Drinking at the virtual water cooler

Instant messenger use is soaring at the office, as it gives co-workers more efficient ways to work--and gossip.

7 min read
When a major Boston public relations company announced massive layoffs last December, pink slips weren't the only things flying around the office.

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Instant messages were racing as workers anxiously searched for nuggets of information about who would stay and who would go.

Melanie Miller, who was sitting near a vice president who was holding individual layoff interviews, had as many as seven instant messaging screens up at once as she sent off brief news alerts about the layoffs to her friends in the company's two-floor offices. That is, until she herself was called in by the hatchet man.

"When I got back to my desk, there were a bunch of IMs saying 'No!' 'Sorry' and 'Whoops!" said Miller, who asked that the name of her former employer not be used.

As instant messaging makes inroads among companies that want to improve communications, the medium is also taking on another role: the bearer of corporate gossip. It seems the background sound for rumors is no longer the chug-glug-glug of the water cooler. These days, much corporate tittle-tattle is heralded by the cheery brrrring of the instant message.

Miller, who's now a staff assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said instant messaging remains her medium of choice when it comes to chatting with friends while at work. "Everyone can hear what you're talking about on the phone," she said. "When you're IM-ing, everyone can hear you typing, but it sounds like you're working. In that way, it's more private."

Blurring the lines
Companies may be barely aware of it, but instant messaging is transforming the workplace as employees trade quips and tips in droves--a trend that promises to blur forever the line between working hard and goofing off at a computer keyboard. In a split second, people using instant messengers can arrange an impromptu business meeting, answer a question from an important client or crack a joke with a co-worker down the hall.

Instant messaging's flexibility--and the fact that if often flies below the radar of corporate managers--has helped it take offices by storm. As many as 84 percent of all organizations use some sort of instant messenger application, according to a report issued by Osterman Research of Black Diamond, Wash., this year, although much of that is unofficial. Employees at fewer than a third of the companies surveyed used approved software, while nearly a quarter of businesses blocked instant messenger traffic at the firewall.

In many companies, the situation has created a free-for-all among instant messaging users, where work and social life mix without clear borders.

Much corporate instant messaging adoption occurs on an ad-hoc, bottom-up basis. Typically, a work group member or department leader decides that instant messaging is the best way to distribute quick changes to a project or to communicate with a client. That person then encourages employees to go out and download publicly available instant messaging software, such as products from America Online, Microsoft's MSN and Yahoo.

As a result, most companies have not been tracking instant messenger usage thoroughly. Even so, some analysts estimate corporate instant messenger use at 60 percent of all messages sent. "If I called up 100 CEOs and asked them if their workers are using instant messaging, 98 would say no," said Michael Gartenberg, research director for Jupiter Research. "They'd be wrong."

In turn, employees, who believe messages

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are fleeting and untraceable, feel comfortable fanning the flames of gossip with their instant messaging.

"It has increased the virtual water cooler space," Gartenberg said. "Management hasn't said what's acceptable, so users assume everything is acceptable."

While corporations have been attracted to instant messaging largely by its potential for new efficiencies at work, many employees have come to rely on it as way to survive cubicle culture.

In a past job at a public relations company, Rosalind Morville was annoyed by a colleague who was prone to random outbursts, laughter and demands for attention. Morville said the woman would comment on nearly every e-mail she received and expect her cubicle mates to participate in the chatter.

Instead of stewing silently, Morville sought moral support from a fellow victim, the man who sat next to the colleague. The pair would spend a few minutes sending instant messages each day, poking fun at the outbursts.

Those conversations could not have taken place over the phone, if they took place at all. Instant messaging also adds an element of calculation to gossip that formerly took place during chance hallway meetings. "You'd never say, 'Meet me in the conference room, so we can talk about so and so,'" Morville said.

Even though she's now at a different company, the banter sparked a lasting friendship with her former instant messaging partner. "I think it definitely does have the potential to change the dynamics of a relationship," she said. "I'm definitely more in contact with people than I would be without IM."

Big Brother
Such anecdotes could become rarer as company-sanctioned instant messenger software begins to displace unofficial networks. Major Wall Street brokerage houses are actively courting instant messenger providers to develop business applications tailored to their needs, for example, and the profile of instant messaging is on a steady rise within corporations.

