Most instant messaging (IM) software includes a functionality known as online chat presence: a status display indicating whether you, as well as others in your contact list, are available to chat. Effective use can boost workplace productivity, but presence can also interrupt workflows if best practices aren’t in place.
To identify some of these best practices, we surveyed employees who use IM and chat technology for workplace communications. This report will explore the major productivity benefits of the presence functionality included in business phone systems designed for use with VoIP service.
- Twenty-one percent of respondents say they’ve seen a “moderate” or “significant” productivity increase from using presence technology, while just 5 percent have seen a “moderate” or “significant decrease.”
- Nearly one-third (30 percent) say using presence isn’t distracting at all, while another 51 percent say it’s “minimally distracting”—suggesting this technology doesn’t interrupt most employee workflows.
- Decreased call and email volume and quick resolution of simple questions are the top productivity benefits of using presence technology, cited by 75 and 66 percent of our sample, respectively.
- Employees who see productivity benefits from presence technology are 16 percent more likely to update their presence displays—particularly with group availability, location and device information—than our overall sample.
- Almost everyone in our sample (98 percent) experiences some kind of benefit from presence technology, with many reporting several benefits; Just 2 percent say they see no benefits at all.
Instant messaging solutions have been widely available since the late 1990s. These solutions utilize presence functionality in its most basic and widespread form: as contact lists that display whether friends and family are logged in and available to talk. However, a more advanced form of this technology—“rich presence”—is now offered by common instant messaging clients, such as Microsoft Lync and Google Hangouts.
Bern Elliot, research vice president at Gartner, is a leading expert on workplace presence technologies.
He explains that “rich presence adds information, so it’s multi-value.” Standard presence, on the other hand, is “binary,” meaning it only shows two values: logged in and logged out.
The chart below shows the most common (and most important) types of information offered by rich presence technology:
Elements of Rich Presence
Rich presence functionality is included in many business phone systems designed for use with VoIP service. Such systems are known as unified communications (UC) solutions, thanks to the fact that they unite modes of communication such as voice calling, video calling, instant messaging, voicemail and email within a single application interface. Rich presence helps users navigate these different communication options.
With so many options to choose from, businesses must determine which types of presence information can yield the most significant operational benefits. Additionally, there’s a risk that presence displays may actually
The essential problem is the technology’s real-time nature. For example, if an employee sets her status to “available,” she may be bombarded with communications from co-workers. This may tempt her to simply turn presence functionality off—thereby eliminating its potential to facilitate collaboration.
The scenario we’ve just considered shows why it’s important to identify best practices around updating presence information. With the right guidelines in place, presence can streamline collaboration rather than cause distraction.
More Employees Report Productivity Increases Than Decreases
First, we asked respondents how setting their presence status to “available” affects their productivity, since this action invites potentially interruptive messages. As it turns out, nearly half of respondents say setting their status to “available” actually increases their productivity.
Impact of ‘Available’ Presence Status on Workplace Productivity
While 47 percent of our sample reports a productivity boost, only 21 percent reports a decrease in productivity caused by updating their online chat presence status. Additionally, nearly one-third of respondents don’t see any impact on their productivity from updating their status.
These findings indicate that presence can offer substantial productivity benefits, though we can also see that these benefits are hardly universal. Best practices need to be in place in order to maximize the technology’s potential.
Distractions Caused by ‘Available’ Presence Are Minimal
In order to get a more detailed sense of how presence impacts workplace productivity, we asked respondents how distracting they find the messages coworkers send them while their status is set to “available.” The vast majority find them distracting to some degree, though a slight majority of these respondents say the distraction is only minimal:
Degree of Distraction by Messages Sent When Status Is ‘Available’
One noteworthy finding: Nearly one-third of respondents don’t find presence distracting at all. This is fairly remarkable, given that incoming messages in most applications produce noise and may even display as pop-ups in the window the employee is working in. However, it’s clear that employees have grown so accustomed to this type of real-time communication that their workflows aren’t interrupted by it.
On the other hand, the fact that 70 percent of our sample reports at least a minimal level of distraction upon updating their presence display is cause for concern. Given this finding, it’s important to identify the productivity benefits of presence technology that compensate for the distraction that it creates for most employees.
However, Elliot makes an important point:
“Collaboration is interruption: If you didn’t have to work with others, you could get right down to work, but part of work is coordinating with others, and it takes extra effort and time for that coordination to take place.”
Bern Elliot, Gartner
In other words, while presence may result in low-level distractions, it can still serve as a key tool in coordinating and strengthening collaborative workflows.
Top Benefit of Presence Technology Is Fewer Calls and Emails
Digging deeper, we asked our sample what major benefits they experience by setting their presence to “available.” Looking at their answers, we can see that presence compensates for the minor distractions it causes by reducing other, far more significant sources of distraction:
Top Productivity Benefits of Using Presence Displays
While instant messages can be distracting, 21st-century knowledge workers are all too familiar with how quickly voicemail and email can become black holes, consuming significant chunks of the workday. Three-fourths of our sample believe presence technology is a useful tool for avoiding the greater distractions caused by more traditional forms of communication.
Another major benefit of presence is its ability to expedite the handling of simple questions and issues. After all, spending time searching for the answer to a straightforward yet pressing question is a much more significant workflow interruption than spending time responding to an instant message.
