When you work remotely, communicating effectively with your team members is one of the biggest hurdles you need to get over.

Things like email, video chats, and even traditional phone calls (gasp—remember the phone?) certainly help to get the job done. But they can feel a little too formal for things like casual conversations and quick questions.

This is where chat tools can come in particularly handy. Whether you need some speedy advice on a challenge you’re facing or you want to talk about the Netflix show you’re currently binging, your team’s chat app is the perfect place to do that.

However, there are some ground rules you should be aware of so that you can make the most of using your team’s chat tool—without it becoming a major distraction for you or your colleagues.

Here are six best practices for using chat tools in a remote environment:

1. Set Your Status

Most chat tools allow you to set a status, which indicates what you’re doing at that point—whether you’re in a meeting, out sick, vacationing, or something else.

Setting a status might seem unnecessary, but it can actually be a huge help when you work remotely. Remember, people don’t have the luxury of being able to glance at your desk and know whether or not you’re available.

Utilizing a status allows you to explicitly indicate whether you’re currently tuned in or out of touch, so your colleagues aren’t left wondering.

2. Have a System

Effective communication needs to be a high priority in a remote environment, and you have plenty of different tools at your disposal to make that happen.

To keep everybody on the same page (and to avoid having people tear their hair out over unnecessary pings or confusing notes), it can be helpful to have some sort of system in place that dictates the best way to communicate certain messages on your team.

This doesn’t need to be anything super rigid or complicated. Even just a few general rules can help to keep everybody on the same page.

For example:

  • Email should be used for questions and updates that require a lot of context or supporting documentation.
  • Chat is reserved for small talk and questions that can be answered quickly.

Your team could even do some sort of survey to figure out how others prefer to communicate. Some people love the convenience of having everything in the chat tool (rather than having another email in their inbox), while others worry about messages getting lost in the shuffle. Lay some simple ground rules and you’ll be able to communicate and leverage your chat tool that much more effectively.

3. Silence Your Notifications

While working remotely offers plenty of flexibility, it can also make it hard to unplug and truly disconnect from work because it’s always there waiting for you. To give yourself the breathing room you need (and deserve!), don’t hesitate to silence the notifications on your chat tool every now and then.

Whether you’re unplugging for the evening or you just need some time to be heads down in your work without any distractions, turning off your chat notifications means you won’t constantly be tempted to check in on the conversation.

If it gives you some peace of mind, have a plan in place for how people can get in touch with you in case something urgent pops up. But remember, just because your team has a chat tool doesn’t mean you need to keep a watchful eye on it constantly.

Think about it this way: if you worked in a traditional office, you could go into a room with a closed door or pop your earbuds in to tune out the noise and zone in on your work. Silencing your notifications is like the digital version of that same thing.

4. Keep Messages Short

Chat tools are often better used for instant communication or conversations that need to happen in a more efficient manner than email. Because of that, most people aren’t willing to invest their time and attention into reading a War and Peace-sized message via that method.

If you find that your point requires a lot of explanation or context, avoid sending a giant wall of text to your team or colleague and think about whether or not that topic is better reserved for an email or even a meeting.

5. Actively Participate in Small Talk

Team culture is another thing that can be tough to foster when you and your co-workers aren’t working side-by-side with each other. Your chat tool is a great resource for business conversations, but that doesn’t mean you need to be all work and no play.

Chances are, your chat platform has a dedicated channel or outlet for small talk or water cooler conversations. Be an active participant there: talk about your plans for the weekend or share a photo from your recent vacation.

Letting your remote colleagues get a glimpse into your life away from your computer will help you forge solid relationships and contribute to the team-centered culture your company is likely trying to cultivate.

6. Treat Others As You Want to Be Treated

Are you rolling your eyes at this one? I can’t blame you—this is an old cliché. But when it comes to using a chat tool to effectively communicate with your remote team, this sentiment definitely holds some water.

If you don’t want to receive 3 a.m. pings from your team members, you better not be sending them yourself. If you don’t want everyone to expect that you’re instantly available, you certainly shouldn’t expect that same thing from your colleagues.

Those ground rules we talked about earlier can help a lot with this. However, remember to always set an example in the way that you behave and communicate. Hopefully others will abide by the tone you set.

A chat tool can be an undeniably handy resource for communicating with your remote team members. But it can also serve as a major distraction and source of headaches.

Put these six best practices into play, and you’ll use that chat tool in a way that’s positive and productive—rather than pesky and pushy.

Photo Credit: bigstockphoto.com

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