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Would you allow your programmers to use Messenger and social networks like Facebook?

A manager may believe that using IM clients in the office is not acceptable, but many programmers use them for legitimate purposes, for example in order to easily contact one another.

Do you think the IM chat prohibition is reasonable?

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marked as duplicate by Walter, Mark Trapp May 26 '11 at 14:02

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We use IM here - it's installed by default! –  Michael K Mar 1 '11 at 14:37
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It's actually required for us to use IM, as that is the preferred way to communicate in our department. –  Jeff Davis Mar 1 '11 at 19:38
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I don't know... Wait a second, I'll IM my manager and ask him. –  Pavel Shved Mar 1 '11 at 21:35
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I think StackOverflow is a bigger threat to most programmers' productivity than IM :) –  BFree Mar 3 '11 at 15:35

26 Answers 26

That depends on that particular boss's workers. Is IM a distraction for them? If so, then there's no point in it. If it's helpful, then they should be allowed access.

[BTW that's kind of the point of computer-supported collaborative working, it should support collaborative working]

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The trouble with those policies, (IM are only an example ; you could also quote firewall blocking some websites), is simple : they believe they can force people to work by cutting their distractions.

Fact is, when one doesn't want to work, one will always find a way not to. At the end of the day, what matters is if the job's been done.

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Programmers are usually adults, often well-educated. If they're smart enough to do the intellectual work they are assigned to, are they so stupid as not to be able to use an IM reasonably? –  9000 Mar 1 '11 at 13:27
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You can be smart and weak :). More seriously, I'm not defending people who abuses IM and do nothing at work ; I'm criticizing the strategy elaborated against them. –  Raveline Mar 1 '11 at 14:55
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The other thing about programmers is that they want control over their machine. If they don't have it, its not unlikely that they'll spend their time trying to get it and do what they wanted to do in the first place instead of working. Bottom line: trying to keep them working by eliminating distraction isn't going to help much. –  Gordon Gustafson Mar 1 '11 at 19:16

At my previous job we used Live Messenger to talk with everyone in the office. We had for example, sergio@companyname.com and used Live Messenger to log in.

I see nothing wrong with it, programmers are not like most professions that demand full effort 110% of the time. We can work on a problem, let it marinate for a bit, then implement it.

Your boss has to see what works and what doesn't.

There's a saying here that goes, give them a hand and they'll hang from your arm. He has to see if they use the privilege for good, or if they abuse the trust by wasting time.

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@Dan: It means you give a little and someone takes advantage of your generosity. Imagine a family member you let sleep on the couch for a couple of days while on vacation in your country. Then you come home and see him playing your XBox 360 while drinking your last beer from the fridge and the air conditioner is on full. –  Sergio Mar 1 '11 at 14:17
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@Sergio - Cool. The English equivalent, I guess, is "You give them an inch and they take a mile." –  Dan Ray Mar 1 '11 at 15:58
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Serbian would be: give them a finger and they will take a hand :D –  Davor Ždralo Mar 1 '11 at 16:32

My opinion: corporate IMs should be allowed, personal - not. IM is such kind of things which distracts you not only in the moments when you don't want to work (as was noticed above) but when you are inside work flow.

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When you're in the flow you can just set your status to busy. Just because it's Instant Messaging doesn't mean one should get an instant response. –  Htbaa Mar 1 '11 at 13:02

Our Boss actually encourages we use Pidgin to contact her and other members, since half of us have our headphones on when programming anyways. It's just 100 times easier this way.

Plus I mean I rarely "chat" with anyone...it's moreso just to get answers and give answers easier than going to the other side of the room/building.

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Yup we regularly use Skype IM –  benhowdle89 Mar 1 '11 at 14:58
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Being a strictly microsoft office, our systems have exchange's communicator built in. I find it only slightly less harassing than the telephone. –  Joel Etherton Mar 1 '11 at 16:38

Let them use them. With good knowledge workers you need to use the carrot instead of the stick. Let people use whatever applications they want, but give them good incentives to get their work done and done well. Create a culture of pride in quality work, encourage employees to seek the respect of their peers and take ownership of their tasks and it will go a long way towards this.

