Ever since the entrance of AOL instant messenger (AIM) in the late ‘90s, instant messaging has become a staple of modern communication. Today, there are over 3.2 billion instant messaging accounts worldwide, which is expected to reach 3.8 billion by 2019. The workplace has been no exception to the instant messaging revolution. In fact, enterprise instant messaging market has been growing faster than the consumer market in recent years. This growth has been partly fueled by the rise of telecommuting, with 37 percent of U.S. workers reporting that they have telecommuted. When people aren’t in the same place, they can’t communicate in person, which can create challenges in coordinating work effectively. In the face of the challenges created by an increasingly distributed workforce, more companies have been switching to IM as the primary means of both internal and external communication.

Why are companies choosing IM? Communicating with IM provides many benefits:

  1. allows instantaneous conversation with colleagues
  2. archived conversations that are easily referenced later
  3. ability to maintain several conversations at once
  4. easily send messages groups
  5. less cross-cultural miscommunication (for people who are working in their second language it can often be more comfortable communicating via chat rather than in person)

In the modern workforce, IM seems like a natural solution for making communication easier.

The Psychology of Distraction

However, not everyone sees the benefits of IM, but rather perceive it as a source of constant distraction that kills productivity. Many of us can relate to the frustration of being pulled away from our work several times a day to answer messages from colleagues. That type of frequent distraction has been shown to negatively impact performance. In study by the University of Minnesota, experiments revealed that subjects experienced reduced cognitive performance when starting another task (e.g. responding to a message) after leaving one unfinished (e.g. writing a report). This was due to the fact that the subject would continue to think about the previous task while performing the next task.

How much does this type of multi-tasking reduce performance? One study by Dr. Glenn, a psychologist at King’s College London, found that multitasking temporarily reduced cognitive performance in participants equivalent to a 10 point drop in IQ. Another study commissioned by the New York Times found that participants that experienced unexpected interruptions while taking a cognitive skill tests performed 20 percent worse than those that did not experience these interruptions. Therefore, the amount of distraction experienced by employees could have a potentially damaging impact on performance.

However, these type of disruptions are not limited to IM. They were also possible when a colleague could email, call, or even knock on your office door. In fact, the distraction caused by email is a common complaint of the modern workforce. Various email management techniques, such as inbox zero, have emerged to solve these problems with some even calling to eliminate it entirely.

Despite the impact of frequent communication on personal productivity, interruptions are necessary to collaborate effectively among a group of people. If people didn’t interrupt each other’s work to communicate, then it wouldn’t be possible to coordinate the group’s efforts effectively. As such, occasional disruptions serve to improve the group’s overall productivity. Therefore, concerns about the effect of IM on productivity cannot solely be based on the fact that it interrupts work.

IM and productivity

The real question is this: does IM create greater distraction than other means of communication?

According to the research, the answer is no. In a study by researchers at Ohio State University and University of California, Irvine, workers who used instant messaging reported experiencing less interruption than workers who did not use it. This was because they were able to substitute rapid IM communication for other more disruptive forms of communication. However, just because workers don’t feel as interrupted using IM, doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect their productivity.

A recent study by researchers at SUNY New Paltz and the City College for New York investigated this question. For workers in a laboratory, they tested the effect of using IM on productivity, quality of work, and time on-task. The results showed no difference in performance between employees that used IM and those that did not. Even more surprising, workers that used IM were shown to complete tasks faster than those that did not.

In addition, IM has many benefits over other tools (i.e. email) in that it makes it easier for people to communicate in real time. According to Cal Newport, professor at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work, real time communication “is efficient and nuanced: not only does it allow you to handle in three minutes decisions that might have otherwise taken three days of attention-snagging messages, but it tends to also produce more thoughtful conclusions.” With IM, you can see who is online and it makes it easier to reach out when you are more likely to get an immediate response. When there isn’t this constant lag (as is so common with email), issues get resolved much more quickly.

Based on the research, IM is a great tool to enable instantaneous communication in a team. Employees that use IM feel less distracted and are just as productive. Clearly, IM is a method of communication that works well for businesses.

Using IM in your business

For companies concerned about the impact of IM on productivity, there no evidence that it has a bigger impact than any other communication tool. Still, management in any company needs to set best practices for IM communication so that it doesn’t prevent employees from getting real work done. As discussed above, multitasking can have a severe impact on performance, and frequent IM discussion can lead to constantly switching tasks. To prevent this type of distraction, it is important to respect the time others and be discerning about what needs to be communicated.

At the end of the day IM is a tool, and like any tool, it only works when you use it for its intended purpose. You wouldn’t use a spoon to cut a steak, just as you wouldn’t waste time with lengthy IM chats when talking in person would be quicker.

So is IM a source of distraction or productivity? The answer is both. It all depends on how you use it. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article where we give you all sorts of actionable tips for making instant messaging work in your business.