Teleworkers embrace instant messaging

Olivier Sanche lives and works in Atlanta. He has reports in Colorado, Illinois, New York and California. His supervisor lives in Alaska.

That means upward of 70 office- and home-based workers in Sanche’s department are spread across five time zones and thousands of miles. Often, team members’ diverse schedules make for a chaotic workday. Sanche is often heading to lunch just as his supervisor begins his day, or is heading home just as the Alaskan is returning from lunch.

Enter instant messaging, the real-time text-based communication tool that Sanche – a twice weekly teleworker and district manager for AT&T Corp.’s Network Operations and Engineering Training group – uses to navigate time zones and work hours. “Since the window of time in our ‘office’ is limited, (instant messaging) helps us coordinate things a lot better,” he says.

Sanche and his team are a small portion of the 14,000 AT&T employees using the company’s proprietary IMAnywhere messaging tool, which was built in 1998 for ATTWorldNet online customers. Today, employees use it to keep in touch, whether they’re working in-house or remotely – more than half of AT&T’s managers telework at least one day per week. “It’s been effective at making the transitions between working in the office or at home seamless,” he says.

Workers such as Sanche are part of a growing trend toward the use of real-time messaging in the corporate and telework environment. The number of corporate instant messaging users is expected to skyrocket from 18.4 million in 2002 to 229.2 million in 2005, with spending on such services to increase from US$133 million to US$1.1 billion, according to a recent IDC report. Already, 70 per cent of firms have employees using the services, says Robert Mahowald, an analyst with IDC.

Mahowald says manufacturers have pushed application integration, so users can tie instant messaging into existing e-mail directories, and leverage the presence component out to mobile devices. “It is a way for mobile workers to feel as though they are really connected, and for employers to know that their workers are logged on and available,” he adds.

Instant Messaging Grows Legs

Free and simple, products such as America Online Inc.’s AIM, Microsoft Corp.’s MSN Messenger and Yahoo Inc.’s Messenger brought instant messaging to the mainstream. People began using them at home and the office, and realized the power of the tools for days they were working remotely or teleworking. With the masses have come more providers. Today, 25 real-time messaging products are vying for the corporate market.

Moreover, products such as IBM Corp./Lotus Software Group’s Sametime, iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions, Comverse Technology Inc. and even Microsoft Exchange 2000 have helped raise awareness in the business world and “give the industry some champions,” Mahowald says. With champions will come standards for uniformity and differentiation among providers. Some will focus on bringing instant messaging to the masses. Others will deliver niche applications, such as portal-based services and partner, customer or affinity relationship management.

But instant messaging has not been without growing pains, as evidenced by the prevalence of consumer products being used in corporate settings – and the blurring of instant messaging for work and personal use. Even Sanche splits his instant messaging use in the office between formal office communication on IMAnywhere and informal chat with non-employee friends and family on ICQ, NetMeeting or MSN Messenger.

As a result, security is an increasing concern, especially in companies where remote and on-site employees use consumer tools to communicate. In January, AOL admitted there was a security hole in its AOL’s Instant Messenger (AIM) service that could allow the introduction of malicious code into users’ machines. Although many products support data encryption, when workers use them to chat with family and co-workers using consumer products residing outside the corporate firewall, they unwittingly could open security holes.

Even so, for remote workers, instant messaging can be a productivity boon. When on a lengthy conference call from home, Sanche might ping a co-worker for information he needs, the same as he’d slip an in-office colleague a note in a meeting room while on a conference call. Other users on his list know to use instant messaging rather than voice mail. Instant messaging also makes quick business of simple decisions; he scheduled an impromptu remote team meeting in less than 20 minutes recently. “That was a record,” he recalls.

Sanche limits his instant messaging chit chats with co-workers – although he admits it works well to replace the water cooler atmosphere lost in the home-based environment. “We do occasionally ask each other about how things are,” he says. “But it’s mainly quick to the point and another tool to facilitate everyday life in the office.”

