Online chat has been around for years. In the business world, it is usually referred to as instant messaging, or IM, and it’s becoming steadily more popular in companies because of the positive impact in productivity. Usage is expected to continue growing rapidly over the coming years.
Why Use IM?
Many people ask why IM is necessary when email is so readily available. Although some people do check email constantly, not everyone does. IM is instantaneous, which makes it a great way to get quick answers fast. It’s also more interactive than email because it’s a two-way communications tool. In many companies it’s taking the place of phone and voicemail because it is a faster way to communicate. You can also chat with a single person or easily invite a group, and you can have multiple conversations going at the same time.
Unlike texting, many IM tools are “presence aware” which means they can tell from your calendar or phone whether you are busy at the moment. You can also set your status – for example “do not disturb” – to set boundaries and prevent unwanted interruptions when needed. You can also see if someone is away from their desk so you aren’t waiting on a response from someone who isn’t there. Obviously it’s also easier to type from your computer than your phone, and IM conversations are typically recorded and archived as part of corporate records.
Other features commonly available are the ability to switch from an IM conversation to video chat, share files, or chat remotely from your smartphone, tablet, or laptop so you can stay in touch from anywhere.
What Tools are Available?
Microsoft Lync is one of the most popular, given its tight integration into Microsoft Office. It can be installed on a server or you can subscribe to it as part of Office 365, Microsoft’s cloud-based service. Google Apps users have access to Google Talk, another popular chat program.
Many other tools are available: Salesforce.com offers Salesforce Chatter, and 37 Signals (the makers of Basecamp, a popular project management tool) offers Campfire. Skype is best known for phone and video calls, but it also has IM features. Yahoo! Messenger is a consumer-oriented product but has been around for years. IBM and Oracle also have instant messaging options, although these are beyond the budgets of most small businesses. Even some of the newer phone systems offer chat clients as part of their unified communications solution, which is intended to pull together email, voicemail, chat, and fax.
Just like email, IM has its own etiquette. Here are some tips:
- Use statuses, and read the statuses of others. If you are busy and need a break from interruptions, your status should indicate that. Likewise, if someone else sets their status to “do not disturb,” you should respect it.
- If you are IM’ing more than a few questions, consider picking up the phone. IM is great for many communications, but there are times where phone or in person are better.
- Know when to sign off. If a question has been answered, the chat is generally considered to be over. There is no need for endless goodbyes. One of the big advantages of IM is that it’s straight to the point. It is not intended for long conversations or complex requests.
- Feel free to use common abbreviations, but don’t go overboard, and don’t use anything obscure. “BRB” and “GTG” are important – “be right back” and “got to go”.
- Write in a clear and grammatically correct way. This may be chat, but it’s still business correspondence and is likely being recorded.
- Share one thought at a time, and give the other person time to respond. If you have a lot of information to share, email may be a better choice.
- Don’t share personal or confidential data over IM.
- If the conversation gets difficult for any reason, pick up the phone or stop by in person. Chat has the same challenge as email – it can easily be misinterpreted because there is no body language or voice inflection that can be used to filter the intent behind the words. That’s one of the reason emoticons are so popular.
- Keep personal IM’ing to a minimum during the business day.
What Else You Need to Know
One of the most common concerns about IM is that it is a constant interruption. The best way to mitigate that is to ensure proper use of statuses. In fact, if this is done diligently, it can actually reduce interruptions because people can reliably use IM instead of calling or stopping by in person. In some environments, you may also notice the office is quieter because people are typing more than talking.
Security is another concern, especially if you are using consumer-class IM tools like Yahoo! Messenger or Skype. Business-class products typically allow more control, content filtering, encryption, message archiving, etc. Security is not just about protecting your confidential information – there is also potential for virus and malware infections if staff start downloading files from public messaging tools.
Set policies for IM use. Since it is a company resource, employees should not have any expectation of privacy, just like with email and internet surfing. If you decide IM is appropriate for use with customers and business partners, you will need to set policy for those communications as well, and you will also need an IM tool that is compatible for use with outside parties.
Where Do You Go from Here?
If you want to try IM in your organization, the easiest way to start is by using a web-based tool. If you are an Office 365 user, you may already have Lync, which is a very robust IM tool. Otherwise, check out some of the other web-based tools mentioned above. A free service may not have all the features you ultimately want, but it will give you some idea how IM can make your organization more productive. Try it out and see what happens – once you get used to the ease and convenience of IM, you aren’t likely to go back to just phone and email.