Instant messaging (IM), or text-based "chat" applications, provides a convenient and efficient tool for small business employees to communicate during the day. IM chat sessions are popular ways for employees to get quick answers to questions, or to pass along news or messages without having to play "voice mail tag."
For many companies, using IM can help reduce the number of meetings that need to be scheduled while improving the overall efficiency of daily communication with employees and customers. Quick messages about projects, lunch plans or someone's location are ideally suited to IM.
Because information can be shared quickly, IM offers an efficient collaboration tool that can save time and costs over exchanging information over the phone or via email.
Instant messenger applications, known as clients, are available from the leading online and email portals (AOL, Yahoo, MSN and Google's Talk service). These applications were initially designed for consumers, but their efficiency improvements and ease of use have made them popular choices among businesses of all sizes.
IM clients are used primarily for exchanging short text messages during chat sessions, but most also allow users to exchange files and documents, or to start a voice or video conversation by clicking a button.
The ability to add graphics such as smiley-face icons allows users to convey emotion more effectively than with text alone, as does the use of text formatting such as bold or italic to emphasize important points.
Some IM clients can operate on different networks, but generally it's more efficient for a company to select one IM client and promote it as a company standard.
Although small businesses depend on popular consumer instant messaging applications, consumer-grade IM may not be the best choice in business settings. A variety of software providers offer IM clients that have been customized for business, with additional security and management features that are generally absent from consumer clients.
For example, some companies may not want employees to have the ability to share unauthorized documents, or may wish to restrict document sharing to internal users.
Similarly, business IM clients are more likely to have built-in data encryption or antivirus protection, which adds an additional layer of security for your company's network.
Depending on the sensitivity of the information your business deals with, you may wish to install monitoring software that automatically generates a log of employee chat sessions with each other or with customers. Business owners are generally within their rights to monitor communications that use company equipment, but may wish to consult with legal counsel about the appropriate employee notifications.
Regulated industries may have additional archiving requirements that dictate the use of a business-grade IM client.
Screen-sharing, whiteboard and other online collaboration tools are generally more robust in business-grade IM clients than in their consumer counterparts.
Policies Are Important
Regardless of which IM client your company selects, it's important to develop and share policies regarding the appropriate use of instant messaging within the workplace.
For instance, employees should be cautioned against exchanging confidential or financial customer data during IM chats, or using a company IM system for excessive personal chatting with family and friends. Most employees would understand this without being told, but a policy can ensure that everyone's expectations are the same.
Your company's policies should also permit workers to temporarily make themselves unavailable for IM chats. People should feel comfortable hanging the digital equivalent of a "do not disturb" sign on their IM client if they're working on an important project or proposal.
Despite the small potential drawbacks, the productivity and efficiency gains IM can bring to the workplace make instant messaging an important communication and collaboration tool for businesses of all sizes.