well as messaging apps like Slack, allow users to schedule a message to send at a specific time in the future.
You may also want to create dedicated spaces for organizational socialization. Workers or managers might want to start separate subgroups on their messaging platforms — in Slack you’d start a new channel, for example — 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 chance to decide whether they want to be involved in the extra discussions or just stick to work-related chatter. “Forced joy shouldn’t be expected,” Seglin says.
As a worker, if the issue is organizational, you may want to take the approach of raising it as a question versus a demand from your manager or team. Framing it as a question to consider, and for the improvement of workers’ well-being and productivity, might make it less confrontational, says Heidi Brooks, a senior lecturer in organizational behavior at Yale University’s School of Management. “Start by creating the condition of curiosity and collaboration,” she said. “You might say, ‘I notice we … are chatting around-the-clock, and I think the team is getting depleted. Can we talk about that?'”
When a group works together, it may come up with boundaries that suit everyone and allow everyone to feel like they were part of the process. The idea is to make the conversation feel like a shared challenge and shared solution. The same approach can apply if dealing with one particular chatty colleague, Brooks said.
But if that doesn’t work, Brooks said to treat it like a work conflict. Be more direct with the problem by saying something like: “I’m feeling the strain of this constant communication.”
Seglin said the pandemic has forced everyone to be a little more cognizant of others’ mental health and well-being. So if it’s a reoccurring problem with one specific colleague, sometimes vulnerable honesty is the best etiquette.
“You can say, ‘I love that you’re including 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 settings so you’re only alerted by certain messages or at certain times. In some apps, you can change your status to be unavailable. You can switch your phone settings to “do not disturb” within certain hours. Some apps allow you to send auto responses, similar to an out-of-office email, within the app, and others can be paired with third-party auto-responses apps.
Or you can just change your behavior to set new expectations, York said.
“It can be as simple as messaging back in the morning,” he said. “After a week or two, Chatty Cathy will get the hint.”
Q: How to tell if you’re the chatty one
A: If you pay close enough attention, you may find that you could be the chatty co-worker. There are easy ways to tell on digital platforms, says York, of Maryville University.
On messaging apps: Look at the response ratio. If you’re sending six messages and getting one short reply, you may need to ease off.
On video apps: Look for nonverbal cues. If co-workers are focused on another task or providing no signs of listening, you may need to wrap it up.