The transition to official products is likely to bring a host of new tools for managers to monitor and track instant messaging conversations, potentially turning clubby and intimate office subcultures on their heads.

America Online, whose AOL Instant Messenger is currently among the most widely used unofficial instant messenger products within the office, recently unveiled a corporate version that will add monitoring and other tools to allow more control over the unruly office instant messaging universe.

Yahoo and Microsoft have also been tracking corporate adoption and are eager to take advantage of the trend. They're rolling out corporate instant messaging software, hoping it will catch on in the same way that proprietary e-mail systems have. For example, most companies these days wouldn't think of encouraging employees to use Hotmail or other public e-mail systems for official business purposes, opting for proprietary e-mail networks instead.

But IM won't button down completely just because it's going corporate. AOL and others plan to keep many of the popular consumer features when they launch their corporate products: the smiley faces, buddy lists and the immensely popular status message. The messages, originally designed to let people on your buddy list know whether you're available to chat, in a meeting, or on the phone, have developed a culture all their own.

In some offices, workers compete to post the most ridiculous messages--"Out walking my rats" or "Counting vice presidents as I go to sleep." Others use status messages to express loyalty to certain teams or causes.

"During the World Series, 50 percent of the status messages of my friends who live in the (San Francisco) Bay Area said 'Go Giants,'" Lisa Pollock, director of Yahoo messaging products, said.

The ability to post personal status messages furthers instant messaging's reputation as an intimate medium, giving people on your buddy list an excuse to send a message when they otherwise wouldn't. For example, after the San Francisco Giants' heartbreaking loss to the Anaheim Angels, buddies could send condolences to San Francisco fans--or they could taunt them.

Instant bloopers
Like any new technology, instant messaging has spawned some tricky situations in the workplace. Because rapid-fire exchanges can be so similar to conversations, employees may overstep certain professional bounds without meaning to.

"IM is so instantaneous that you might just blurt something out and later think 'Maybe I shouldn't have said that,'" said Doug Fowler, CEO of Vero Beach, Fla.-based SpectorSoft, which makes software that monitors instant messenger use.

Fowler said he recently had had to reprimand one of his own employees who was wasting time flirting via instant messenger. "While in many ways IM is more valuable than e-mail--especially because of its instantaneous quality--it also has the potential to become more addictive," he said.

Indeed, instant messenger addiction surveys abound on the Web, allowing people to determine how severely they're hooked to instant messaging and even which smiley face best fits them.

Instant messaging also can lead to some embarrassing problems, especially when messages are recorded--an increasingly common practice as the tool moves into the workplace. eFront CEO Sam Jain found that out the hard way last year, when thousands of his private ICQ messages were posted to the Internet. The messages included damaging and insulting comments about eFront employees and partners, prompting a public relations nightmare for Jain and his company, which eventually folded.

SpectorSoft, IMlogic and other companies are trying to help corporations deal with the challenge of instantaneous communications. Upcoming corporate instant messenger products from AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft will allow companies to monitor and place tighter controls on employees' instant messaging.

As corporations begin to pay more attention to instant messaging, office employees can expect to see changes in a freewheeling world that has offered a rare chance for privacy, freedom and friendship within increasingly monitored workplaces.

But the influence could go both ways, as instant messaging speeds other trends that are pushing some corporations to adopt more casual and informal work environments.

Just as corporate dress codes have shifted from suits to khakis to ripped jeans and tattoos, corporate communication has become much less formal. Turgid corporate memos have given way to more relaxed e-mails, and now e-mail is taking a back seat to instant messaging for instantaneous communication.

That instant messaging is a perfect fit with the new casual culture should come as no surprise. Perhaps no other consumer technology has made its way so quickly into the workplace, blurring the lines between personal and professional communications. Once pooh-poohed as a tool for teenyboppers, instant messaging is now an integral part of many corporate subcultures.

"The growth of AIM has been sparked by the sheer will of the individual," said Bruce Stewart, vice president for strategic business solutions at AOL, which is introducing a corporate product to go alongside its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). "It's a measure of the frustration at voice mail tag or e-mail threads that go on for days."