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We're expected to be signed in to Yahoo Messenger whenever we are working.

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+1 -- At my office, being logged into the company's Jabber server during working ours is mandatory. And nobody really minds that maybe you're occasionally having non-work chat with family and friends, as long as the job gets done. –  Dan Ray Mar 1 '11 at 14:16

If it is causing a decline in productivity then YES, but if not then dont disallow it, as long as it is used responsibly! Plus there are internal only solutions for IM.

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The distraction with Instant Messaging is receiving a message when you are busy working on something as it will distract you from what you are doing when you have to answer it.

This is different from e-mail where you don't have to answer right away.

Of course if you are on support rota then have IM on so people can contact you urgently and get an immediate response.

Remember Joel's test on "quiet working conditions". That means without any kind of distractions, including Instant Messaging.

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You don't HAVE to answer an IM immediately. Often my IM's will go unanswered for 15 minutes until I feel I can answer it without interrupting my workflow. –  Craige Mar 1 '11 at 15:17

Always insisted the whole team use Skype, but starting to use Google more. IM is really useful, saves phone calls etc. However, some people do use it 'excessively'. Deal with that on an individual basis.

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In our team (7 developpers), we set up a Jabber IM server for our private usage. This server is not connected to external IM services, we can only talk to each other.

IM is a useful tool in a team. We use it for :

  • copy/paste text to a coworker, for example a stack trace
  • send files directly without polluting a network data storage or a mailbox
  • ask a quick question to a coworker without annoying people around
  • notify the coworkers of something without interrupting them
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I've worked with developers in Germany, India and Russia. Their written English is usually better that their spoken English so IM is essential..

I also find it less invasive and easier to handle than a phone call (on a par with email, which doesn't have to be dealt with straight away).

Generally different people like to communicate in different ways, so the trick is to support (rather than hamper) that...

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Two very simple points:

  1. The three companies I worked for (all three Fortune-10 companies) respectively had Jabber, Lotus Sametime and MSN Communicator used extensively, installed by default.
  2. In an era where telcommuting, multi-site development is rampant, and when telecommunication industry is almost about to make automobile domain redundant, stopping IM is not really a choice anymore.

I also know of some inexperienced managers (especially from small companies,) who have had no experience managing huge teams across timezones, tend to look down upon IMs.

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If you took IM away from my team, work would draw to a stop. Not as protest - just because of how essential a channel of communication it is for the team. Would you take away our IDEs, our compilers, our keyboards? Any manager who would do this is a profound idiot.

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Use a proprietary in-house developed IM client.

It's not exactly the most complicated thing in the world to program.

Oftentimes I'll just IM the guy sitting next to me, it's better than email or just bothering the guy, probably saves a lot of money to not bother people.

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Why develop something where solutions already exist? The Prosody XMPP server works great; just don't configure it to act as a transport to the outside world. Bonjour/Zeroconf is also nice, and it doesn't even need configuration. –  James Mar 1 '11 at 19:23
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@james You're right in general but there are a few edge cases in the programming world where this is the best idea. Perhaps, it's already been developed. Perhaps it would be a nice thing to add on to your existing product and you can dogfood it, perhaps you've got a web programmer who is itching to try out web sockets to make a chat program on the intranet? Perhaps you've got an intern who needs something to do. There's lots of good reasons for developing something like this in house. Which is probably why we did it where I work. –  Peter Turner Mar 1 '11 at 19:49

It should be allowed. The rationale to prohibit IM is similar to the (lack of?) reasons to block Internet, or, furthermore, remove or block telephones.

If people wants to waste their time, they will be creative about that.

It's better to watch the productivity. And, if management don't want to look at individuals productivity, then, the slacker is the manager, not the employee.

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I think it should be allowed but only inside the company. Like lotus note, it has built-in IM. So employees won't talk to their friends much. Because you can still find a way to chat with your friends at work. Like google talk, and now hotmail can use MSN on a browser.

