On a typical afternoon, Kamer, 30, participates in half a dozen simultaneous IM conversations through a cascade of pop-up windows on his computer screen. One colleague might be trying to fix a hardware problem at a client's data center on the East Coast, while another is logging on to the client's system from a Denver hotel suite. Instant messaging lets the team collaborate efficiently without playing telephone tag or having their e-mail messages cross in the ether. "IM is the most convenient way to consult co-workers and solve a problem quickly," Kamer says. "I find it indispensable."
Instant messaging is best known as the technology that gave millions of teenagers a new way of chatting about whether Heather likes Tommy, but today it's being rapidly adopted by business with major implications for workplace culture. Just as e-mail has changed the pace and rhythm of office life, IM is ushering in a working style that can be breezier and more efficient or distracting and oppressively demanding.
Though IM users and technology consultants are divided over the technology's net value, there's little doubt that it's spreading through office suites faster than a hot piece of gossip while creating a lucrative market for business-messaging applications. According to the research firm IDC, more than 65 million business users worldwide rely on business and consumer IM products, up from 16.5 million in 1998. IDC, based in Framingham, Mass., forecasts that more than 207 million employees will be logged on to IM by 2006. Corporate use of wireless IM, through pdas and other mobile devices, is also growing rapidly; IDC expects 24 million workers to be using it by 2005. Many companies, fearful of security breaches on consumer-oriented IM systems like those of AOL Time Warner (parent company of Time magazine), Microsoft and Yahoo, are setting up proprietary systems with help from IM infrastructure vendors such as FaceTime, Communicator and IMLogic.
IM offers companies real-time communication at low cost. An instant message sent to a co-worker halfway around the world costs far less than an international phone call, and compared with e-mail, IM is less expensive to maintain. Getting an IM is in some ways less intrusive than dropping everything to answer a phone call. And those who telecommute or travel frequently find that IM often helps them feel better connected with their offices.
More big retailers and service businesses are incorporating IM into their e-commerce operations. Alaska Airlines allows customers to use IM to get quick answers to questions such as "Can I get bonus miles for this flight?" Lands' End (acquired by Sears in June) lets shoppers on its website use IM to get immediate answers from customer-service reps, instead of holding on the phone or waiting for a reply to an e-mail. Lands' End says customers who use IM are 70% more likely to buy than those who browse the website without using IM or who call an 800 number with questions. And customer questions on IM can be tracked to help the company improve its products and services. Says Bill Blass, a Lands' End senior vice president, "It's like having a huge focus group." According to Forrester Research, based in Cambridge, Mass., the number of online shoppers who prefer to use IM for customer service jumped to 9% in 2001, up from 3% in 1999.
Where IM generates complaints is not in e-commerce but in ordinary offices. Some workers and managers find it hard to research and write reports and do other tasks when instant messages are constantly popping up on their computer screen. And the temptation to chat with friends during work hours can also sap productivity. At some workplaces, important decisions are made on the fly via IM, so employees who fear being left out stay glued to their screens, often neglecting other work such as visits to customers. Some managers even use IM to convene impromptu conferences outside of normal office hours, presenting workers with the unhappy choice of logging on after dinner or getting cut out of the loop.
The Blueshirt Group, a boutique investor-relations firm in San Francisco, makes extensive use of IM. But Erica Abrams, 37, a partner in the firm, has opted out. After trying IM for about a year, she removed it from her PC. "It bothered me too much," she says. She found the constant pinging of messages intrusive and ultimately overwhelming. "Why bother?" she asked. "My clients are satisfied with my service already. I'm not sure I need to be more responsive than that. Isn't e-mail fast enough?"