Instant messaging is like email on steroids. It is the ultimate in instant gratification. It's a virtual aphrodisiac for people who get distracted easily.
IM is also a problem at work.
On the plus side, IM at work creates "zero excuse" for missing communications from clients or colleagues. Directives to employees, questions to superiors and colleagues, are all instantly there -- right before your eyes, on your PDA. And a tone isn't enough. The message actually jolts you with a physical vibration. In case that doesn't work, you'll see a light flashing from green to red.
As a workplace tool (e.g., the boss or a colleague is on the phone or in a meeting and they need to share some up-to-date information with you), IM is great. Someone may want to tell you, “Our biggest client is on the phone,” or "We just got the huge order from XYZ company,” while you are on a phone call or in a meeting, so you see it at once.
How can you beat that? In cases like these, IM is akin to the earpiece that television news anchors have long worn.
On the other hand, IM is addicting, and using it too much or in the wrong way at work can be damaging to your career and your reputation.
Here are a few tips to summarize the risks:
- If you use IM at work, you must live up to the expectations you set. Using “email on steroids” sets the expectation among your customers, colleagues, and bosses that you are continuously available. After all, it's called "instant" messaging for a reason. The Internet has made it impossible to excuse communication gaffs. Instant message, instant reply.
- Don't assume your IM is private. Instant messaging on any workplace-owned device (be that a laptop, computer, PDA, BlackBerry, Iphone, or even your cellphone) is company property. The content of your messages is as traceable as your email
- IM doesn't belong to you at work. Whether you get your IM from your employer’s service provider or via your employer’s PDA device, everything and anything you put in IM belongs to the company and can be read by them. I always have had two devices and recommend that for everyone. One’s mine for personal use, and one is for business. Never the twain shall meet.
- Bosses are sensitive about IM. IM used by employees at work for personal communications is the No. 1 distraction in the workplace today. It can be the modern-day equivalent of the “personal phone call” dilemma of years past. Indeed, some bosses equate personally IM-ing to stealing company time, so turn off your personal PDA at work and never have it on your screen there.
- Be aware of the impression you make. If you hate watching your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, or kids "text" while you are with them, just think how your boss feels watching you do it (even if it's work related)! The idea of an employee being able to communicate in secret or silence is especially annoying to bosses, even when it is business related. They hate it. It’s better to hear one half of a phone call then none at all -- business or personal. Be aware of how your IM use will appear to the rest of the office.
All that said, if you do opt to use IM at work, be prepared with a PDA that is charged and ready to reply. Juggling incoming messages requiring instant responses with efforts to ensure you don't detract from your workplace performance -- or your boss or colleagues' perception of that performance -- requires multitasking. Enjoy!
— Stephen Viscusi is the author of Bulletproof Your Job: 4 Simple Strategies to Ride Out the Rough Times and Come Out On Top at Work (HarperCollins)
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