Everyone has heard it, that rhythmic tapping that starts and stops as regularly and sharply as a well-executed Flamenco dance –someone nearby is having conversation on line. Instant messaging, or IM (example of IM window at left), has become an integral a part of people’s daily life as well as one of the biggest Internet sub cultures in existence. Its ubiquity extends beyond the realm of teenage time wasters into the workplace where AOL says that there are currently 135 million people who utilize some form of instant messaging while at work and by 2009 that number is expected to reach 477 million. With so many people using this service in the workplace, it is an issue that many current employers are dealing with and any future startups will inevitably have to deal with. The jury is out on whether or not IM is universally good or bad, however, one cannot argue the fact that if not properly regulated, it provides employees with the means to fritter away countless hours of time during the workday that would otherwise have been productive.
There are obvious benefits to utilizing IM in the workplace. According to Peter Alexander of Business Center, sending an instant message saves both time and effort when communicating brief messages to someone. “With IM, you type a quick message, hit ‘send’ and a few seconds later, your message pops up on the recipient's screen. Along with eliminating the lag in e-mail response time, IM cuts out the necessary "chit chat" of a phone call and often lets you avoid the tiresome game of voicemail tag.” The USC Annenberg School For Communication, for example, uses this feature of IM in its advisement offices. Receptionists alert academic counselors via IM to the arrival of a student in need of counseling. This eliminates the need to walk back to the person’s office or to pick up a phone and dial their extension. Furthermore, by providing IM support to clients or customers, your business gains the valuable aspect of “presence awareness” which can bolster the strength of a company’s client and customer relations.
While the positive aspects of IM might be enough to convince a business owner of its value to his or her company, there are some downsides that should be taken into account. The main one, as noted by Keith of the blog To-Done! is a loss in productivity. “Unfortunately it seems that more than anything else it’s a constant distraction that eats time. The biggest issue, that I can see anyway, is that there is almost no way to triage incoming messages. Sure you can block people, or set your status, but if you have it open and are receiving incoming IMs you have no way to keep from dealing with things that come in.” This leads to employees spending an inordinate amount of time chatting with friends, family and co-workers over nonsense and not getting their work done. According to Peter Alexander, “58 percent of IM users engage in personal chat at work.” This is simply unacceptable in a professional working environment.
In addition to this obvious danger in employee productivity, there are also legal and security risks to be aware of. “The number of IM attacks, including viruses, worms and phishing scams, has risen from 20 in 2004 to 571 in the second quarter of 2005 alone, according to a study by the IMlogic Threat Center. As with many e-mail viruses, worms and spyware, IM attacks can steal confidential information from your computer, turn your PC into a spam zombie, and more.” These are serious problems for a company to deal with. Losing private company data to IM hackers could cause irreparable damage to a company’s reputation or industry advantage. As for the Legal aspect, Scott M. Gawlicki of InsideCounsel says that many companies –in both regulated and non-regulated industries- are at risk of civil litigation due to the possibility for sexual harassment via IM in the workplace. In most cases, “the simplest way to avoid the IM risk is to ban its use altogether.”
So what does the future hold for IM in the business world? If AOL has anything to say about it, IM will become an integral part of the business world. The company is offering new products like AIM Pro (seen at right) that are targeted to business professionals touting higher security standards and more “professional” settings. Products like AIM Pro will definitely up standards for security, but the risk of loss in employee productivity still remains extremely high. Any business owner or senior executive should make sure they weigh the pros and cons of this powerful tool before deciding whether or not to make use of it in their place of business.