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by CAROLA MAMBERTO | April 01, 2009


During the preholiday crush last December, a computer maker asked staffing company Adecco SA for 300 additional factory workers -- immediately. Using an instant-messaging program, Senior Vice President Steve Baruch tapped managers in three states to line up the workers within hours. If he had relied on email and phone calls, Mr. Baruch says, the same process could have taken him as long as three days.

Instant messaging is invading and changing the workplace. Employees started to sneak instant messaging into the office in the late 1990s, but now more companies are endorsing it. Faster and more casual than email, instant messaging can foster broader collaboration among employees even as it further blurs the boundaries between work and life.

Instant-messaging programs allow users to organize contacts into "buddy lists" and see who is online and available to chat at any given moment, world-wide. With most IM programs, users can start real-time conversations with one or more contacts, including multiple participants simultaneously. Sending a message opens up small windows on the participants' screens where users can type their chats. Most programs also offer file-sharing, voice and video features. IM can be used on computers and on wireless devices like cellphones. Many employees use popular consumer-level IM applications, such as AOL Instant Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. But some companies have opted to buy more secure, customized systems that offer such features as archiving.

Roughly one-third of U.S. employees use instant messaging at work, many without the knowledge of their employers, according to a 2006 survey by the American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute. Many employers remain reluctant to endorse it officially fearing security breaches and distracted employees. But tech consultant Gartner Inc. projects that instant messaging will be the "de facto tool for voice, video and text chat" for 95% of employees in big companies within five years.

Unlike email, instant messaging offers "presence" -- a snapshot of which colleagues are available at a given moment, world-wide. Together with allied Internet technologies such as blogs and wikis, it is "changing the way people collaborate," says Andrew McAfee, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. Companies "increasingly react to situations and problems on the fly, not solely by hierarchy," he says.

Instant messaging can "scare managers who were taught they need to be in control," says Marty Anderson, a professor at the Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College. But others embrace the technology.

Suzanne Gordon, chief information officer for software maker SAS Institute Inc., Cary, N.C., "chats" daily via instant message with overseas staffers two or three rungs below her on the organizational chart. During one such session, a manager in France pointed out a flaw in technology support. Canvassing other employees by instant message, Ms. Gordon concluded the problem was serious enough for her to appoint a U.S.-based manager to help. "Sometimes through proper channels you don't always get the truth," she says.

Ms. Gordon recently "pinged" Philip Busby, a 23-year-old software developer three levels below her, to ask about his iPhone. Mr. Busby says he was surprised that Ms. Gordon, who oversees 350 employees, knew he had just bought the Apple Inc. device. But "it felt natural to chat with her, it happens all the time," he says. Ms. Gordon says she was curious whether the iPhone would be useful at SAS.

Paul Tidball, an SAS product manager who works from his home in Oregon, says instant messaging makes him feel less isolated. Through IM, Mr. Tidball finds it easier to collaborate remotely on projects and find co-workers around the clock. He sometimes limits their ability to find him, however, by signing off the instant messenger program. "At some point you just have to put the mouse down," he says.

Connecting people across job categories and time zones can be both the strength and the weakness of the technology. Tim Waire, vice president for information technology in the generation unit of Constellation Energy Group Inc., "tags" colleagues who are not at their computers so he is notified when they start using their computer again. "Because you're a 24-hour company, you expect people to be available 24 hours," he says. "There's no excuse anymore for not being available."

Mr. Waire's boss, Beth Perlman, is more cautious. She is Constellation's chief information officer, and she limits her "buddy list" -- those who can see whether she is online -- to 27 people. But she can still feel overwhelmed. During a recent computer-security investigation, Ms. Perlman traded instant messages with two managers while talking to a third on the phone. "The only place I can't be reached is on a plane," Ms. Perlman says. "That's why I like flying."

Ms. Gordon of SAS agrees. "You cannot let technology control you," she says. "You need to use it to your own advantage."

Consider how Andrew Fano, global director of research at Accenture Technology Labs, seeks control. Mr. Fano knows instant messaging is distracting. When he's in charge of a meeting, he sometimes bans laptops. But he also considers it indispensable, and he says that he, too, sometimes uses it during meetings. He has even used it to advise colleagues when to speak up and to suggest points for them to make.

Fans maintain the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Knowing when others are available can generate unexpected paybacks, says Greg Vigil, director of the PowerGrip unit at Gates Corp., a Denver maker of automotive and industrial rubber belts and hoses. During a product-development meeting in Scotland last January, Mr. Vigil saw in the corner of his laptop screen that the company's technical director for Asia, Guenther Heinz, had become available via instant message and asked if he would join the meeting.

It was late in the evening in Tokyo, but Mr. Heinz agreed to join the discussion by telephone, outlining products and technologies his team was developing in Asia, Mr. Vigil says. That spurred ideas for products in Europe and North America. Following up on the chance interaction, Mr. Vigil will soon travel to Japan and China to meet Mr. Heinz and talk further.

Artists at San Francisco-based Industrial Light & Magic, a division of Lucasfilm Ltd., used to crowd a screening room for up to two hours each morning to review the prior day's work. Now, supervisors feed suggestions to the artists over a custom-built instant-messaging system in which each participant can see others' comments. "Artists are able to get feedback more quickly and continue to work" without leaving their desks, says visual-effects supervisor Tim Alexander, whose latest work includes "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

At Adecco, Mr. Baruch says instant messaging gave him an edge in a recent meeting with an unhappy client. While the client was in the room, Mr. Baruch sent instant messages to colleagues to assemble data showing Adecco had upheld its end of a contract. "It added an important dimension to how we operate," he says.

Last year, Mr. Baruch used instant messaging to coach Wendy Liberko, a vice president who reports to him, through a sensitive meeting with a poorly performing employee. Mr. Baruch, Ms. Liberko and the employee were in three different locations, joined by a telephone conference call.

"He would send me messages saying, 'Good question!' or 'Don't forget to bring up those figures,' " Ms. Liberko says. She says she now uses the same tactics in Internet conferences with her nationally dispersed staff.

Ms. Liberko also says that instant messaging has reordered her communication priorities. She now deals with messages first, followed by voicemails, and finally email. At 11 a.m. one recent day, she had 150 unread email messages, she said, and no intention of "even glancing at" them before the day's end.


Filed Under: Workplace Issues