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I have found IM to be effective for a distributed team, but I would add that you should also be allowed, and even encouraged, to turn it off for large swaths of the day. I suggest having "IM hours" at set points during the day where you're expected to be online, but outside of that it's your choice.

Honestly I found it very distracting to have it on all the time (and we were encouraged to have it on all the time, for a while).

Also, when it's off, the next resort should be email, not picking up the phone. This is very difficult for managers to understand, but developers need large blocks of undisturbed time. Managers go on and on about how a phone call saves so much email. That's because they get a lot of email and they want to cut it down. Plus, they're not concentrating on anything, so they see no cost to a phone call, but when they call a developer, it costs money.

Again, there can be set times of day when you're available for disruption. 20 minutes before lunch, or right after lunch, are good times.

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I tend to think the bigger concern is, does a programmer/worker get done each day, what needs to be done?

If the manager/programmer can set goals each week, for what needs to be done by a certain date/time, and if those are met in a reasonable matter.

Then who cares how the worker spends their time, what matters is the quality and timeliness of their work.

However, if you want to be really good at whatever you work at, some time has to be spent in learning, sharing and practicing new and old techniques, methods and ideas.

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Today many of programmers use IM to ask others to help then in work problem they are facing, so managers, you will also stop these things...

In fact one can get proper concentration of a programmer by providing him full working conditions. Otherwise IM are not only thing to use. I remember that while I have no work assigned or some internet problem occured at old office, I usually start reading ebooks. So one need to make good policies and adapt good ways instead of just restrictions.

Some good programmers don't join some organizations only due to these reasons.

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Do you think the IM chat prohibition is reasonable?

It depends. I'm sure that if you go through the exercise of thinking about it, you'll find scenarios where such prohibitions make sense, and other scenarios where it does not.

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IM is like a telephone. Banning it would be like banning using a telephone. On one hand it can be used for good, on the other it can be a distraction and be costly. If the employer trusts his workers it should not be necessary to ban, but in large bureaucratic institutions that may not be possible.

Where I've worked it's been required to use it. The entire company had a standard network they used (Yahho, Skype, etc.). One should be aware that record keeping with IM can be unreliable. This is negative in both ways: You can't rely on IM for communicating with a client or something that you'd like a record to be kept of; on the other hand, don't expect it to be private, it may be recorded. It's like a phone call in that manner, but without the laws preventing recording conversations.

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The primary concern of most corporate IT departments with regard to IM is less loss of productivity than data leakage. If you are allowed to IM with people outside the company, you can be socially engineered by various kinds of attackers and convinced to reveal corporate secrets, visit shady Web sites or install malware, etc. If the IM network is internal to the company, such as Jabber or Office Communicator, you can better know who you are communicating with.

Lost productivity is also a concern, but happily this is also reduced by running an internal IM service, where employees understand that their conversations may be logged and audited.

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Answer is simple.. its lot easier to contact co-programmer in IM then going all the way down the alley to his cabin and asking. It simply improves productivity..

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I have always had IM at work but I could see how your manager would actually get the negative effect. Company locks down what you can do at work. If you are the good programmer who can manage his time responsibly you will quit and work somewhere else for being treated like a moron. The people who can't work maturely will end up at a place where its blocked but find some other distraction. If you have someone who has a problem then fix it or them. Blanket policies never work.

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I have never worked in an environment that had explicit policies on IM and what not, but I used to have a self-policy where I wouldn't use personal e-mail or IM accounts. I have since realized that I am a part of a small community of programmers outside of my job, and participating in that community (even with e-mail or IM) has great benefits.

There has been several occasions where I needed to bounce some code off someone, or reach out to get ideas. (Nothing confidential or proprietary of course... just the kinds of things that you see on SO for example.) The people I communicate with during the day are respectful of the fact that I am at work, and I am respectful of that for them as well. I don't find it to be a distraction if those that you communicate with understand this.

So yes, used reasonably, I think it can actually be beneficial.

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