How the Role of Internal Workplace Chat Tools Is Evolving
As teams went remote at the beginning of the pandemic, a wide suite of communication tools were used to prop up work culture. Watercooler chats were replaced with WhatsApp groups. Morning meetings were substituted for Zoom calls. A quick glance over a workmate’s computer made way for a Slack DM.
In many cases, companies have relied on external software to facilitate day-to-day communications as employees were forced away from the office. Often, these apps and programs have served companies well. “These tools have helped to efficiently replicate work-type conversations, such as discussions around projects, managers, customers and clients,” explained Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University.
This software can also be non-hierarchical in how it's implemented: in theory, anyone can join the group chat with the boss. “In comparison to seating plans, these tools are more fluid — you can choose who to include in your Slack or WhatsApp channel,” said Bloom.
However, while these third-party communication tools have been the go-to for remote teams during lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, a gradual return to the office may mean employers have to rethink the software they use — and whether work-related messaging should be more regulated.
How Communication Tools Have Helped
Different modes of communication can boost workplace inclusion, said Grace Lordan, associate professor in behavioral science at the London School of Economics. “From text messages to message boards, from Zoom conversations to in-office communication, all of these help include more people from within a team.”
Remote messaging apps can also benefit neurodivergent employees and those who suffer from mental health issues, said Shayla Thurlow, VP of people and talent acquisition at career website The Muse, based in New York. “Workplace interactions can cause a sense of social anxiety for many workers. The ability to engage coworkers in a way that feels more controlled and comfortable creates an environment that is more inclusive, and helps foster a sense of belonging.”
Less formal communication channels, such as Slack and WhatsApp, have also created opportunities for remote teams to build connections through shared interests, added Thurlow. “In connection, we find community; in community, we forge bonds that create stronger teams and cultures, which benefits the entire employee population.”
Related Article: Internal Communications: Email vs. Chat vs. Discussions vs. Meetings
The Disadvantages of Messaging Software
Communication tools aren’t inherently more inclusive and non-hierarchical than in-person collaboration, it depends on how they’re implemented. Bloom said work-related messaging apps are more transactional in nature: they’re an efficient way of discussing deadlines rather than replicating the richness of an in-person watercooler chat in the office.
“In some ways, it may seem positive that, in a narrow sense, work should focus on work conversations,” said Bloom. “But part of team and culture building is getting to know colleagues in a broader sense: discussions about kids, travel, sports, TV and other types of broader work gossip.”
While a WhatsApp group may be in theory more inclusive than a boardroom meeting, it can conversely also be more exclusive. “Not using official company software means it’s harder to regulate and follow company policies in terms of exclusion and anti-bullying,” said Lordan. “People can now easily create ways of online communication that quickly form an in-group out-group mentality. Colleagues having an informal office without a team member is likely fine, but excluding a younger colleague from a messaging app could actually harm their career."
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Rather than a favored communication tool, companies are often currently relying upon a wide array of options. Lordan added this can hamper business productivity. “There can often be debates over which messenger program to use — people have different preferences. Having such a variety can be really bad: you can end up with too many apps to check. Plus, one of the biggest distractions for workers is online. If you have colleagues messaging across different apps, that not only means they’ll likely be more distracted from their work, but important messages may be missed.”
The Next Phase of Workplace Communications
Over time, companies may begin streamlining their communication tools in order to help boost efficiency. Since the pandemic, firms will likely have messaging apps for remote and hybrid working they prefer over others. "Rather than proprietary technology, it’s more likely we’ll see businesses go with one of the more dominant providers, which will provide all the modes of workplace communication going forward," said Lordan.
While the choice of messaging tools may become more regulated, it’s less likely that companies will begin restricting their contents. For example, when Basecamp banned discussions around politics at work in 2021, employees quit in response. Likewise, Amazon is now under scrutiny following rumored plans that it would be introducing a first-party chat app that monitored employee communications.
“I’d be surprised if many organizations began introducing restrictions on worker communications,” said Bloom. “Firms could have regulated email and Slack long before the pandemic and I’ve not heard of it happening on any major scale. The benefits — that you might somewhat limit non-work discussions on these channels — are far smaller than the costs of upsetting your workforce. Firms need to have some degree of trust in workers as tasks are often social, creative or intangible — they can’t be easily monitored.”
Lordan agreed that tightly enforcing restrictions on non-work communications could backfire, even in industries like finance that require legal compliance. Many companies in these sectors are seemingly still staying away from surveilling non-work channels: in one survey, only 15% were monitoring employee communications on WhatsApp.
“When firms began policing internal software following the financial crisis there was a spike in people using other modes of personal communication,” said Lordan. “There’s nothing stopping employees going outside of company walls — or company programs — to do their non-work messaging.”