Unified communications etiquette guide: What to know, what to avoid

As enterprises adopt unified communications, they should focus on helping users adhere to rules of unified communications etiquette to ease their transition into regular UC use, improve user experience and increase employee uptake.

Editor's note: As enterprises adopt unified communications (UC), it's natural that they pay a great deal of attention to the specifics of the UC technologies deployed. But increased focus on how employees actually use UC, as well as how the new applications and technologies affect their experience, can improve uptake. As part of that increased focus, Blair Pleasant of COMMfusion LLC advises enterprises to implement certain rules of unified communications etiquette to guide employees and ease the transition into regular UC use.

When a new category of technology is introduced, we usually spend most of our time focusing on the technology's functionality and capabilities -- in other words, the "shiny new object" aspect. After the newness wears off, we start focusing on what really matters -- the impact of the technology on an organization's people and processes. These three elements -- people, process and technology -- are equally important, and the people and processes generally have to adapt when a new technology is implemented.

New unified communications etiquette rules are being developed, both formally and informally, to help companies and individuals deal with the impact of UC …

Blair Pleasant
President/Principal Analyst
COMMfusion LLC

Issues with the "people" element, including social and personal issues, often discourage end users from adopting technologies, despite the quality and reliability of the solutions. As UC gains traction, companies have focused on implementing UC technologies and, in many cases, integrating them with their business processes. The "people" aspect has not received the attention it deserves, however, which has limited usage and adoption in many organizations, often due to breaches of unified communications etiquette.

For example, some end users don't utilize presence capabilities because they don't want others to know their status and availability (e.g., if they're out of the office or in a meeting). They also believe that they'll be constantly interrupted if their presence status shows that they're available. To counter this, many people set their status to "unavailable" all the time, greatly reducing the value of the technology not only for that individual, but also for people in their workgroups and throughout the organization. Companies can avoid this if everyone follows unified communications etiquette guidelines and best practices.

A critical mass of organizations have deployed UC technology and are now turning attention to the people and process issues that go along with it. New unified communications etiquette rules are being developed, both formally and informally, to help companies and individuals deal with the impact of UC. Some companies are even developing and promoting "UC etiquette guides." Most of the guides have evolved over time based on organizational experiences in using UC technology. For example, some companies found that after using instant messaging (IM) for a while and relying on chat as their main communication channel, it is now considered rude to call someone on the phone without first sending an IM to see if they're available to talk.

Based on information I've gathered from various sources, I've put together a unified communications etiquette guide that takes into account the various types of UC technologies, including IM, presence and conferencing (audio conferencing, Web conferencing and video conferencing).

Unified communications etiquette for IM and presence

  1. Respect people's availability. Just because someone's presence status is "available" doesn't mean that they have the time to talk or chat with you. Check with the other person to see if they have time to interact with you with a simple "r u there?" instant message. You may want to let them know the subject you want to chat about, such as "Joe: I need to talk to you about the Jones project. Do you have a minute?" This goes for both phone and IM interactions.
  2. Respect IM status settings. If someone's IM status is "busy," "away," or "in a meeting," don't try contacting them and disturbing them. Alternatively, recognize that just because someone's status is "available" doesn't mean that they can drop what they're doing and interact with you. If someone doesn't respond to your messaging request, it probably means they're busy, even if their status shows that they are available.
  3. Indicate your own status. If you are busy working on a project or deadline, put your status as busy/away, so people won't expect you to respond to their IM requests. But if you are available, have your status show that you are indeed available.
  4. Don't engage in too many simultaneous chat sessions. Generally, if you're having more than three chat sessions at one time, you can't give each of them the proper amount of attention, which results in lag time between someone sending you a message and you responding to it. This is very frustrating to the other party.
  5. Be brief. IMs are not designed for lengthy discussions. After going back and forth on IM for a long time, it's generally easier to have a live conversation, and UC users can easily click-to-communicate to have a phone or conference call. Most IM programs limit the amount of text you can enter, so brevity counts.
  6. Watch your jargon. While most of us know what "LOL" means, there are many acronyms and a lot of IM slang that not everyone understands. If it takes too long for someone to figure out what you're trying to say, it defeats the purpose of an instant message.
  7. Don't use all capital letters to type your message. It's the IM equivalent of shouting. (NOTE: This goes for social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook as well.)
  8. Remember: IM is a business tool. Be professional and careful about what you say in your conversations. The person on the other end could be saving your IM conversation, and many corporate systems automatically archive all messages. Don't say anything in an IM that you wouldn't say in an email message.
  9. Check your work. You don't have to do a spell check, but try to use good spelling and proper grammar, and review what you type before sending it to other parties to avoid miscommunication.

Unified communications etiquette for conferencing

  1. Begin with a roll call. Include participants' titles and locations for the benefit of those who may not know everyone on the call. Participants should state their names when speaking so that others know who is talking.
  2. Location, location, location. If you're working from home, be careful of barking dogs, crying babies, ringing doorbells, etc. Mute your phone when you're not speaking. In offices, try to minimize any external sounds, including typing (I'm guilty of this), hallway conversations, etc. Calling into a conference from an airport is the worst scenario, followed closely by using your car's built-in speaker, which picks up all extraneous noise. Either mute your phone or use the mute capabilities from the conferencing provider, if there is one. But don't place your phone on hold, since other participants can hear your on-hold music, which is usually Muzak that no one wants to hear.
  3. Make sure guests are welcome. With UC's drag-and-drop capabilities, it is easy to add people to conferences, but check with the other participants first before bringing someone into a conference session.
  4. Stay focused. Try not to multitask (again, I'm guilty of this). It's particularly easy on audio conferences to check email, tweet and do other things while on the call. Video conferencing makes this more difficult.

Unified communications etiquette for general UC

With unified messaging, both voice messages and faxes are sent to the user's email inbox, so you no longer need to send an email and a voice mail about the same subject to get someone's attention. Also, please don't send an email telling someone to check for a voice mail message that you left for them -- they'll receive the voice mail message in the same way they receive the email.

Remember to set your rules for find me/follow me capabilities, indicating who can reach you at which phone at what times. For example, people may not know whether you're working in the office or at home, so someone in a different time zone may call you late at night or early in the morning expecting to leave you a voice message on your office phone. If you're working from home and you have find me/follow me capabilities set to call your home phone, remember to set the rules indicating when to ring the phone and when to go straight into your office voice mail.

The bottom line is that companies deploying and implementing UC need to focus not only on the technology, but also on the human factors and on how the technology affects user satisfaction, productivity and process. End-user training will play an important role in UC deployments, but training generally focuses on how to properly use the tools from a technical perspective rather than from a human perspective. Companies implementing UC to help workers do their jobs better and to benefit the bottom line must focus on how UC affects individual workers. By using common sense and common courtesy, and by adhering to some basic rules of unified communications etiquette, UC deployments can be even more successful.

As we use UC more and more in our daily lives, new guidelines will be added. Feel free to contact me with your own suggestions and unified communications etiquette tips.


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