Instant Messaging in the Workplace by Jane Mauret

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[This is a real organisation but a fictitious proposal.]

Harnessing the Power of the Virtual Hallway

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The Chief Executive of Christchurch City Council (CCC) has requested a report, the findings of which to be shared with the General Managers of Internal and External Services, as to the merits of installing Instant Messaging (IM) as a further communication channel as a possible means of increasing efficiency of communication amongst CCC staff, and by extension, an increase in communication efficiency between CCC and its primary customers, the citizens of Christchurch.

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Whilst IM has been scrutinised in the past, it was in the context of usage by sectors of CCC, eg, Works Operations, and at that time, implementation of IM was not ratified.

The main objection in the past has been that adding IM into systems will provide more ‘opportunities’ for (unwanted?) inbound human input at a time when globally staff complain of being overloaded, thus clogging up the communication channels even further as recipients struggle to reply to queries of varying importance.

However, it is probable that the time is overdue for IM to be formalised as a practical and practicable communication channel for all CCC departments, particularly as the Council is able to weigh up its decision with reference to studies of such schemes which have been recently published.

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This latest proposal is also now regarded as pertinent in the light of the recent major earthquake and after-shocks experienced by greater Christchurch in early September, when the city looked to the Council in the immediate aftermath, and will continue to look to the Council for the next several years, as the city and its amenities undergo a lengthy process of repair and reconstruction. In the current climate, the CCC is behoved to utilise all and any means at its disposal to bring the vast array of projects that lie ahead to timely completion.

This report did not arise in isolation and has been compiled following a Communication Assessment (CA) which was undertaken to gauge the communication health of the CCC, one result of which being a recommendation that IM registered as a tool that a large percentage of staff would like to use at their work-stations.

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INTRODUCTION TO CHRISTCHURCH CITY COUNCIL

[NB: This report has been written so as to provide background as to the internal workings and hence logistical requirements of the CCC for communications companies that may become involved in securing IM solutions at a later stage.]

The Christchurch City Council (CCC) serves 398,000 citizens with 3,500 staff ranged throughout 50 offices around Christchurch city and environs; these offices include libraries, recreation centres, Service Centres and various outposts that send teams around the city for cleaning, watering and maintenance, eg, Works Operations and CityCare.

The CCC conducts its functions via business units which provide internal and external services, eg, road maintenance (under Community Services) and internal information technology (under Corporate Services); see Appendix I for full account of CCC services and units.

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COMMUNICATION AND CULTURE

The CCC organisational culture from employees’ point of view could be described as ‘open-door’, ie, it is very easy for any staff member to approach another, if not via meeting by chance in a corridor, in a tea-room or by purposefully seeking them out in their office. Few high-level staff have separate offices; they share an open-plan office arrangement with their teams; actual offices leave doors wide open (except when confidentiality is required). The message is that everyone is available to anyone at any time.

Whilst the bulk of the daily business of the CCC may not appear very exciting, dealing as it does with rates, rubbish and noise enquiries, it still needs to operate as a vibrant, ‘finger on the pulse’ organisation which refers not only to being technologically current, but also aware of the needs of the human capital. Any discussion regarding changes to company processes should include a look at its culture. Clampitt’s notes that “[a]n organization’s culture is simultaneously somewhat stable but constantly evolving as new challenges are encountered.”(2010, p. 73). This chimes well with the a Council staff survey taken since the earthquake which revealed that the majority of staff at all levels feel a pride in being associated with a Council that has responded so quickly, humanely and practically to the local disaster which is reflected in the reworded masthead on the CCC official website: “Stronger Christchurch – Rebuilding the Garden City Together” (www.ccc.govt.nz).

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For many years the CCC had problems with answering public telephone enquiries correctly and efficiently; that situation has been alleviated by the introduction of Call Centres staffed by operators trained in the detailed functions of the various units. The Council have now made almost the entire ground floor of Civic Offices a reception area where it is possible for anyone to walk in and speak to staff who are specially trained to deal with all manner of enquiry – a visual manifestation of the ‘faceless’ Call Centre operatives for people who prefer to deal with a ‘flesh and blood’ person. However, both these services are thought to be out-dated and not able to keep up with the demand of increased and changing information available and sought.

