Adam Gartenberg's Blog

Business Analytics and Optimization, IBM and Social Marketing

Managing IM Distractions

A Reuters article featured yesterday on CNN Money is causing a little stir here (and I'm sure elsewhere). It discusses the very real impact that distractions can have on the workplace.  I'll be the first to join in with agreement that distractions can be a problem; my issue is with the choice of title that was chosen.

While the article covers everything from the lure of e-mail, surfing the internet, BlackBerries, cell phones, and phone calls to the office holiday party, it looks like CNN they took the easy way out and titled it: "Those annoying little IMs?  They cost $588B"  (Interestingly, the original Reuters title was "U.S. worker interruptions costly, research shows.")

So, to set the record straight.  Yes, IMs have the potential to interrupt you.  And yes, if you don't properly manage your availability, if you don't let people know of your ability to respond to IMs, you could find yourself flitting from task to task (just like you could with interruptions in person, by phone, by e-mail, etc., etc.).  But IM also has a very real and measurable benefit.  IBM alone saves $9M a year in telephony savings.  That's not counting reduction in e-mail storage and transmission, improvements in the ability to react faster, allowing for a global, mobile workforce, and many other benefits.  We have examples of customers who have identified similar savings and benefits from everything from reducing the potential for misdirected deliveries to building a competitive advantage by making their employees accessible via IM through their external portal.

So, back to the issue of distraction.  Are there times when I get distracted by IMs?  Sure.  Would I give up IM?  Only when you pry it from my cold dead hands.  Most of the IMs I get are either the virtual equivalent to someone knocking on my office door (which they would have done had we worked in the same physical location), and most are critical in nature that I would want to be "distracted" by them regardless of how they came in.  And the rest?  Well, I can ignore them until I have time to respond, or I can respond with a simple "I'm busy right now, please send me an e-mail."

More importantly, IM offers the ability to manage your presence in ways that aren't always possible with other interruptions.  You could close your office door, but that still doesn't stop people from knocking... and some of us don't even have doors any more.  I have a "DND" button on my phone to stop it from ringing (actually, I just looked again and I don't, but most people do), but that doesn't provide the person calling me with proactive information on my availability and whether they should even be calling in the first place.

IM, on the other hand, allows you to both virtually close your door, and more importantly provides your contacts with information on how best to contact you.  If you looked at my status over the past several days, you would have seen me with this status:

Away Status.jpg

I didn't want to put myself on Do not disturb, because it's the end of the 4th quarter and I do want people to be able to reach me over IM if needed.  And I did get fewer IMs, and those I got were for the most part critical.  Sametime 7.5 also offers new ways of helping you manage your availability, too.  I could have used a selective DND feature that would have allowed me to appear as available to some users but as unavailable to the rest.

So, can distractions be a problem?  Sure.  As I think I've mentioned on this blog before, I turned off that system tray "new mail" indicator a while ago.  (I don't use Notes any less, I just have less temptation to stop what I'm working on and flip over to my inbox each time a new message comes in.)  But please, don't put all the blame on IM - it's only looking to help!

Looking for more resources on managing distractions (and why we're so prone to distractions in the first place)?  Check out these links: