How do you get a chatty colleague to stop slacking off on you?

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

We heard from readers how the line between work and home has become blurred. People have more flexible hours, sometimes at different times of their peers, and some always use messaging platforms. So what do you do when Bob from accounting keeps messaging you? How do you gracefully end his urge to hang out with you all the time when you’re seemingly always connected?

It’s about creating new frontiers, said Jeffrey Seglin, director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s communications program. “Now that we’re getting a sense of the new normal, we need to figure out how to use the digital tools and what’s acceptable.”

Before we get into the subject, let me remind you that the helpdesk is here for you. We want to help you navigate technology, and the problems it can cause, in your workplace. We also want to hear your stories. What is your biggest frustration in the office? How is your job evolving? Drop us a line and we’ll do our best to ease your concerns.

Now, back to Gabby Old Bob from accounting. We spoke with three business and communications experts to help navigate workplace messaging etiquette.

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

The answer to this question may seem simple. Can’t you just tell your colleague to leave you alone? Although, yes, that’s always an option, but there are a few things you may want to consider before getting started right away.

First, what is the culture and expectations in the workplace? Is this an organizational norm or problem or is it just one person? Second, remember that the way people have become accustomed to communication at work may have changed in the past two years during the pandemic. This may be how employees get to know each other as some employees are remote and some are in the office.

Finally, your social capital may be different if you have been separated from colleagues and seen them less or if you have never met in person. So you may need to adjust how you deliver a message that can be perceived as confrontational, especially if it’s sent through a digital platform where the tone of voice and body language are lost.

Managers are a great place to start when it comes to defining social norms in the workplace. And according to experts, now might be a good time to take stock of how the team has worked over the past two years and push some boundaries.

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

How do you know if you’re the talkative one?

If you pay close enough attention, you’ll find that you could be the talkative coworker. There are easy ways to tell on digital platforms, said Dustin York, an associate professor of communications and leadership at Maryville University.

  • About messaging apps: Look at the response rate. If you send six messages and get one short reply, you may need to slow down.
  • On video apps: Look for non-verbal cues. If coworkers are focused on another task or don’t give cues of listening, you may need to finish it.

Email providers, including Microsoft Outlook and Gmail, as well as messaging apps like Slack allow users to schedule a message to be sent at a specific time in the future.

You may also want to create dedicated spaces for organizational socialization. Employees or managers may want to start separate subgroups on their messaging platforms for people who want to chat more casually or about topics like what they watch on Netflix, York said. For example, in Slack, you would start a new channel. This gives employees the chance to decide whether they want to be involved in the extra discussions or just keep chatting at work.

“Forced joy should not be expected,” Seglin said. If it’s an organizational issue, ask it as a question rather than a requirement from your manager or team. Formulating it as a question to consider and for improving employee health and productivity could make it less confrontational, said Heidi Brooks, a senior lecturer in organizational behavior at Yale University School of Management.

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“Start by creating the prerequisite of curiosity and collaboration,” she said. “You could say, ‘I see we’re chatting around the clock, and I think the team is getting exhausted. Can we talk about that?’”

When a group works together, it can set boundaries that are appropriate for everyone and make them 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 when you’re dealing with a certain chatty coworker, Brooks said. But she said you can also treat it as a work conflict if it continues to be a problem. Be more direct by saying, “I can feel the tension of this constant communication.”

Creating community and safety at work as the pandemic continues

Seglin said the pandemic has forced everyone to be a little more aware of the mental health of others. So if it’s a recurring problem with one specific co-worker, sometimes fragile honesty is the best etiquette. “You can say, ‘I love that you’re joining me, I’m just not able to socialize,'” he said.

If all else fails, you can turn to the technology itself, York said. Change your notification settings so that you are only notified by certain messages or at certain times. Some apps allow you to change your status so that it is unavailable. you can your phone settings so as not to disturb within certain hours. Some apps allow you to send auto-replies within the platform, and others can be linked to auto-reply apps.

Or you can simply change your behavior to set new expectations, York said. “It can be as simple as sending a message in the morning,” he said. “After a week or two, Chatty Cathy will get the hint.”

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