Formal and informal observations have it that the current ability of staff to communicate with each other to accomplish tasks and the ability of frontline staff to parry queries from the public could both be better served by installing a time-saving, streamlined communication channel – and that channel could, for the CCC and its customers, be Instant Messaging.

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TRENDS FROM THE LITERATURE

Instant Messaging is synchronous, real-time two-way written communication via a pop-up computer screen facility. Users can control when and with whom they communicate. This is probably the biggest plus for IM as compared to traditional communication channels like email and telephone, where people do not really have any control over inbound communications.

Ironically employers have been reluctant to incorporate IM due to unknowns regarding its impact on productivity but more and more studies are showing that the overall benefits most likely outweigh such concerns. (Premkumar et al., 2008).

In fact, studies have already illustrated that IM can have ‘knock-on’ beneficial effect on output. Ou et al. recently found that “IM has the potential to facilitate knowledge sharing by establishing relationship networks in the workplace, which sequentially enhances teamwork performance.” (2010, p. 589).

IM was long associated with teenagers and young adults who adopted the usage in the 1990s (Schiano et al. 2002; Herring, 2001) and whereas just a few years ago email was the favoured tool by managers and employees (Mackiewicz & Lam, 2009), David Mario Smith has predicted that 95% of workers will use IM by 2013 (Smith, 2007).

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Nardi et al. reported that employees use IM for quick questions/clarifications, coordination and scheduling, organizing impromptu social meetings, and keeping in touch with friends and family (2000).

Indications even from early IM usage in the corporate world have shown that staff adapt IM to suit particular tasks and projects. Isaacs et al. In their 2002 study unearthed two types of IM workplace use:

“Heavy IM users and frequent IM partners mainly used it to work together to discuss a broad range of topics via many fast-paced interactions per day, each with many short turns and much threading and multitasking. Light users and infrequent pairs mainly used IM to coordinate: for scheduling, via fewer conversations per day that were shorter, slower-paced with less threading and multitasking”. (2002, p. 11).

They also found evidence to remove doubt that IM was used for simple clarifications: 40% of IM was mostly used for ‘complex work discussions’ with the remaining 60% used in simple scheduling or co-ordination transactions.

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Wong and Kruse identified that instant messaging has become an enormous boon to call centre activities as customers can put their questions directly to a company portal, or the call centre representative can work more efficiently by accessing the information themselves when customers are not confident. “IM capabilities can help corporate communications with customers in real time, to solve problems, answer questions, and increase sales and customer satisfaction.” (2007, p. 156).

As can occur with new ‘toys’ the concept can get out of hand and people can find themselves conducting many IM conversations at once; however, an advantage of IM over some other communication channels is that it is possible to control the receipt of any messages and multiple messaging can be controlled via means which include controlling conversational pace and simply limiting simultaneous conversations

It has been observed that people do not drop other tools when a new one is introduced; rather they transfer functions around as communication tools each have their ‘pros and cons’, eg, obviously face-to-face encounters are more interpersonally enriching than the exchange of letters but sometimes a formal letter is the only appropriate tool to use, according to the message subject and the parties involved. Whilst staff can answer emails ‘when they feel like it’, the longer they leave sorting them, the worse the prospect is of attending to them. It is also hard to ignore a telephone call and ignoring calls only means that message pile up on voice-mail.

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RATIONALE FOR CCC

For some years now, email, telephones, voicemail, typing services for formal hard copy material, and face-to-face meetings have been well established communication tools available to just about every staff member – with some staff sharing a workstation (eg, tea-ladies).

[NB: CCC (field) staff also have access to radio-telephones, mobiles and pagers in their duties but the implication of introducing IM to office-based workers is the remit of this present report.]

