Study: Instant Messaging Can Benefit Workplace

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 16, 2008
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Using text messaging at work is less, not more disruptive, even as it promotes more frequent communication, says an academic study.

The modest reduction in interruptions is from workers using instant messaging (IMs) for “briefer, more frequent interactions in order to get quick answers to work-related questions with minimal disruption, to participate in loose, flexible collaboration,” and to coordinate more intense, high-level interactions, according to a study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

Personal communication at work is more frequent among people who use IMs, the study notes.

Challenging a Belief

The findings of R. Kelly Garrett of Ohio State University and James N. Danziger of the University of California, Irvine challenge the belief that IMs lead to increased disruption on the job and the speculation by some researchers that workers would use IMs in addition to the phone and e-mail, leading to increased interruption and reduced productivity.

However, people who IM tend to do so in place of—not in addition to—e-mail, Garrett and Danziger found.

IMing “gives you the most control and is the most efficient [method] for quick exchanges of information with other people” compare to face-to-face and phone conversations, Danziger told SHRM Online, because IMs invite shorter, tighter responses.

Also, use of pop-ups can indicate that the recipient of an IM is unavailable to respond immediately or can show when the recipient is available, the study notes.

The HR issue is “what can we do to help our workers manage these interruptions more effectively, and it looks like text-based IM may help them to do that,” Danziger said.

“If you can be sufficiently disciplined to use IM strategically and decide when you’re going to respond and when you’re not,” he said, instant messages can be a “positive way to control your work environment more fully.”

“It would take discipline, though,” he added.

The findings are from a telephone survey conducted from May through September 2006 with 912 full-time workers who use computers regularly. Respondents were from 12 metropolitan areas across the United States.

Most were age 46 to 55, but all the age groups they talked to used IMs to some degree, according to Danziger. Respondents worked at least 30 hours per week and used a computer for at least five of those hours, with the average person spending an average of more than 20 hours per week on a computer.

Almost 30 percent surveyed use text IMs to stay connected with co-workers and clients. Only 8 percent use an Internet-based video or voice system such as Skype—free software that allows users to talk via computer with another Skype user around the globe at no charge—or iChat to communicate with colleagues.

“The key take-away is that instant messaging has some benefits where many people had feared that it might be harmful,” Garrett said in a press release. “People who used instant messaging reported that they felt they were being interrupted less frequently.”

HR can use IMs to enhance its communication with employees, said members of a panel discussion during the September 2006 Annual Benefits Management Forum & Expo in Chicago.

It’s a mode of communication that particularly appeals to younger employees and their expectation for fast, easy-to-read, personalized messages, SHRM Online reported at the time.

“IM use when it’s text-based seems to enable people to work with more control of their work environment,” said Danziger, who is associate director of the college’s Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations. However, he urged caution in introducing video- or voice-based IMs into the workplace.

That may produce some of the very problems and productivity issues that have been a concern over text-based IM use, he said.

Garrett and Danziger write that their major finding is “that workers are developing effective strategies for using IM technologies in positive ways, even when more negative workplace impacts seem equally possible.”

OK, now GBTW (get back to work).

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

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