Texting in the States has gone from a workplace taboo to a fledgling contender for one of the business world’s favourite ways to keep in touch.
California State Assemblyman Dan Logue rarely begins his day without reading a text. It is how his staff sends Logue his schedule, and then they update him all day, every day, on what he has coming up next.
If you think all that texting is because Logue is some tablet-generation tech Savvy Silicon valley lawmaker, think again. Logue is 62-years-old, lives in the un-hip northern California town of Chico – and is decidedly old-school.
“It’s not a normal way to communicate for me,” he said of texting. “Usually it’s a handshake and a face to face talk.”
After Logue was first elected to the state assembly in 2008, his mostly young staff began texting him updates on bills and on his schedule. He resisted at first. But the texts, which were easier than a phone call and quicker than email, grew on him. “It has been a great tool for multi-tasking,” he said.
Text messaging took off a decade ago in Europe, where cellular calls cost more than they did in the United States, and quickly worked their way into use in politics and business. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, is regularly seen texting and once told a German television show that she didn’t have a voicemail box because listening to messages took too long and texting was the most efficient way of communicating with staff. The European Union’s Competition Commissioner, Joaquin Almunia recently told the New York Times that texting was one of the channels of communication he keeps open all the time — including his own texts with Google chief executive Eric Schmidt.
But in the United States, texting as a professional communication tool has been slower to take off. In a short span, texting in the States has gone from a workplace taboo to a fledgling contender for one of the business world’s favourite ways to keep in touch.
“It’s seductive in all kinds of ways,” said Daniel Post Sennings of the Emily Post Institute – a seminal source on etiquette – in Vermont. Sennings teaches business seminars on how to communicate in the workplace more efficiently and is the author of an upcoming book, Emily Post Manners in a Digital World.
But that evolution toward workplace texting is creating a new set of problems for managers and employees navigating a form of communication that lacks permanence and has few defined rules.
The texting revolution
One reason texting professionally came late to the US is the relative cheapness of texts made it a more common form of communication and, in turn, a more acceptable way to do business in Europe. But cellular companies only began lowering the cost of texts in the US in 2006.
In 2012, Americans sent and received 2.19 trillion texts, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association. That number was down slightly from the year before, thanks largely to new messaging apps, but overall, Americans are sending more and more messages a day on their phones. Indeed, a third of all Americans now prefer texting to phone calls, a 2012 Time magazine poll found
Sennings said that as texts-for-work communication becomes more accepted in the United States and elsewhere, companies need to develop standards on how and when to text. While many companies frown upon personal texting at work or have policies forbidding employees from texting while driving, experts say few firms have rules that govern what ought to be sent in a text.
Employees may be allowed to text each other updates about changes in meeting times, for instance, but more important communication ought to go through email, Sennings said. That is crucial so that there is a record of the communication in the company’s email system in case the employee leaves the company or if there is a lawsuit related to the messages.
Work texting 101
Rules on when, what and how to text for work won’t likely be one-size-fits-all for companies. Logue, for instance, forbids his staff from reading or writing texts while they are in assembly committee meetings. He also cautions them against work-related texts becoming a distraction while they are in another conversation or doing something that ought to have their full attention.
Logue’s rules against texting in meetings may seem antiquated in businesses where immediate responses are important. But Sennings said more important than an immediate response is staying in the moment and being engaged in the task at hand, rather than a new issue that has come up in a text.
Employees also need to know that the language of texting – the abbreviations and lack of punctuation – isn’t a professional way to communicate. Sending texts to co-workers or to clients ought to maintain the same standards as a written letter, Sennings advised. In addition to avoiding abbreviations, that means adding salutations and using full sentences and punctuation.
Even for a generation raised on grammar shortcuts who may never have been schooled in formal writing, “it is still important to have a standard, and that standard ought to be professional,” Sennings said.
Employees also need to recognize that texts can be intrusive, more so than an email or even a phone call. Managers need to have rules to protect against this intrusion, which starts with asking employees if it’s OK to text to their personal phones if they aren’t company-issued devices, said Susan Heathfield, an HR consultant in Michigan. And more importantly, those texts ought to go out only during business hours.
The results of doing otherwise can cost a manager a job. One of Heathfield’s former mid-level managers at a computer software company she owns with her husband demanded his employees turn over their personal cell phone numbers. He then began texting employees at night, early in the morning and on weekends. “He couldn’t see that texting would be unwanted after hours,” she said. She fired him after just two weekfs.
Once the rules — or at least guidelines — are hammered out, training ought to accompany any new texting policy, said Heathfield.
If your office allows work-related texting but does not have a set of rules or policies, consider creating your own guidelines for when to send a text – so you don’t become the office’s hated texter.