Due to down-sizing and amalgamation of departments in recent times with the ever-present view to cost-cutting measures, staff report feeling more under pressure than they would 20 years ago.

Despite the rise of technology in the workplace, at the end of the day, staff still have to physically communicate with each other on a regular basis, whether it be to clarify a point, obtain a speedy response, or seek another’s in-depth knowledge regarding a technical matter.

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However, such interaction is greatly increased in an organisation such as the Council due to the nature of many of its on-going projects: a project such as refurbishing the Peacock Fountain required input from Botanical Gardens, civil and structural engineers, landscape architects, as well as outside consultants regarding sourcing the special paint required, etc. The historical desire of having related skills desks co-located (adjoining floors or housed in the Annexe) is now recognised to be ‘a losing battle’, which is why the focus has shifted to enhancing communication channels which are not adversely affected by considerations of distance (or time).

Of course, not all projects are large ones and this is where IM would really have important effects on output: CCC staff have a constant need to deal with paperwork of many kinds and often answer questions as to regulations, etc, and even with access to online and hard copy CCC references, people still like/need/have to confer with colleagues and it is the responsibility of management to equip staff with adequate resources to enable this basic work function.

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COMMUNICATION GAP

When sections were reasonably close-quartered and a telephone engaged or an email request unanswered, workers often tended to travel to other desks for impromptu meetings as often drawings or other matter had to be consulted. The disappointment on arriving at a colleague’s desk to find them unavailable for whatever reason, coupled with the accumulated time wasted are compelling reasons to reap the benefits afforded by IM.

The pressure that staff have reported feeling means that to achieve blocks of work, they need to interact with other staff for ‘sign-off’ before further stages can be instigated.

It seems clear that there is a need to be addressed throughout all business units to enable the best possible service between staff and towards customers which can be met by the introduction of instant messaging.

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BENEFITS OF IM TO CCC COMMUNICATION ECOLOGY

Some initial benefits are predicted to be:

  • Vast improvement to call centre functioning and information provision.

  • Virtually nil cost involved in set-up or on-going upkeep.

  • Addition to desk-tools will have an uplifting effect on staff morale.

  • A great advantage in offering staff the IM choice, means they can work more depending on their personal communicating style: some people have a better phone manner than expressing themself in an email; some people falter in F2F but may excel in the written word: IM offers people an alternative outlet in which they may feel more comfortable expressing themselves in their workplace.

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  • Similarly, people may choose IM to enable a colleague to better express themself – they may not know they shout on the phone or be long-winded but if we IM them, we can get our answer without having to endure another’s lack of self-awareness.
  • IM is also valuable in the multi-cultural workplace as it gives second language speakers the choice of either practicing their spoken second language, or writing it.

  • A further great resource for those CCC staff with hearing and speech impediments.

  • One result from the CA was that staff often prefer to have their conversations retained somehow – even if it is just a short spate of brief ‘IM’ words and phrases.

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POSSIBLE STRICTURES

Sadly in the past there was abuse of newly introduced communication channels, eg, the Internet, by some employees, which was a shock as management felt that a ‘trust’ ethic would be sufficient to ensure proper conduct. Since then, in-house monitoring of computer-generated staff communication has been carried out by an IT team from Corporate Services.

It is not just the management that need to embrace a new way of working, the workers have to as well and when it comes down to grass roots.

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The CA found that some CCC personnel refuse to use tools which are me are still doing their jobs without using a computer – they will not type up any reports but prefer to spend time writing out a very neat longhand version for someone else to type up; some won’t use email or voicemail – deeming these too intrusive into their working lives; these people may be doing their jobs well enough to get by and at this stage in time, we cannot force staff to use tools they feel they have no use for.

The public (who will find out about introduction of IM in due course) might take exception and regard IM as a play-thing, a distraction, which would keep CCC staff from getting in with more urgent business. However, the CCC cannot not take steps to improve its workings at the risk of inciting some unpopular press.

