WhatsApp for work: A useful tool or yet another invasion of our private lives?

The instant messaging app is being increasingly used to communicate with clients and bosses, but experts warn this can lead to greater anxiety and stress

A woman working from home in Madrid.
A woman working from home in Madrid.

It’s 8pm. The working day is over and you’re chatting with friends on WhatsApp. Suddenly you see you’ve received a new message from your boss, or your colleague, or your client, or your supplier. Should you read it to see if it’s urgent? Should you reply even if it isn’t?

Even if you decide to wait until the following day, work issues have already made their way into your personal time. It could also happen with any number of other messaging apps, or with email. But WhatsApp takes it further.

“The problem with this tool is that it’s in all our cellphones and we don’t know if the new message alert is from a friend or work-related. And when you see it’s from work, it throws you off balance,” says Eva Rimbau, an expert on remote work who teaches human resources and organization courses at Catalonia’s Open University (UOC).

It is precisely because nearly everyone has WhatsApp that it has become such a common tool in work environments.

“WhatsApp is a hybrid technology tool, somewhere between the telephone [...] and email. This app allows you both to send files and to have immediate communications,” says Juana Rubio-Romero, a specialist in communication and social research who teaches at Spain’s Nebrija University.

It is hard to know how many people are using the classic version (not WhatsApp Business) for work purposes, but there are a few clues. A 2019 study by Speakap, which markets a communication tool for employees, found that 53% of global frontline workers in retail, hospitality and entertainment were using unapproved messaging apps for work communications up to six times daily. In January 2020, a study of 1,261 British workers by the instant messaging app company Guild found that 41% were using WhatsApp for work purposes. And all this was before the coronavirus pandemic.

WhatsApp’s terms of service prohibit its use for non-personal matters. And several countries, particularly in Europe, have laws on the “right to disconnect” from work-related electronic communications outside of working hours. Regardless of what the law might say, however, the fact is that all too often people find themselves in a situation where their personal phone is filling up with work messages.

The large number of messages received by workers can considerably increase their stress levels
Francisco Trujillo Pons, an expert on the right to disconnect

Researcher Juana Rubio-Romero notes that “there is a correct use, on an informal level,” that reinforces labor relations and the sense of camaraderie among team members. It could also be used to coordinate a one-off event or to share a document quickly. This is also less invasive than a telephone call, notes Rubio-Romero, because the recipient can choose when to look at the message.

But there are also incorrect ways to use WhatsApp: for formal communications or without regard for the other person’s schedules. Often we feel pressured to reply instantly, because “in the digital culture context, technology is not neutral and we are pressed to communicate in a specific manner,” adds this expert.

Eva Rimbau recommends taking a moment to think before sending a work-related message on WhatsApp. “It’s important to learn to distinguish which questions really require an immediate reply and which can wait until the recipient is within his or her allotted time to answer emails or messages,” she notes.

Rimbau adds that there are communication tools out there that are better suited to work conversations, such as Slack, which allows users to determine the times when they want to be notified about new messages.

Francisco Trujillo Pons, an expert on the right to disconnect, recommends changing one’s WhatsApp status to unavailable and making changes so that the two blue check marks don’t show up, proving you have seen the sender’s message. This would turn WhatsApp into “an asynchronous medium, not synchronous, breaking the expectation of an immediate reply and the fatigue and sense of urgency that the worker may experience.”

This expert also warns about the changes triggered by the pandemic and the importance of drawing lines. “The app is being used kind of as a professional email, and the large number of messages received by workers can considerably increase their stress levels when faced with so many unanswered messages,” he says.

All experts agree that the best option is to either use a different communication tool or have a different phone for work-related issues. “Using one’s personal phone for work matters is highly questionable,” says Rimbau, even if there are “lots of people who don’t seem to mind.”

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