One capability that can be particularly helpful in this context is the ability to update presence information for groups as well as individuals. This allows employees to easily find someone who is in the right role to resolve an issue—for example, a manager, in the case that the employee needs managerial approval for a given workflow process.
The ability of presence technology to speed the resolution of simple issues is especially important for remote workers, for whom in-person communication isn’t an option. Indeed, more than half our sample views the facilitation of remote work as a major benefit.
Only 2 percent of respondents see no benefits in presence technology, which is remarkably low. Clearly, the benefits it offers for the vast majority of employees more than compensates for the distractions it can occasionally cause. What, then, are some best practices that can maximize the beneficial impact of presence technology on workplace collaboration?
Updating Presence Often Results in Greater Productivity Boosts
Unsurprisingly, the primary key to using presence effectively is simply convincing employees to update their statuses more frequently. The chart below compares usage frequencies for various rich presence capabilities among employees who report a “moderate” or “significant” productivity boost with those among employees who see an insignificant productivity increase or a decrease.
Impact of Presence Functionality Usage on Employee Productivity Level
You can easily see that the workers who get the most mileage out of presence are those who keep their statuses up-to-date. While we asked respondents about a range of rich presence capabilities, we observed the greatest disparity in usage for custom status messages, group availability, device-based presence and location-based presence.
⇒ Custom messages. Employees who see significant productivity benefits from presence technology are 18 percent more likely to use custom messages to update their status than those who don’t see significant benefits.
⇒ Group availability. Workers whose productivity is boosted by presence technology are 23 percent more likely to update group availability information (e.g., for managers, IT help desk staff or call center teams) than those whose productivity isn’t improved.
⇒ Employee location. Employees who see productivity benefits from using presence are 14 percent more likely to update their location status than those who don’t see significant benefits.
⇒ Device used. Employees who significantly benefit from presence technology are 23 percent more likely to update device-based presence information than employees who don’t.
Despite these benefits, some employees may be hesitant to make extensive use of presence due to privacy concerns. If you’re trying to convince employees to adopt this technology in your organization, it’s best to focus on the kinds of functionality listed above, as these are most strongly linked with employees’ levels of workplace productivity.
“Depending on the kind of information, rich presence could be viewed as more intrusive,” Elliot explains. “For instance, if the system knows where you are, that’s a little bit of a privacy issue, so people need to be able to turn it on and off. Moreover, there has to be guidance about when you’re allowed to turn on and off certain kinds of presence information.”
Employees Frequently Receive Messages Unrelated to Work
One of the major drawbacks of the presence capabilities offered by “freemium” messaging clients, such as Skype and Google Hangouts, is that users can display their presence status to contacts both inside and outside of the workplace. To that end, we asked employees how often the messages they receive at work are actually job-related.
Frequency of Receiving Work-Related Messages
The above chart shows that 95 percent of our sample are using instant messaging for work-related purposes at least some of the time. However, it also reveals the disturbing fact that only 12 percent receive messages “always” or “often” related to work. This means the vast majority are frequently receiving messages that are irrelevant to their jobs during the workday.
Organizations can mitigate this drawback by avoiding freemium messaging clients in favor of the clients included in business phone systems. The unified communications (UC) clients that serve as the end-user interface for business VoIP solutions (you can view examples here) generally restrict presence information to contacts within the organization—eliminating the issue of employees chatting with friends, family and significant others.
Elliot notes that “most organizations don’t have acceptable use policies for presence in place” limiting the use of freemium messaging clients and outside communication. If you have a business phone system in place that includes presence functionality, consider implementing such a policy.
Remote Workers Are Less Diligent About Presence Updates
Presence functionality is crucial for remote workers, as it can indicate to managers and colleagues whether they’re currently working. However, we find that the remote workers in our sample are actually less careful about updating certain kinds of presence information than office workers.
The following chart displays the scenarios that prompt employees to update presence information. We’ve analyzed our sample to compare employees who primarily work in an office environment (three days per week or more) with employees who work remotely three or more days a week.
Situations When Presence Is Updated
The above chart reveals the fact that, at least in certain situations (such as meetings and lunch breaks), office workers are more likely to update their presence status than remote workers. In other situations, remote workers are only marginally more likely to update their status than office workers.
Since presence serves as a sort of “umbilical cord” connecting remote workers to the rest of the organization, we’d expect that remote workers would be proficient users of the technology.
However, the results of our survey suggest that remote workers may need explicit instructions concerning how often they should update their status, as well as the occasions for such updates. The lack of acceptable use policies regarding presence that Elliot notes may be to blame for the lax approach to presence updates.
The results of our survey suggest that adopters of presence technology should implement the following practices in order to maximize productivity benefits:
- Encourage employees to use custom messages and keep device, location and group availability information up to date. Employees who see substantial productivity benefits from rich presence information are much more likely to update this type of information than employees who don’t.
- Avoid freemium messaging clients and restrict presence information to organizational contacts. Our survey discovered that many employees are using messaging primarily, or even exclusively, for non-work-related purposes. By avoiding freemium messaging clients in favor of business phone systems that include messaging and presence applications, you can help alleviate this problem.
- Define when remote workers need to update their status. We find that office workers are more likely than remote workers to update their status in common situations such as meetings and lunch breaks. By specifying when remote workers need to provide updates, you can encourage them to make more extensive use of a technology that connects them to the rest of your organization.