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IMPLEMENTATION

The facility would be introduced over a two-month period in a suitably formal manner to emphasise the spirit in which the format should be utilised and training will be provided for those staff that feel they require it.

MOST ‘POPULAR’ DISADVANTAGES OF IM

The most recurring disadvantage refers to its interruptive nature which in turn makes people feel they have no control over their environment and that adding IM to existing tools will just be another way of our working day being disrupted; for as we have also seen, people do not drop a tool in favour of a new tool but rather they attempt to continue to utilise them all.

There is a glaring contradiction regarding the issue of blaming IM (or whatever tool) for causing interruptions: the first being that should people not expect to be interrupted in their work; and also, if you are going to be interrupted, then the interrupter, if there is no IM or mobile or email, can still interrupt with telephone – or even initiate a face-to-face encounter.

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The fact that people say they favour being to eyeball if someone appears to be available, is not necessarily a sign of availability either: Finding someone alone at their desk and enquiring, “May I interrupt you?”- the unspoken answer of course being – “you already have”.

Whilst people condemn IM as disruptive – they feel they have to make a response immediately – and that is it impersonal, ie, there is no F2F ‘added benefit’, having to listen to a colleague’s private telephone calls over a divider could be viewed by many as much more disruptive to a working day. We must not forget that telephone conversations can be heard by more than the two main interlocutors.

Can IM and other ‘modern’ workplace channels really be blamed for causing overload and increasing disruption? What is to blame of course is the people manipulating these tools and how and how often, they use them to communicate with colleagues.

It comes back to how individuals work: some people are natural multi-taskers and thrive on successfully juggling many streams of consciousness; whilst others will always prefer to work on one task at a time: which is fine of course. I think that multi-taskers should be given the opportunity to engage in as many forms of communication as helps them do their job – and keeps them happy and motivated in their job; and the one-taskers still have control by virtue of the fact they can choose to answer various types of messages later – or modify their availability as ‘busy’ to suit their schedule.

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I may be a person with lots of questions I need answered today: I can fire off those questions in a large batch and then move on to other matters content in the knowledge I have taken some action; others will pursue one line of enquiry at a time, moving on to a new item once the first query has been resolved: IM should be able to cater to both these work styles.

FINAL RECOMMENDATION

Based on the findings of the recent CA and the study of literature summarised in this report, the authors recommend that incorporating IM into CCC staff workstations would be a positive move due to the interaction between so many different teams with so many varying skills; ranging from getting the correct serial or production number of a technical component to finding the correct words or phrases to complete an important written document.

Let us remember that communication is by definition, always two-way and that means that both parties have the opportunity to commence, desist, defer, or retreat from, the parrying.

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PARTING WORDS

It is important to remember that introducing new technology is not just about improving the lot of staff members in general, but the wider objective is to serve the customer as best as possible; and we are certain that IM is another positive step along the route to meeting our customers’ needs:

There’s a Works Op truck parked in my road – why?”

Have you got any vehicles coming along Poona Street today?”

Have PEEEPS got anything on this weekend that might interest me?

When is some lazy Council sponger going to come and mow my berm?

Did you get my cheque?”

(Actual inbound telephone calls from members of the public to CCC.)

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Appendix

CCC Organisational Structure

EXTERNAL SERVICES

Services provided by Christchurch City Council to the general public.

City Environment Group
The City Environment Group is responsible for running the infrastructure of Christchurch City Council.
The City Environment Group consists of three units:

  • Transport and Greenspace
  • City Water and Waste
  • Civil Defence and Emergency Management.

Community Services Group
The Community Services Group provides services to local communities which contribute to the social wellbeing and quality of life of Christchurch residents. This includes:

  • Community Services
  • Christchurch Art Gallery
  • Libraries and Information
  • Recreations and Sports.

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Regulation and Democracy Services Group
The Regulation and Democracy Group consists of:

  • Legal Services
  • Democracy Services
  • Environmental Policy and Approvals
  • Inspections and Enforcement.

