When to use IM versus email

October 31, 2012 by Wadeware in General


(/ˈɛtɨkɛt/ or /ˈɛtɨkɪt/, French: [e.ti.kɛt]) is a code of behavior that delineates expectations for social behavior according to contemporary conventional norms within a society, social class, or group. Wikipedia

IM at your fingertips

A customer contacted me a couple days ago with a concern about deploying Microsoft Lync and Instant Messaging (IM) across his organization. Wadeware installed Lync for the customer recently and the organization has been using it successfully within their IT department and federated partner (us). We are wrapping up the Lync integration with their new Mitel phone system, and they’re getting ready to push the Lync client out to the masses.

His concern about IM is that it will be disruptive, compared to email, and that people will be interrupted to the point that they will sign out of Lync and won’t use it. The customer asked if we have advice on IM etiquette for users in terms of when to us IM versus email. We don’t have any such written content, but IM etiquette has developed in many organizations, so I thought I’d share our experiences with it in this post.

How we got to IM

The primary purpose of any communications technology is to simplify communications by providing better pathways between coworkers and offering more efficient ways to communicate and share information.  This has led to multiple ways that people communicate in many organizations today. Which path you choose can depend on the situation.

My recollection is that before the early 1990’s when email became mainstream in business, there were only two ways to communicate with coworkers; either in person or over the telephone (I’m going to ignore the slower third option of writing a letter). The decision to either call someone or go talk to them in person was based on the subject and the distance to their office. The more important the topic, the longer you’d be willing to walk, drive, or fly.

Once email was introduced into organizations, three ways to communicate became common: in-person, on the phone, or via email. Email was, and still is, used to communicate those topics that don’t warrant a phone call or a walk down the hall. Its popularity increased as people spent more time behind a desk and in front of their computer. It is easier to compose an email and send it to three people rather than schedule a conference call (but whether it is more effective is debatable). Then along came the smartphone. Now email is at your fingertips no matter where you are; whether you’re at the ball game, a business lunch, or attending a bridal shower. Email has evolved to become much more sophisticated over the years, and it is now part of litigation (eDiscovery) and agitation (183 billion spam messages sent daily). It’s become a part of our daily lives.

In comes IM. The basic purpose of IM is to communicate with others’-in-real-time, instantly. Yes, you can send them an email instead, but you don’t know when the recipient will read the email or when they will respond. With IM, you open a direct communication channel to your correspondent. Add to that presence information (status), the ability to share files and desktops, and you have the basic IM platform. Instant Messaging has had a positive impact on business communications. It can be quicker than picking up the phone and dialing, and it’s more responsive than email.

IM communication etiquette

Most IM services show the status of the person you want to reach. Microsoft Lync, for example, shows if someone is busy, away, in a meeting, on the phone, available, or not wanting to be disturbed. The way you use IM to communicate with that person, and how you communicate with them can depend on that presence information.

IM communication etiquette has emerged from these various presence states.

Following some simple rules that are based on the presence status of the person you want to reach will ensure IM doesn’t become a bother, but instead an effective tool that makes communication more efficient in your organization.

If the person’s status is Do Not Disturb, well, don’t disturb them. You can send them an email, or if it’s urgent and you have a working relationship with the person, give them a call. They can choose to let it go to voicemail if necessary.
  If the person’s status is Away, then you can send them an email. If it’s urgent, you can call them on their cell phone.
  If the person’s status is In a Meeting or On the Phone, then you can send them an email or wait until their status changes to Available.
  If the person’s status is Busy, this is when it can get a little tricky. You can send them an IM that asks,“Do you have a minute?” Often times they will respond with a yes or they won’t respond at all. If they don’t respond, send them an email. They have not set their status to Do Not Disturb,so asking to interrupt them for a minute is proper etiquette.
  If the person’s status is Available,then you can feel free to pose a question or comment right away. I will often ask how the person’s day is going or some other pleasantries to foster a human relationship in this digital world.


Lastly, it is useful to note that present information is set automatically, depending on what you’re doing. If there is a meeting on your calendar, your status will change to Busy or In a Meeting while it is taking place. If you are on the phone, and the IM tool is integrated with your voice service, your status may be On the Phone. However, you can also set your status manually. Over time you may find that some people always set their status to either Available or Away. In my experience I’ve found that some people set their status to Available even when they’re away to give the impression that they’re working when they are not (sad but true). Others set their status to Away when they’re available so they are not disturbed, thereby avoiding the bold status of, Do Not Disturb. Of course this is a breakdown of the system, but fortunately it’s not that common.

Communication priorities

Email and IM are meant to make communications between coworkers more efficient and convenient for everyone. But with the enormous amount of information many of us work with on a daily basis, it is easy for email in particular, to become bothersome and disruptive. Here are some tips I’ve gathered over the years that serve to foster effective email:

  • The fewer messages, the better. If you have eight things you need to gather feedback on from someone, don’t send eight separate emails. At the least, consolidate your list of needs into a single bulleted email that will allow the recipient to reply in-line. Receiving eight emails a day from a group of people can take a considerable amount of time to respond to, let alone, five separate emails from five different people.
  • Avoid using email as a document management system. Sending an email with an attached document to five people for review turns one document into six documents. Most organizations have document management systems such as Microsoft SharePoint, or at a minimum, a file share. In either case, the document can be put on the shared location and you can then email a link to it asking people to review the information on the shared location.
  • Use calendaring to let people know where you are. My wife wants me to put all my personal events on her calendar. It goes something like this. “You’re going bowling tonight? It’s not on my calendar.” “Well, that’s because you’re not invited.” The next time a bowling date came up, I put it on her calendar so that she knew in advance that I was going bowling with the guys, only to find her with bowling shoes on waiting to leave when the time came… I haven’t figured out a solution to this one. If you do, let me know.


At Wadeware we appreciate that IM provides a medium for quick, efficient communication. IM has allowed many employees to work from home without negatively affecting their productivity. IM also allows us to work with people effectively across the globe. Our clients in exotic places like New Zealand, South Africa and Yakima feel local when communicating with IM and the Lync Server. Of course there will always be ways to abuse the system. But with Lync IM we feel that the benefits out-weigh any potential costs.  If used correctly, Lync IM promotes more courteous interaction between coworkers by allowing them to view each other’s status and communicate at the most opportune time. Finding the best form of interoffice communication is largely a personal choice. For Wadeware Lync IM has proven to be a fantastic communication option.