Most of the popular IM products are at least adequate for virtual teams. The best product is the one that will actually get installed and used by everyone in the team. Therefore, take a poll to see what product people are using most, and then ask the others to get on board.
Many of the IM networks and clients used today are incompatible. As a result, in order to communicate with colleagues and friends on different networks, people must install more than one client. As one extreme example, we found as many as seven IM clients installed on one colleague’s computer. The average was about three per desktop. Typically these were Yahoo, MSN, and AOL, in addition to the in-house Jabber-based business platform. For a pretty comprehensive list of IM clients and protocols, check out the Wikipedia entry on Instant Messaging.
The primary IM features we found useful for virtual teams were:
- Availability—Basic information on the availability of your various buddies. These include: Online, Offline and Away (not typed for a while), etc.
- Typing a reply—A real-time indication that the other person in an IM conversation is typing a reply (This is very important).
- DND—Ability to set your status to Offline when you don’t want to be
- Camping—Notification when a selected buddy returns from being Away or Offline (inactive).
- Virtual meeting launch—Right click on a buddy to initiate or join an existing online virtual meeting session in such tools as NetMeeting, WebEx, etc..
- Multi-network client—For those situations where a single network for an entire team is not possible, having a single client that can interface with more than one network (e.g., Yahoo, MSN, AIM, AOL, etc.) is efficient and saves having to install multiple clients.
Most IM platforms are not secure. All communications are sent in clear text from end-to-end. Therefore, if you use one of the consumer-grade IM solutions such as MSN or Yahoo, caution your team members to send only information they would not mind the entire world to know. This is very hard to control, however, because most people don’t think about the sensitivity of their communications before they hit ‘send’. Therefore, for most internal corporate communications it is better to purchase an enterprise solution that keeps the traffic inside the company firewall, or at least encrypts the data streams.