Next Step, Uniformity

The confluence of features and benefits – like tying workers to one messaging tool and the ability to save message threads – has helped turn instant messaging into a productivity boon for business, Mahowald says, but only if it’s used correctly. Between instant messaging and e-mail, workers create “twin collaborative silos” where messaging becomes fuzzy and untraceable.

Between heightened security issues and threads left unsaved on consumer services, companies are losing productivity, Mahowald says. “If it’s lost on AIM server somewhere, that’s not good. IT managers in midsize and large businesses have looked the other way. But it’s becoming harder and harder to do so,” he says.

What’s more, the parade of consumer instant messaging products being used sap company productivity and jeopardize security. Take the case of Ross McKenzie, director of IS with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore. Among the 4,000 people using the school network, many were using a variety of instant messaging tools in campus offices and from home, which created a generally chaotic and potentially insecure messaging situation. The lack of uniformity and reliance on outside providers with scant security measures was creating a fertile bed for worms and viruses, he says.

“There was a concern [that instant messaging] was going to grow very big,” McKenzie says. “We wanted to beat the curve before it got entrenched in here with five different flavours.”

What’s more, the school was installing a new portal for its faculty, staff and students, creating the ideal opportunity to launch one instant messaging platform and bring everyone in line. In August, McKenzie went with Bantu, a Washington, D.C., provider that stressed security and the ability to let users keep their consumer instant messaging accounts. This was important to McKenzie because many were already using consumer products, and getting them to migrate to a new system might have been difficult otherwise.

Whether it’s travelling professors instant messaging colleagues in Baltimore or students pinging family back home – the system helps keep the university community connected while simplifying McKenzie’s job. An occasional teleworker himself whose IT staff includes several part-time teleworkers – all of whom stay in touch using Bantu – McKenzie is pleased.

“This is much easier for everybody,” he says.

Personality Rules

As McKenzie learned, whether workers adopt a new instant messaging service depends a lot on personal preference. Mahowald, who frequently teleworks from his home 25 minutes from his office, has tested many consumer and commercial instant messaging products. He acknowledges instant messaging is great for dispersed teams that need to stay in touch, share information quickly or just keep the team spirit alive. The application of colours, icons, a friendly interface and tools such as conferencing, document sharing and presentations help facilitate team use.

Yet for personal use, Mahowald isn’t sold on instant messaging and sees it as just another leash to the network. “It’s not part of my constitution. My thoughts don’t come so quickly that they can’t be represented by e-mail,” he says.

Even so, instant messaging has been a good fit for the 23 home-based caseworkers and 25 corporate-office staffers at M Hayes and Associates, a Baltimore disability case management firm with offices in Richmond, Va.; Fairfax, Va.; and throughout Pennsylvania. In August, the company began using WiredRed Software Corp.’s e/pop 3.0 running on its Citrix servers to network caseworkers and patient cases, according to Nick Reich, the company’s director of IT. M Hayes used to rely on e-mail for keeping remote and in-house workers in touch.

Simple to launch and easy to manage, WiredRed took Reich only 20 minutes to set up and standardize; his workers spent just a few minutes more learning to use it. Now, they instant message requests for files, patient data, forms and such – all of which would have previously been made via a long-distance call. When an insurance provider approves a new patient’s referral or benefits, the caseworker is now notified immediately. The caseworker can in turn notify the patient the same day. Quality assurance and client satisfaction improves as the efficiency in delivering cases increases, Reich says.

It’s simpler and less formal than e-mail, he adds. “You don’t have to launch Outlook or look for someone’s e-mail address. It’s a lot less of a pain to use,” he says.

Case management is especially important as the company seeks to comply with patient confidentiality and file management procedures related to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, Reich says. With WiredRed, content stays on his server. His only weak link is that some employees use Yahoo and other instant messaging products to chat with family and friends.

But that won’t fly in the near future, he says, adding, “We can’t have any leaks in data. It’s got to be like [CIA headquarters] Langley around here.”