Many companies are leery of allowing instant messaging during business hours -- and some have banned it -- for fear that employees will only use IM to waste time gossiping with co-workers or swapping jokes with friends. But IM does have legitimate business uses that can save companies time and money. And it’s also the preferred communication tool of choice for many so-called millennial workers.

“If you think about communication literacy among younger people, they grow up with the assumption of using email and IM -- companies can exploit this,” says Gartner Inc. analyst Matthew Cain. “IM is a productivity tool.  it pulls together a geographical distributed workforce, and allows the rapid dissemination of information, accelerated problem resolution, and faster finding of expertise.”

Gartner also predicts that the penetration of corporate sponsorship of IM will approach 100 percent by the end of this decade. So IM is set to become a stable of work-life. That said, to make IM a tool that leads to better productivity -- instead of squelching it -- experts offer the following tips:

Tip No. 1: Have an IM policy

An IM policy is a must, says Richi Jennings, lead e-mail security analyst for Ferris Research, a San Francisco market research firm.  “Frivolous use of IM can result in lost productivity,” she says. “The policy should reflect the same policy as the business has concerning personal use of email or the phone.” For example, the policy could include perimeters for personal use of IM or detail how to professionally use IM to conduct business.

Tip No. 2: Monitor contacts' availability but limit interruptions

For the growing number of businesses operating with a team of telecommuters all over the country or globe, IM offers something that e-mail doesn’t: A way to see when staff, clients, or customers are actively online. It can also help people get snap answers so they can complete projects. Still, to increase productivity, businesses should make sure employees know to turn their IM presence when they are free to chat or problem-solve or use “away” or “do not disturb” whey they’re not. Matthew Brown, a senior analyst for Forrester Research, of Cambridge, Mass., also advises that companies outline when it’s OK to turn IM off. “People find it disruptive to be constantly being pinged,” he says. “Companies need to articulate how individual employees and the entire organization should broadcast their availability on IM and when it’s appropriate to use IM.” One best practice is that employees send an initial IM asking a work-related “buddy” if they available to chat before they launch in with a barrage of questions or requests.

Tip No. 3: Skip the phone

IM helps eliminate long games of phone tag. Employees can ping each other on IM for simple requests or use it to quickly set up phone meetings. Most IM programs also now offer voice chat, so employees can efficiently transition from an IM text chat to a live conversation, which can help save time and cut hefty long-distance bills.

Tip No. 4: Use obvious screen names

Employee screen names, or handles, should always be professional sounding and obvious. Otherwise, a client or employee won’t recognize the screen name and therefore might block an incoming IM or ignore it. Jennings notes: “Their screen names should just be for business and should include the name of the business in some cases.”

Tip No. 5: Take IM on the road

Most mobile phones now allow users to use IM, too. Employees can show their IM presence when they step off a plane or IM from their mobile phone when they are late. They can also ping co-workers from the road if they need an important piece of information during a client meeting. It’s also a faster way to make a simple request to support staff while on the road, such as sending an IM to an assistant: “Need to change outbound flight to 5 p.m.” But companies still need to indicate in their policies whether remotely using public IM programs is allowed and what kind of sensitive information should not be sent via IM.

Tip No. 6: Be responsive

IM also makes it easy for customers or vendors to get faster responses when trouble arises or to get their needs met ASAP. But if you’re going to use IM to help customers, there should be standards in place to make sure IM is indeed more helpful than harmful. “In terms of customer care, they have a policy for when they will return email messages and the same should be true for IM,” says Chris Hazelton, senior analyst, small and medium business markets at IDC, a research firm in Framingham, Mass. “You have to be responsive.” The same goes for employees. If a key player on a team never logs on to IM as required, it can stall productivity. “If you’re strapped for time, IM is a great way to communicate,” Hazelton adds. “If they don’t answer you, you’ll move on to someone else.”