Stop slacking off: how to set digital boundaries for chatty colleagues

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In a workplace where messaging apps like Slack, Google Chat or Microsoft Teams has become the normal way work is done 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’ve heard from readers like you that the line between work and home has become blurred. People work more flexible hours, sometimes at different times than their colleagues, and they sometimes use messaging platforms around the clock. So what do you do when Bob from accounting doesn’t stop messaging? And how do you gracefully end his urge to hang out with you anytime when you’re seemingly always connected?

“It’s about recreating boundaries,” 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 make the… [digital] resources and what is 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? Send us a message and we’ll do our best to answer your questions or resolve your concerns.

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Now, back to Gabby ol’ Bob from accounting. We spoke to three business and communications experts to help navigate workplace messaging etiquette. Let’s jump in.

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 coworker to leave you alone? Although, yes, that’s always an option, but there are a few things employees can 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 due to the pandemic. This may be how employees get to know each other as some employees are remote and some are in the office. And third, your social capital may be different if you’ve been separated from your co-workers, see them less, or have never met in person. So you may need to adjust the way you deliver a message that could be perceived as confrontational, especially if you’re dealing with 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 now might be a good time to take stock of how the team has worked over the past two years and reset some boundaries, experts say.

“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 [instead of sending them.]†

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

If you pay close enough attention, you might discover that you could be the talkative coworker. On digital platforms, there are easy ways to tell, says York of 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 show no signs of listening, you may need to wrap it up.

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

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You may also want to create dedicated spaces for organizational socialization. Employees or managers may want to start separate subgroups on their messaging platforms — in Slack, for example, you’d start a new channel — for people who want to chat more casually or about specific topics like what they’re watching on Netflix, York said. This gives employees a chance to decide whether they want to get involved in the extra discussions or just stick with work-related chatter.

“Forced joy is not to be expected,” Seglin says.

Creating society and safety at work

If it’s an organizational issue, you as an employee may want to take the approach of asking it as a question rather than a requirement from your manager or team. Formulating it as a question to consider and to improve employee wellbeing and productivity could make it less confrontational, says Heidi Brooks, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Yale University’s School of Management. “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 come up with boundaries that are appropriate for everyone and that make everyone 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 if that doesn’t work, Brooks said, treat it like a work conflict. Be more direct with the problem by saying something like, “I feel the tension of this constant communication.”

Seglin said the pandemic has forced everyone to be a little more aware of the mental health and well-being of others. So if it’s a recurring problem with a specific co-worker, sometimes fragile honesty is the best etiquette.

“You can say, ‘I love you to join me, I’m just incapable of socializing,'” he said.

And if all else fails, you can turn to the technology itself, York said.

You can 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 set your phone settings to Do Not Disturb within certain hours. Some apps allow you to send automatic replies, similar to an out of office email, within the app, and others can be linked to third-party 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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