Some researchers have speculated that workers would use instant messaging in addition to the phone and e-mail, leading to increased interruption and reduced productivity. Instead, research showed that instant messaging was often used as a substitute for other, more disruptive forms of communication such as the telephone, e-mail, and face-to-face conversations. Using instant messaging (IM) led to more conversations on the computer, but the conversations were briefer, said R. Kelly Garrett, co-author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State.
"The key take away is that instant messaging has some benefits where many people had feared that it might be harmful. We found that the effect of instant messaging is actually positive. People who used instant messaging reported that they felt they were being interrupted less frequently," Garrett said.
The study involved 912 people who worked at least 30 hours per week in an office and used a computer for at least five hours in a workday. Randomly selected participants from 12 metropolitan areas took a telephone survey between May and September 2006.
The key to unlocking the effects of instant messaging lies in how people are using the technology, Garrett said.
Instead of dropping in unexpectedly, many are using the technology to check in with coworkers to see when they are available. Many also use the technology to get quick answers to general questions or to inquire about current work tasks instead of engaging in longer face-to-face conversations.
Because of its unique setup, instant messaging allows users to control how and when they communicate with coworkers. The technology gives people the ability to flag their availability or postpone responses to a more convenient time, and because it is socially acceptable to ignore or dismiss a message, many use the technology to put off more disruptive conversations, he said.
The study is published in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication.