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Stop Slacking me: How to set digital boundaries for chatty colleagues

The lines between socialization and work have blurred online. Sometimes that can be a problem.

Creating boundaries can feel like no small feat at workplaces where messaging apps are now the norm for communication. (iStock)
6 min

In a workplace where messaging apps such as Slack, Google Chat or Microsoft Teams have become the normal way to communicate and the place where colleagues socialize, creating boundaries can feel like no small feat. It can be especially problematic when one of your colleagues is a Chatty Cathy.

We heard from readers about how the lines between work and home have blurred. People have more flexible hours, sometimes at different times from their colleagues, and some are using messaging platforms at all hours. So what do you do when Bob from accounting keeps sending you messages? How do you gracefully put an end to his urge to socialize with you all the time if you are seemingly always connected?

It is about creating new boundaries, said Jeffrey Seglin, director of the communications program at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Now that we are getting back to a sense of new normal, we have to figure out how to use the digital tools and what is acceptable.”

Before we hop into the topic, I want to remind you the Help Desk is here for you. We want to help you navigate the technology, and the issues they may create, at your workplace. We also want to hear your stories. What is your biggest frustration at the office? How is your job evolving? Drop us a line and we will do our best to address your concerns. Now, back to gabby old Bob from accounting. We spoke with three business and communication experts to help navigate workplace messaging etiquette.

Q: How do I get a chatty colleague to stop messaging me?

A: The answer to this question may seem simple. You can just tell your colleague to leave you alone, right? While, yes, that is always an option, there are a few things you 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 during the pandemic. This may now be the way workers are getting to know each other because some workers are remote and some are in the office.

Finally, your social capital may be different if you have been separated from colleagues and see them less or you have never met in person. So you may need to adjust how you deliver a message that could be perceived as confrontational, especially if it is sent 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, according to experts.

“Look in the mirror and see what kind of culture you are unintentionally setting” said Dustin York, an associate professor of communications and leadership at Maryville University. “Even if you are a night owl, you can schedule messages.”

How to tell if you are the chatty one

If you pay close enough attention, you may find that you could be the chatty colleague. There are easy ways to tell on digital platforms, said Dustin York, associate professor of communications and leadership at Maryville University.
  • On messaging apps: Look at the response ratio. If you send six messages and receive one short reply, you may need to ease off.
  • On video apps: Look for nonverbal cues. If colleagues are focused on another task or providing no signs of listening, you may need to wrap it up.

Email providers including Microsoft Outlook and 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 for people who want to chat more casually or about topics like what they are watching on Netflix, York said. In Slack, for instance, you would start a new channel. This gives workers the chance to decide whether they want to be involved in the extra discussions or just stick to work chatter.

“Forced joy should not be expected,” Seglin said. 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 worker health and productivity might make it less confrontational, said Heidi Brooks, a senior lecturer in organizational behavior at the Yale University School of Management.

Companies are rewriting the future of flexible work once again

“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 them to feel like they are 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 she said you can also treat it like a work conflict if it remains a problem. Be more direct by saying, “I can feel the strain of this constant communication.”

Creating community and safety at work as the pandemic lingers

Seglin said the pandemic has forced everyone to be a little more cognizant of the mental health of others. So if it is a reoccurring problem with one specific colleague, sometimes vulnerable honesty is the best etiquette. “You can say, ‘I love that you are including me, I am just not up to socializing,’” he said.

If all else fails, you can turn to the technology itself, York said. Change your notification settings so you are 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 within the platform, and others can be paired with apps for auto responses.

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.”

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