Study Finds Instant Messaging Helps Productivity

The results of a recently published study of workers' instant messaging (IM) use shows that IM can actually improve workplace productivity. This contradicts a widely held belief that IM in the workplace is a hindrance to productivity. IM is often perceived as an interruption, and as such, "it can significantly hinder productivity by disrupting thought processes and work flows, causing individuals to take longer to complete tasks."

Researchers at Ohio State University and the University of California, Irvine conducted a telephone study by randomly surveying individuals employed full-time who use computers in an office environment at least five hours per week. They netted 912 respondents, of which 29.8 percent claimed to use IM in the workplace "to keep connected with coworkers and clients." Interestingly, the demographics of the IM users were essentially identical to that of the non-IM users in the study, with a mean age of 43.7 years old and 53.2 percent female. Neither occupation, education, gender, nor age seem to have an impact on whether an individual is an IM user or not. This should throw out a few more generally accepted beliefs that IM users are predominately tech-savvy young men.

"IM users report lower levels of interruption"

The study theorizes that using IM enables individuals to "flag their availability." Doing so can limit when IM interruptions occur. Even if an IM interruption comes when it is not necessarily convenient to the recipient, it is "often socially acceptable" to ignore an incoming message or respond with a terse reply stating that the recipient is too busy at the moment to properly respond. Also, new "patterns of communication" develop around IM:

"IM provides a means of obtaining task relevant information rapidly and with minimal disruption, allowing a worker to ask clarifying questions without the expectation of engaging in a longer conversation. Alternatively, it can be used to participate in a sustained form of low-intensity collaboration... Setting up a line of communication via IM is as easy as making a phone call, and the line can be kept open indefinitely, allowing participants to query one another infrequently on an as-needed basis and with the expectation that a response will be forthcoming at the next convenient opportunity."

The study goes on to show that using IM does not increase the amount of time an individual communicates, in place of using e-mail, telephone, or face-to-face conversations:

"There is no significant difference in the overall levels of work communication between IM users and non-users in terms of either the time spent in communication... or in the amount of information exchanged with colleagues... In other words, workers' communication levels are unrelated to their use of IM, and there is certainly no evidence that IM use increases the overall amount of communication time. This might provide a partial explanation for why IM is not associated with an increase in interruption."

As to why the perception persists that IM disrupts productivity, the study posits that IM users are more likely to use IM for personal communications. Increased non-work related communications could easily be construed as harming productivity. However, the researchers found that personal-based IM communications have the same benefits as work related IM communications in that they can be short and responses can be delayed or even ignored.

Hopefully, employers who view IM communications with suspicion or disdain will see the potential benefits that the communications medium can bring. While many work environments have come to embrace IM communications, it is often viewed as a necessary evil. Perhaps this study will show those employers that this power can be used for good as well.