Instant Messaging in the Workplace: Communication Benefits and Disadvantages

“w-u-w-u?”
“n2mh, u?”
“gtgt a mtng..”
“k,cul8er!”
These phrases might seem like some strange new software jargon at first glance. But they were born as a part of the dialog and culture of a new generation of communications – the instant message. Instant messaging is a communication technology which has allowed large and small corporations alike to experience real-time conversations in a convenient and efficient internet format. What began as a way for people to keep in touch with long distance friends has become a tool used worldwide to enhance communication efforts and business practices among coworkers, supervisors and employees, and employees and their clients. Many companies believe instant messaging detracts from employee productivity and introduces new temptations to converse with others beyond their job duties. But many companies have taken the stance that with the right training and supervision, instant messaging can be used to facilitate a more aware employee / supervisor environment and a more efficient way of exchanging information. The message above reflects a casual message among friends. An instant message used in the workplace may be more complex, such as “got those reports-need by 2”
“finishing up 1min”
“lunch -59th st café?”
“sounds good, bring Carol too.”
One quarter of the American population has been estimated to use instant messaging, according to Jupiter Research, a market research firm based in New York City. (Rapaport, 2001). In addition, 42% of business internet users use instant messaging, although 70% of those users report that their company’s IT departments do not support it. (Schwartz, 2002.) This form of messaging has allowed many people, whether down the block from one another or a hemisphere away, to connect in personal ways with each other when it is most convenient for them.
The communication occurs in real-time for both parties involved. This presents a benefit over email, which is a less expeditious way to communicate. Emails and voicemails tend to pile up on each other, some never reaching their intended recipients (Schwartz, 2002). On the other hand, instant messaging allows for quick deletion, but users can print screens on their conversations if a hard copy record may be needed in the future. Dialog in instant messaging can change directions rapidly and unexpectedly, speeding the cycle of questions and responses (Rapaport, 2001.) With its speed, increased informal communications, and widespread nature, instant messaging is being used in many companies among employees as a way to gather business information in a real-time format. The face of workplace communications is changing across the corporate culture, with its benefits and disadvantages becoming obvious but often with no fundamental roadmap for those using it.
Instant messaging works through a system of lists and presence alerts. Those who are online are viewed by a user who has them listed on their “buddy” or friend/ coworker list. They can often see some type of icon next to the name of their buddy to determine how long the person has been online, and if they are actively messaging or “away” from their desk. IM users see a pop-up screen with a message when one user writes to the other. The messages are sent “real-time” and are viewable as soon as the writer hits the send button (Cameron & Webster, 2004.) Also notable is the fact that IM’s are generally much shorter, and therefore easier to read and less likely to cause misinterpretation, than email messages.
Instant messaging was seen earlier in its debut, mostly through AOL, as a tool for teenagers to chat with friends. But despite the early use in this manner, instant messaging is moving into the workplace with mixed results. Several studies indicate IM’s introduction into the workforce as primarily an individual adoption of public IM options, rather than a company –wide supporting of one method adopted through the company’s IT department (Hofte et al, 2004.) The adoption of IM into the workplace seems to support many functions, namely the following: quick questions and clarifications; coordinating impromptu work-related or phone meetings; alleviating the need for face-to-face meetings among dispersed coworkers; keeping in touch with friends and family; and in some cases, for longer and more complex discussions about work, including conferences (Hofte et al, 2004.) IM is also generally a low-cost communication method when compared to video conferencing and certain email programs.
Presence is one of the key concepts which separate instant messaging from other forms of communication. “At its most basic level, presence awareness lets users know when other people in their contact list are online.” (Vogiazou, 2002.) Presence information has grown to include more than just the basic details, such as availability and location. It can also now generate information about mood or intention based on sounds and signals transmitted from user to user. Some applications also include an “invisible” mode, allowing a user to appear online only for people in their contact list and appear “offline” for everyone else. (Vogiazou, 2002.) Most IM programs also allow the users the ability to exchange files and photos, and some even allow the option of voice chat. (Vogiazou, 2002.) There are several functions of IM which has made it an especially popular communication tool at work. The functions are: Contact list management, including various tools to determine the offline/ online presence of colleagues and friends, as well as the ability to organize people into contact groups; sending and receiving messages, which allows person-to-person contact and in some cases a chat mode for more than 2 people to communicate; presence management, which allows users to see the “state” of the users on their list, and manage their visibility to others; and a user database search, which allows users to search for others in a directory by various methods (Vogiazou, 2002.) Instant messaging’s presence functions also have a more complex purpose for management. Stamford, Connecticut based software company Gardner’s spokesperson has said, “You can take advantage of the presence detection that is incumbent with IM and broaden that presence to be a rich profile of how people should be communicated with best.” (Schwartz, 2002).
A typical example of IM applications in the workplace can be summarized by the experience of one user as interviewed in Time Magazine, 2002. A 30 year old web services coordinator, Steve Kamer, describes IM as “the most convenient way to consult co-workers and solve a problem quickly…I find it indispensable.” (Bhattacharjee, 2002.) Tom Austin, a VP at Gartner, a technology consultancy based in Stamford, Conn., says the bouncing back and forth nature of IM conversations poses a threat to users as they might miss key points and make mistakes in their communication. He says the process may mean users are not “fully engaged.” (Bhattacharjee, 2002.) Many companies now have employees who use email, cellular phones, landlines phones, internet chat, pagers, fax machines, and more on a daily basis in order to do their jobs, and instant messaging adds another communication medium to the list.
The traditional communication theory of critical mass states that “once a certain number or proportion of users (critical mass) has been attracted, use should spread rapidly throughout the community.” (Cameron & Webster, 2004.) The community being the workplace, it is easier to understand why employees are eager to use a technology that might make their lives easier or more exciting. Besides the obvious benefit of being able to quickly converse with colleagues and managers, no one wants to be the one left behind in learning to use a new technology. “The defining feature of all communication technologies is that they ‘require multiple users and cannot be used successfully by one person acting alone.’ (Cameron & Webster, 2004.)
Research firm IDC, based in Framingham, Mass., estimates that 65 million business users rely on IM products, up from 16.5 million in 1998. They also expect that number to jump to 207 million IM business users by 2006. Business owners have expressed an increased interest in IM because in most cases it cuts communication costs and increases distant collaboration (Cameron & Webster, 2004.)
According to Daft and Lengel (1984), there are “rich” forms of communication and “lean” forms. The richer forms, for example, a face-to-face meeting, would be preferable in work situations where the outcome is uncertain, and there must exist some interpersonal element. On the other end of the spectrum, leaner forms of communication such as email, instant messaging, or electronic memos are preferable in work situations in which information must be delivered and not necessary analyzed. (Daft & Lengel, 1984.) In other words, direct communication is a critical element in changing behavior and making decisions. Indirect communication focuses on quick results, but leaves no opportunity for personal affect. Although instant messaging is closer to the natural pattern of human conversation than email, it still leaves gaps in conversation direction and spontaneity. Steve Whittaker, a senior research scientist at AT&T Labs-Research in New Jersey, finds that IM is “highly effective at mimicking the complexities of actual conversations.” (Schwartz, 2002). The lack of a single IM standard is also frustrating, as programs like Yahoo Messenger, MSN Messenger, AOL’s AIM, and Lotus Notes Sametime cannot “talk” to one another. (Schwartz, 2002).
In today’s modern workplace, email has grown to be an annoyance rather than a true communication tool for many. With spam filters, many emails get deleted by accident and communication efforts are thwarted. This is where the appeal of instant messaging enters the picture. For my workplace instant messaging is not currently used but is being researched as a method for us to communicate with our offices in Canada. Our offices there are in several places, including Edmonton, Alberta; Toronto, Ontario; and Quebec, Montreal. Both the time differences and cultural barriers as far as language (in Quebec) prevent us from conversing with them the way we would like to. Management’s feeling is that instant messaging would reduce the confusion as far as who is available and who is not, who is online and who is not online, and reduce the time it would take to accomplish simple everyday tasks.
Many friends of mine who work at large corporations, such as Verizon, use the SameTime program from Lotus. This program is unique in that it allows management to create a hierarchy of employees using the tool. They can create lists which allow them access to any of their employee’s IMs at any given time. This means employees are less likely to use the tool for personal reasons. It also creates a convenient paper trail, if saved or printed, as with all IM programs. I believe the workplaces that have implemented IM have found more benefits than disadvantages. Putting this tool in place at my workplace would increase employee/ supervisor awareness, facilitate productivity and increase the need for face to face communication, as overall conversations would take place quicker.

