No longer just a tool of the idle masses exchanging rumors and recipes, instant messaging (IM) applications have encroached into the working world, where professionals swap industry information, gossip, and expertise in the blink of an eye. Instead of traipsing down the hall, making an abrupt phone call, or waiting for an e-mailed response, employees can communicate with one another via online text, "pinging" each other questions and requests, speeding up reaction rate and increasing productivity.
According to a recent Jupiter Media Metrix report, more than 11 million people use instant messaging services at work. For employees working on location and supervisors stationed outside of home offices, instant messaging is rapidly becoming the industry standard. The practice is ubiquitous enough that Salary.com was able to conduct three interviews for this article entirely through instant messaging - users we'll call Boston_editor, Phoenix_CPA and Detroit_designer.
Getting in touch with people "Instant messages are fantastic for finding and corralling people you need to reach instantly, or, conversely, who need to reach you," typed Boston_editor, as he simultaneously fielded e-mails and reviewed his Web site's content. "I find I respond more immediately to an IM than to the phone."
The legions of the self-employed also find it useful for the same reason. "IM takes less time away from productivity than someone coming into your office," wrote Phoenix_CPA during a break from spreadsheets and dollar signs. "I'm a one-person office, and any time I can save in whatever fashion leaves me more time to play."
What is instant messaging? Instant messaging made its big splash in 1996. Mirabalis, an Israeli startup, began distributing its real-time chat client ICQ (say it out loud) through the Web for free. People all over the globe were able to communicate in near-real-time over the Internet, forgoing the e-mail lag as well as expensive long-distance phone calls.
ICQ wasn't the first online chat client, but it was the first one that was completely free to anyone who wanted it. Previously, America Online had offered its instant messaging program (with its well known "buddy list") only to subscribers. Prompted by ICQ's mass appeal and usage, AOL released a free instant messenger to the general public, allowing AOL users to chat with registered AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) users via their buddy lists. AOL later acquired Mirabalis, effectively eliminating a major competitor.
Since the 1998 joining of the two companies, the market for instant messaging widgets has exploded. While most of these tools aren't compatible and cannot talk to one another, a few clients allow users to chat across platforms, including the infant Imici instant messager. AIM and ICQ are only the beginning, and today's users have a myriad of choices. MSN Messenger and others continue to grow and acquire new customers as more people give up the ringing of the telephone for the "pinging" of the Internet.
So easy, it's too easy
While instant messaging programs allow people to chat quickly and freely, their ease of usage may also be their biggest demerit.
"Unless you engage in blocking people from seeing you, the very blessings of IM are also its curse," lamented Boston_editor over AOL Instant Messenger. "All sorts of people can find you for all sorts of reasons - not all of them important."
People can and do abuse IM in the workplace, even if it's workplace-related. In Boston_editor's experience, some coworkers "also lend themselves to taking what could be a short, casual phone conversation and transforming it into a drawn-out string that pulls you away from work."
Although it can be quite tempting to spend precious time chatting online with friends and family, most non-work-related instant messaging takes place between coworkers - which some employers encourage to a degree, because it enables peers to bond and form stronger working relationships.
Regulating your working environment However, unlike a phone call, you can ward off productivity-sapping questions or requests before they're sent. Many of the instant messaging clients come equipped with easily installed "away messages" that allow other users to see that you're around, but not necessarily taking "pings."
Phoenix_CPA enjoys the few extra seconds afforded by an IM exchange. "IM allows you to know who is 'calling' before you answer and gives you that few extra seconds to think about what they might want." The same goes for busy days when you really can't take on any new projects. "It's not as intrusive as a phone call," continued Pheonix_CPA. "If someone pings me and I am in the middle of something, it's real easy to say 'Busy...ttyl,' rather than have to change 'mind gears' to answer the phone." For any net-neophytes, "ttyl" stands for "talk to you later."
Hidden dangers of corporate messaging While instant messaging tools generally increase workers' productivity by allowing them to multitask more effectively, security is still of the utmost concern. Because of the simplicity of the instant messaging programs, there are many ways to hack into old conversation logs, potentially exposing sensitive information.
Some companies are taking a stab at making this simple program ultra-secure. Many desktop publishers have released corporate versions of instant messaging services, confident that the added security measures will protect trade secrets from Web pirates.
Neutrality of technology Not only is it quick, easy, and free, but instant messaging programming opens up a whole new field of information retrieval and sharing. As the workplace becomes less rooted and more virtual, for example, it's normal for individuals to be working with clients and contractors all over the globe. "My clients don't mind that I'm across the country when they can reach me in an instant online," IM'ed Detroit_designer in between uploads of her latest clients' websites.
"Instant messaging technology is an inexpensive - even free - perk that companies can offer employees," said Jenn Schraut, Human Resources and Compensation Associate at Salary.com. "And it's also a productivity-enhancing tool. So, many employers trust that their workers can handle the freedom, as long as they don't abuse the privilege. It's like the telephone: the technology itself is neutral," she said. So the onus is on the employee to use the tool wisely and effectively, and keep the chitchat under control. But be aware of the potential security risks, and save sensitive conversations or materials for face-to-face meetings.