Instant messaging (IM) is gaining slow prominence in the workplace, with employees using the application for both professional and personal reasons. An early 2004 study of more than 2,200 U.S. adults from Pew Internet & American Life Project, revealed that 21 percent – or 11 million individuals – use IM at work, where some say it serves as a teamwork tool and others say it is a personal distraction.
"General IM use in adults has been relatively stable over the past three years, growing slowly," Amanda Lenhart, research specialist, Pew Internet & American Life Project.
A summer 2004 America Online Inc. survey of 4,510 respondents conducted by Opinion Research Corporation found that 27 percent of IM users said they used the communication tool in the workplace, representing a 71 percent increase over 2003's findings.
The instant messages are not always work-related, the Pew report found, as 40 percent reported that they generally sent IMs to coworkers and 33 percent said they sent messages to friends and family. Just 21 percent of the at-work IMers said they sent professional and personal messages.
On a similar note, the AOL survey found that 62 percent of at-work IM users say they also send occasional instant messages during their workday to check-in with family and friends, while 22 percent of working parents say that IM provides them with peace of mind by enabling them to quickly touch base with their children from the office.
The workforce is split on whether instant messaging is an effective tool for improving teamwork in the workplace. The Pew study found that 40 percent of at-work IM users feel the communication application has improved teamwork, while 41 percent feel it hasn't had any impact on colleague collaboration. Another 15 percent think IM has contributed minimally to teamwork.
"Instant messagers who use IM at work report that it is a tool for greater productivity in the workplace. Sixty-eight percent of workplace IMers say that while IM is a mixed blessing, it is mostly a positive thing in their work lives. Fifty percent of work IMers say it saves 'some' or 'a lot' of time, and very few find it distracting," said Lenhart.
Gossip was included among the distractions, with 32 percent of at-work users believing that IM actually encourages harsh banter. Nearly half (47 percent) of the Pew respondents had more positive interactions, saying that IM provided moments of relief during the workday, and the AOL survey revealed that 71 percent felt that IM had a positive impact on their work lives.
Not surprisingly, younger adults use the communication application most frequently, which will eventually lead to an influx of corporate IMers. The report found that 62 percent of 18 to 27-year-old online Americans use IM, compared to 42 percent of all online Americans, and 37 percent of those aged 28 to 39.
"I would expect that IM use will grow within the workplace. As younger users age and move into management and positions of greater responsibility, they'll take their tools and comforts with them, one of which is instant messaging," said Lenhart.
Lenhart suspects that security issues may be a chief reason that corporations have kept instant messaging at bay and not authorized widespread adoption.
"As more secure, proprietary IM software becomes available, it would not surprise us if IM use grows in the workplace," said Lenhart. "And as companies and institutions become more comfortable with the security of IM and more convinced that it is not a time-sink, but instead a tool for greater productivity and worker satisfaction, its adoption in wired workplaces will increase," Lenhart noted.
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