Although the introduction of instant messaging to our personal and professional lives is far from news, its role in the evolution and redefinition of the modern workplace is something that leaves more and more to be understood every day.
The inevitable drive towards digital should be nothing but a blessing in terms of quick, easy and valuable communication amongst professionals. Yet the provision of a simple instant messaging platform, just for work, has yet to be perfected.
Slack’s myriad channels and functions are clearly popular for internal collaboration and tool sharing within teams. But these can become noisy and chaotic if required for the more social aspects of direct messaging within, and between, professional networks and communities.
My day is spent in mortal fear, worrying that I'm going to accidentally click away in Slack and forget what channel or DM that last important thing I forgot to mark for follow up was in.— Jensen Harris (@jensenharris) 14 March 2018
It's WhatsApp, then, which is left as a potential platform for fast, direct, and professional communication. Having launched its counterpart, WhatsApp Business, in January, Facebook is clearly aware of this.
However, research carried out by Guild found that while 38% of professionals use WhatsApp for work purposes, a rather overwhelming 78% of these users want an alternative.
So what's the problem? Why is WhatsApp not a good fit for professional users?
Well, let's start with the obvious one: professional use of WhatsApp is strictly prohibited, as stated in its terms and conditions: "You will not use (or assist others in using) our Services in ways that: involve any non-personal use of our Services unless otherwise authorized by us."
Despite this, over 500m people are using WhatsApp for work purposes.
Here are ten reasons why WhatsApp is failing to meet the needs of purely professional instant messaging.
1. GDPR Compliance
We know, we know – if you never see those four letters again it will be too soon. Nevertheless, keeping professional communication tools within the bounds of new regulations is essential, and something that has been discussed widely in relation to WhatsApp since before GDPR’s enforcement in May.
While the app doesn’t store data from messages on its servers, it does hold the address book information of every one of its users, including contacts who haven’t even downloaded WhatsApp. The handling of data within WhatsApp raises so many questions that it’s key to several of the points below.
2. Your messages can be deleted – or can they?
WhatsApp rolled out its ‘delete for everyone’ feature in October 2017, and extended its grace period of 7 minutes to 1 hour in March 2018. But not even the app’s official FAQs provide this level of specificity:
"Recipients may see your message before it's deleted or if deletion was not successful.You will not be notified if deleting for everyone was not successful."
Such ambiguity renders the feature basically useless, and means it won’t save you with certainty in the event of an embarrassing spelling mistake or accidental mixing up of personal and professional conversation threads.
3. It’s hard to enter a professional mindset on a personal app
From its interface and user experience to its feature range, WhatsApp does not provide a professional context for workplace communication and networking.
Using the same app to message your kids about taking the washing in as you are to discuss the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting not only makes it hard to leave your home life behind at work, but vice-versa.
If we are to see the amalgamation of physical and digital space in the workplace we have to adjust our attempts at a work-life balance accordingly.
4. It’s not built for transferring sensitive information
A caveat to concerns about WhatsApp’s privacy, or lack thereof, is the concern arising in many workplaces for the ethics of discussing sensitive information over the app.
Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust has had to issue its own WhatsApp-specific guidelines to ensure that its staff are complying with information governance (IG).
5. You need a contact’s phone number to add them
In a networking situation, sometimes asking for a phone number just isn’t appropriate. Email and LinkedIn will always be options, but the ability to invite someone into a group network via instant messaging shouldn’t have to require this information.
6. Group chats are with phone numbers, not people
As a result of the above, professional group chats can quickly descend into a chaos of unknown digits and faceless profiles. Beyond simply being timewasting, this limits the crucially interpersonal nature of a professional network.
7. Conversation topics and agendas can become confused
Though WhatsApp’s search feature provides some guidance through the flurry of a group chat, in a professional context the less friction involved in getting a discussion to a useful close the better.
As group conversations tend to build up and up rather than starting afresh, reaching the feeling that an issue has been definitively solved can be difficult.
8. Entering and leaving group chats
Just as it would be unprofessional to enter or leave a meeting or networking event without some kind of greeting, it wouldn’t be right to treat a professional discussion in the same way.
WhatsApp provides no way of politely moving in and out of discussions, or even consenting to entering them – this latter also fails to comply with GDPR’s right to object.
9. You can only see who has read your messages
The ‘seen by’ feature on most instant messaging platforms has eradicated the block of not knowing if a colleague has seen your suggestion or reminder, and whether to follow up. But in collective discussions or team scenarios, WhatsApp doesn’t provide a way of seeing how much information is getting through to each conversation member.
10. Sometimes, you need a roundup
Those higher up in workplace frameworks, or perhaps those on the fringe of certain professional conversations, don’t need to see every message. On WhatsApp, this often leads to one or more users having to volunteer a summary of the conversation – or the information is simply lost. An email digest feature would ensure that no group member is left behind.