Many of us remember when Microsoft introduced MSN Messenger, I certainly remember some 12 years ago catching my daughter using it with school colleagues at the age of 11 swapping homework tips!
Of course since it was first introduced in 1999 it changed several times, adding functionality on a regular basis, and along the way changing its name through “windows Live” until its integration with what is now known as Skype.
It was the success of this simple instant messaging tools, that spurned other providers to create corporate versions of similar tools, such as Microsoft Lync or Yammer .
These tools show when a person is “on line”, and their basic availability – Available, “in a meeting”, “busy” or “away” making contact easy. It facilitates an “instant” response from a person if they are available.
Whilst they allow us to know if someone is available, and gives us the ability to get quick responses there are down sides. If the persons “status” is not set properly and managed (i.e. Busy or “do not disturb”) when doing tasks, it is easy for people to interrupt work flow.
The tools also seem to create a level of urgency, as they often alert the recipient by a flashing indicator on a screen often in amber or orange that catch our attention and drive us to respond.
The downsides of instant messaging
As well as the instant nature, this leads to changes in behaviour, for example often it is easier for a person to “ping” a question to a person that may know the answer because they are showing as available, rather than the individual being self-sufficient. This can lead to laziness in some.
In addition, two people sitting near each other can appear busy typing, when in fact they are chatting or gossiping with colleagues. There is lots of evidence of people using these tools as distractions and entertainment rather than as a productivity tool.
I was recently told of a situation where four people sat in an open plan environment in a cluster, and for much of the day, two of them spent a large amount of time just chatting between them, and in effect excluding the others. Often the nature of the chats could be seen as “garden gate” gossip at best and bullying at worst. Why bullying? Because it transpired much of the chat was derisory about those sitting around them. They would often say things in the chat that they would not have wanted others hearing them say out loud.
The situation changed when one of the two that chatted left the team for another position. The remaining individual was suddenly left without his buddy, and was in effect isolated from others around them. His behaviour changed, and he started to engage with others for the first time since they had been together.
So instant messages can help improve productivity…
IF everyone changes their status to reflect what they are doing at the time (just looking at mine as I write this, and apparently I am “available” rather than busy.. I guess I’m just lucky I have not been disturbed… yet! As well as setting status appropriate, we need to both respect status, and not be lazy asking questions that we should know the answer to.
Its not the software or the communications tool or vehicle that makes us more or less efficient
.. its the way we use them and the culture in the organization itself.
Business Instant Message tools – increased or decreased productivity – its all in the culture not the tool!