The Benefits (and Pitfalls) of Instant Messaging in the Workplace

Instant messaging can be a productivity-enhancing tool for business.  It can also cause a variety of problem ranging from security breaches to wasted employee time.  The solution is to embrace instant messaging at your business while avoiding the pitfalls.

How instant messaging helps improve business productivity

Instant messaging allows employees to communicate with each other in real time, regardless of the distance between employees.  Companies that have employees working in distant offices can clearly benefit.  Some collaboration that would previously have required an in-person meeting or a continuously-running phone call can now happen using freely-available instant message software.  Since instant messaging does not tie up the phone and does not have the social expectation of undivided attention, multiple instant message conversations can occur at once between multiple employees, with messages being sent and received as needed.

Those benefits can be realized even when employees work in the same office, since a quick instant message can save an employee from having to spend a minute walking to another employee’s desk to ask a question.  Since employees that get up to go visit another employee’s office will often get sidetracked, instant message can be a real time-saver, helping employees stay focused on their work instead of socializing.

The text-based nature of instant messaging can also be useful.  An employee who is on the phone with a customer can use instant message to gather information from another employee, without having to put the customer on hold.  Improved customer service, especially when dealing with a difficult customer, is an area where instant messaging can really help out a business.

The risks and downsides to instant messaging

Instant messaging is not without it drawbacks in a business setting.   Those potential pitfalls can be grouped into issues of productivity loss and security issues.

On the productivity side, instant messaging can be misused by employees to socialize, instead of working.  Employees who would be reluctant to stand at each other’s desks and talk, or to talk over the phone at work, may believe that they can safely use instant messaging to socialize with each other (since it would just appear that they diligently working by typing at their computer).  Indeed, if the instant messaging system allows it, employees may be tempted to message with friends and family, using their work computers

Security wise, instant messaging can be a way that confidential information is leaked outside of the business.  It is easy to copy/paste information into an instant messaging problem and send it to someone else.  Whether that “someone else” is an employee in the business who does not have a need to view the information, or someone outside the business entirely, there can be security issues.  Indeed, such leaks can be intentional or an inadvertent copy/paste/send do the wrong person.

How to effectively use instant messaging at your business

It is entirely possible to use instant messaging in a way that enhances business productivity, while avoiding the potential security and time-wasting issues.  While each business must evaluate their unique situation to determine the best approach to integrating instant messaging, below are suggestions:

  1. Use a dedicated business instant messaging system.  There are many services that offer business instant messaging platforms, which allow the business to control who can send/receive messages.  Using such a system, instead of relying upon a common system such as AIM, Yahoo, or Facebook messaging, will give the business proper control over instant messaging.  There are also plenty of freely available software solutions (e.g. Openfire) that will provide that same capability, at no cost to the business.  By ensuring only employees are able to use the system, the issue of socializing with friends or exfiltration of company data can be prevented.
  2. Ensure there are clear rules for the employees.  It is vital to inform employees, though a written policy, what is expected and allowed as to their use of instant messaging in the workplace.  Absent such a policy, abuse of the instant messaging system for non-work communication is essentially guaranteed.
  3. Monitor instant message us.  Take some time to check how the instant messaging system is actually used by employees.  Any business instant message system worth using will allow the business owner to review logs and see what the employees are actually discussing.
  4. Make a point of having employees know that instant message system is being monitored.  If employees are found to be excessively socializing, address the problem before it gets out of hand.  When employees recognize that misuses of the instant message system will be detected, they will refrain from that misuse.
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