Instant messaging is beginning to show promising results in the workplace for coworker and supervisor/ employee relationships and communication. It is an invaluable asset for today’s overworked and fast-paced corporate employees. However its limitations and communication consequences are a definite cause for concern when implementing a new program. Decreased worker productivity, lack of direct communication among members of the company, and common misinterpretations abound when using instant messaging. Personalization that verbal delivery adds is detracting from the “rich” layers of communication possible with direct communication.

Works Cited
Bhattacharjee, Y. (2002, September 16). A Swarm of Little Notes. Time Magazine, 160.

Cameron, A.F. & Webster, J. (2004). Unintended consequences of emerging communication technologies: Instant Messaging in the workplace. Computers in Human Behavior, 12, 143-160.

IM [@Work] Adoption of Instant Messaging in a Knowledge Worker Organisation,” hicss, p. 10019a, Proceedings of the 37th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS’04) – Track 1, 2004.

Rapaport, L. (2001, November). Instant Messaging for Corporate Collaboration. Transform Magazine, 3-7.

Vogiazou, Y. (2002). Wireless Presence and Instant Messaging. Knowledge Media Institute Journal, 20-7, 21-32.

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2 responses to “Instant Messaging in the Workplace: Communication Benefits and Disadvantages

  1. This is a fantastic post. I’ll definately be ‘borrowing’ some of your comments in some of my upcoming posts I’m doing some research for now.

  2. Thanks Anthony, I also feature this on my newer blog at http://mvican.blogspot.com/. It is under the “FEBRUARY” section. Please bookmark this newer one for reference if you wish (the old one may be erased shortly.) :) MARY

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