INTERNAL SERVICES

As part of the system of local government, the Council provides a wide range and variety of services to the people and communities of Christchurch. The Council’s organisational structure is divided into a number of business units, enabling effective delivery of these services.

Executive Office
This comprises the Executive Team and their support staff. The Executive Team includes the Chief Executive, General Managers of

City Environment

Community Services

Corporate Services

Human Resources

Public Affairs

Regulation and Democracy Services

Strategy and Planning and

Capital Programme.

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Human Resources Group
Provides policy, advice and information to all groups/units in the areas of recruitment, employee relations, performance, management, development and training, and health and safety.

Capital Programme Group
The Capital Programme Group oversees the entire capital programme and delivers a large share of the programme which is predominantly infrastructure based work such as street renewals and recreation and sports facilities. The Capital Programme Group consists of five business units that provide a shared service to Council for the delivery of capital programme projects as well as providing support to other groups with specialist and technical services as required.

Corporate Services Group
This group provides a range of shared services to other groups and units within the Council. These include: financial, information technology and support services, rates and funding advice and business improvement advice.

Public Affairs Group
The Public Affairs Group consists of four main units providing support to the organisation and our customers.

  • Marketing Unit (including marketing services, civic and international relations, production and distribution, events development and production)
  • Communications unit (including external communications, internal communications, ‘Our City O-Tautahi’ venue and gallery)
  • Customer Services Unit (including the customer call centre and the service centres across the City and Banks Peninsula)
  • Consultation Unit.

http://www.ccc.govt.nz/thecouncil/howthecouncilworks/organisationstructure.aspx (retrieved 13 October 2010).

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REFERENCES

Clampitt, P.G. (2010). Communicating for managerial effectiveness: Problems, strategies, solutions (4th edition). New York: Sage Publications.

Herring, S.C. (2001). Computer-Mediated Discourse, The Handbook of Discourse Analysis, D. Schiffrin, D. Tannen, and H. Hamilton (eds.), Blackwell, Oxford, 612-634.

Isaacs, E., Walendowski, A., Whittaker, S., Schiano, D.J., & Kamm, C. (2002). The character, functions, and styles of instant messaging in the workplace. In Proceedings of Accepted to ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW 2002), (New Orleans, LA, 2002), New York, NY: ACM Press.

Mackiewicz, J., & Lam, C. (2009). Coherence in workplace instant messages. J. Technical Writing and Communication, 39(4) 417-431.

Nardi, B.A., Whittaker, S., & Bradner, E.(2000). Interaction and outeraction: Instant messaging in action. Proceedings of Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), Philadelphia PA., 79–88.

Ou, C.X.J., Davison, R.M., Zhong,X., & Liang, Y. (2010). Can instant messaging empower teams at work? Proceedings of 2010 4th International Conference on Research Challenges in Information Science, RCIS 2010 , art. no. 5507296, 589-598.

Premkumar, G., Ramanurthy, K., & Hsin-Nan, L. (2008). Internet messaging: An examination of the impact of attitudinal, normative, and control belief systems. Information and Management, 45, 451-457.

Rao, S., Chen, J., Jeffries, R., & Boardman, R. (2009). “You’ve Got IMs!” How people manage concurrent instant messages. In Human-Computer Interaction, Part I, HCII 2009, LNCS 5610, J.A. Jacko (Ed.):pp. 500–509, Springer-Verlag: Berlin Heidelberg.

Schiano, D.J., Chen, C.P., Ginsberg, J., Gretarsdottir, U., Huddleston, M., & Isaacs, E. (2002). Teen Use of Messaging Media, Extended Abstracts of CHI ‘02, Minneapolis,Minnesota, 594-595.

Smith, D.M. (2007). Prediction: IM will take over. Business Communications Review, 37.

Wong, C.C., & Kruse, G. (2007). Converged service opportunities supporting the multi-site corporate enterprise. BT Technology Journal, 25(2), 156-161.

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