Is your WhatsApp keeping you at work even in your free time?

Work WhatsApp groups have become a problem for many people who want to switch off but can’t. We analyze a phenomenon that has no easy solution

Una cárcel laboral llamada WhatsApp: “Tienes una vida que vivir. No puedes estar todo el día pensando en trabajo”
A woman checks her phone.lolostock (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
María Sánchez Sánchez

“You have to mute your work WhatsApp group.” This is what Carmen Merina, known on social networks as Rayo McQueer, said last February in favor of shutting off work and business groups. One of her arguments is that bosses always say that these groups are created for something specific and then they end up leading to something else.

McQueer, who became very popular on the Internet after being fired for a making video in which she criticized job insecurity, asked herself: “How about you talk to me about work while I’m at work? I think eight hours a day is enough, right?” And it ended with a direct appeal to those who experience these situations: “You have a life to live. You can’t spend all day thinking about work.”

The truth is that behind that casual language, halfway between outrage and parody, hides a real concern that many workers live with. The tyranny of what work WhatsApp groups have become, and how they make it impossible to switch off from work in our free time.

This means that, as time management coach Patricia Benayas points out, disconnecting from work is more difficult than ever. “In many companies, communication is being done via WhatsApp instead of email, and it is increasingly common for work teams to form a group to more easily manage a specific project or their day-to-day work. And even more so if the team works remotely.”

That means “it is very difficult to switch off from our work if our cell phone is constantly pinging with notifications about work shifts, schedule changes, or meeting reminders on WhatsApp.” Furthermore, “on many occasions, workers are included without being asked first, even if their work is using their personal phone number to contact them.”

When you want to set limits, but others stop you

Leticia Sainz, who works in corporate communications, considers it difficult to find a balance between what she would like — to put her cell phone aside — and what her colleagues or bosses demand. “In my previous position I had a WhatsApp group with my direct superiors, but it was a not very active group, and we used it in moderation. It was used for very specific things that needed a quick resolution,” she recalls.

“Now, I have joined a new company and I am seeing how I manage WhatsApp because there is much more activity in that regard.” Sainz uses a single cell phone with two cards (a personal one and a professional one), but in WhatsApp both planes are intertwined. “I have not yet decided what I am going to do in this regard, but it is something that is creating a real conflict for me.”

The main obstacle that Sainz encounters is that, although she silences notifications or activates the “do not disturb” mode when the day is over, other members of the group are very active “any day, at any time.” As she tells us, “they do not do it maliciously or expect an immediate response. I understand that they are doing it to show that they want to manage this matter and it is their way of coordinating with the others. But what happens when you’re in a group? You can receive something on a Saturday and think: ‘Okay, I’ve seen it and I’ll manage it on Monday.’ But another person may not interpret the same thing and respond instantly. And, in the end, you end up looking at your phone. You find you have 80 WhatsApp notifications and you think that the world is ending and you are not aware of it. So, especially now that I am starting in this position, it is difficult to completely ignore that feeling that you’re missing something important.”

This reality highlights the major challenge that companies face in taking the initiative, putting a stop to these dynamics, and making all their workers feel comfortable. Fernando Checa García, director of the Masters in Social Media at the International University of La Rioja (UNIR) points out that “those who usually create the groups are not even the managers, but rather the workers themselves.”

Therefore, instead of government agencies stepping in to prohibit or regulate such communications, he points to a solution that involves “raising awareness among the people involved. Human Resources departments can help them understand that this space is not [for work], and that it should be reserved only for personal use,” he points out.

“Normally, whoever creates the groups does not do so on bad faith, but a process of raising awareness is needed to make it clear that there must be limits and, above all, avoid the stress that these dynamics usually cause,” the professor and consultant in digital strategies says.

Companies that do stand up to WhatsApp

Engineer Jorge Marcos decided to uninstall WhatsApp from his work phone a few months ago after a misunderstanding with a client. In his case, he did so with the backing of his company in a decision that made things much easier for him by considering the platform a communication channel to avoid.

“Our company considers that WhatsApp is not an official application and therefore, in principle, we are not authorized to use it,” he explains. “Our business phones have two profiles, one professional and one personal, and in the work profile you can use Outlook, OneDrive, Teams, etc., which are a series of applications that can help you in that sense, but not WhatsApp,” Marcos recalls.

“What happened was that a client decided to create a WhatsApp group, and messages began to be sent that had nothing to do with me. Then, suddenly, after 40 or 50 unread messages, there was a message in the middle of the chat that was meant for me. It was important, and I missed it... So, after a discussion with the client about a specific topic, I decided to uninstall it, and I no longer have it.”

As the social media expert explains, companies would do well to follow this example and not rely on WhatsApp as a communication tool “because it is not a suitable professional environment.” Checa details some reasons: “There are other tools where you can more easily control the message because a record of the conversations is produced, and you can have access to them more easily later. In addition, they allow you to add and share documents more efficiently and intuitively.”

And, of course, WhatsApp “by its nature is an environment in which the conversation does not have a beginning and an end, so if what we are promoting is a work conversation, it can create added stress for employees.”

When WhatsApp can be helpful

In the workplace, applications such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, Trello, or Discord can be installed on the work cell phone, and they can encourage worker–company communication without interfering so much on a personal level. However, depending on the role or nature of the work being done, there are also those who consider WhatsApp groups very useful and see them as a faster organization tool.

This is what teacher and high school head of faculty Teresa Pérez thinks. “For the management team, WhatsApp is a very useful and effective way of organizing ourselves. There are only a few group members and we have to be in contact almost 24 hours a day to deal with all types of urgent problems or planning activities with very little time to spare.”

Lucía Martínez, an employee of an energy company, has no major problem in her company, with using WhatsApp groups internally. As was the case with Marcos, Martínez mainly receives notifications via the application when it comes to being in contact with external clients.

Furthermore, it also operates in an international context, which differentiates the usage habits of this type of platform. “With foreign clients or partners, I use it the most. In my experience, Americans use the platform the most,” she says.

“And, above all, it is used mostly for more informal communications or messages that you do not want to send by email. For example, questions such as: ‘Do you know how the project is going? We think this or that; How are you doing with those comments that you haven’t sent me yet,’ etc. We also usually use WhatsApp to call each other, because it is cheaper, but it is very rare that it is used like that. It happened to me once, but it was a long time ago,” Martínez recalls.

*Some of the names of the people who have participated in this article have been changed to preserve their privacy.

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