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Can We Chat? Instant Messaging Apps Invade the Workplace

With the internet, we have more ways to communicate than ever. Email, instant messaging, and smartphones completely changed how we interact with family and friends. Increasingly, they’re also changing how we connect with colleagues at work.

Email still sits at the center of office communications. In a new survey by ReportLinker, half of American workers say email is their primary way to communicate with their co-workers. That doesn’t mean personal interactions – either face-to-face or over the phone – have disappeared, but only one in five respondents say they prefer these methods.

New communications tools are on the rise, including instant messaging applications. Forty-three percent of respondents said they used these tools at work. Not surprisingly, instant messaging is widely popular in the tech industry, where 71% percent of employees rely on the application. In international companies, it’s used by 62% of the workforce.

It’s easy to see why. Private, group messaging and chat tools helps teams collaborate together more efficiently and keep projects on track. There are dozens of communications and collaboration apps used in enterprises today, from AOL’s instant messenger (AIM) to group messaging services like Slack. Even Facebook has entered the workplace with such a tool.

Although employees use instant messaging applications 28% of the time, only 8% of respondents say it’s their first choice to communicate with colleagues, ReportLinker says. Those who favor email are more likely to also use instant messaging (30%) or their phone (80%) at work. Video conferencing is also becoming more popular at work, with respondents mentioning it 23% of the time. Those working for national or international companies were more likely to use video calls to communicate. However, in companies that don’t make instant messaging applications available, employees were more likely to use the phone to interact with colleagues.

Despite the buzz around startup group messaging applications such as Slack, Microsoft still dominates desktop communications. Skype, which it purchased in 2011, is the most popular instant messaging software, used in 29% of companies, while Microsoft Lync is used by 19% of respondents. However, more than one in five respondents say they’re using Facebook Messenger to communicate with co-workers, which makes the launch of Facebook at Work look like a smart move for the social network. Its app is especially popular among employees at small companies – those with less than 50 employees – 41% of whom say they use it to interact at work.

In more than half of companies, the IT department is responsible for choosing and maintaining communications technology. Just 3% involve their communications department when selecting an instant messaging tool, even though it can have a significant impact on how employees interact with co-workers and external contacts.

Instant messaging has been around for decades, but mobile devices have made this form of communication more appealing. Although desktop computers (75% of mentions) and phones (71% of mentions) still dominate the workplace, companies are also providing employees with mobile technology. According to ReportLinker, when asked which devices were available in their office, respondents mentioned laptops 63% of the time, smartphones (56% of mentions), and tablets (36%). Businesses that provided employees access to instant messaging applications were more likely to also provide mobile devices, such as laptops (75%) and tablets (47%).

However, for all the advantages, including faster, more streamlined communications, mobile devices still present a risk for companies. When businesses allow unfettered access to the internet, they also open the door to viruses, reduced productivity and inappropriate content. Thus, many put policies in place to manage employee use of and access to the internet. More than half of respondents to ReportLinker’s survey say their companies restrict access to some websites. Despite the risks, ReportLinker found some employers are more permissive, especially those with fewer than 50 workers. Sixty-two percent of small firms say they allow workers unlimited access to the internet.

Another workplace trend driven by the availability of mobile devices is telecommuting. Only 44% of employees interviewed by ReportLinker say their companies allow them to telecommute. However, this is a more common practice for tech companies (69%) and international firms (66%). As we might expect, companies that provide employees with smartphones (55%), laptops (55%) or tablets (57%) are more likely to allow telecommuting. But when a company does permit employees to telecommute, tools like video conferencing (71%) and instant messaging (60%) are used more frequently.

One much-touted benefit of instant messaging is that it allows employees to get answers from colleagues quickly, minimizing disruptions. In theory, this means productivity should increase. But almost half of respondents say they see no change in their productivity with the applications. Meanwhile, among heavy users, 45% say they’re more productive with instant messaging than they would be without it.

Instant messaging does appear to make collaboration among colleagues easier. Almost half of respondents say it enhances collaboration, especially those who use them regularly at work. In fact, the more employees think these tools improves workplace collaboration, the more likely they are to attribute higher productivity to having an instant messaging app on their desktop.

This is probably why two of the biggest drivers of instant messaging adoption are efficiency (22%) and team collaboration (14%). And although email still reigns supreme, instant messaging is a tantalizing alternative to overflowing – and out-of-control – email inboxes. According to ReportLinker, respondents see several other advantages too. Fourteen percent said instant messaging applications helps them reduce the volume of emails, while 12% liked the flexibility and 10% said the tools were easy to use.

On the flip side, the tools can also be distracting or stressful. One in four respondents told ReportLinker they feel the pressure to answer IMs right away, even if they’re in the middle of other work. Ironically, 46% of those who believed such tools helped them reduce the volume of email received said they felt pressure to respond immediately. Respondents cited other drawbacks as well, including fewer in-person interactions and the lack of privacy. In fact, more than half of American workers (57%), say they believe there’s no guarantee workplace conversations will remain private on such tools.

Both employers and employees will likely learn to live with such problems. Instant messaging is so pervasive in personal life, it’s unlikely to fade from corporate life anytime soon. And if productivity rises along with adoption, these apps could overtake email in the workplace.

 

This survey conducted by ReportLinker reached 513 online respondents working and representative of the US population. Interviews were conducted between May, 23rd and May, 24th 2017.