remote Control | How we work
https://www.bbc.com-(Image credit: Getty Images)-By Sam Blum21st July 2021
Work communication has certainly become more casual – but what happens when your texts and social-media inboxes are filled with colleagues’ messages?
For years, many forward-thinking companies have had a problem with email. Though it’s the bedrock of communication in the corporate sector, digital tools have evolved at a rapid pace in recent years, solidifying what some liken to email’s death knell, ushered forth by younger workers who loathe the staid, slow and sterile format.
But if email is to die, what comes next?
Certain companies are relying more than ever on direct messaging, which allows managers, bosses and even the odd C-suite executive to ping anyone in an organisation, with blinding immediacy. The tools are numerous: Slack, Microsoft Teams, Skype; even personal communication platforms like WhatsApp and text, and social-media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook Messenger and Snapchat are slowly subsuming email’s old function.
But the casual nature of communication on these platforms can in many ways blur the lines between professional and personal relationships, and even create an emotional burden on employees. And the onslaught of direct messages can follow workers home well after office hours, chaining them to their devices in a constant pursuit to close the loop and perform for the bosses who are crossing the line.
“I feel like DMs follow me home more than email. I have both on my phone, but always feel a sense of urgency to answer a DM when I’ve stepped away from my computer or it’s off hours,” says Megan Farrell, a 28-year-old interaction designer working in the health and science sector in New York City. “A lot of the boundaries I established for work email, I don’t hold onto for DMs.”
The quandary of constant communication presents itself on multiple fronts. If a bloated inbox is a familiar headache, the tools some companies have been using as replacements – Instagram, WhatsApp, texting – present a host of ethical questions that organisations across the corporate spectrum must grapple with: namely, should bosses be sliding into personal DMs on platforms that aren’t specifically designed for work?
‘Intentional boundary violations’
Certain prognosticators have long argued that younger employees will force companies to eschew email in favour of DMs, and that vision has held somewhat true. Workplace messaging platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams have become an indispensable facet of modern office communication. At their crux, they’ve lifted their most integral feature – the direct message – from social media platforms that came earlier.
However, Margaret Morris, a psychologist focused on the intersection of technology and psychological well-being, and author of Left to Our Own Devices, says “there’s a bright line” between DMing on Slack and sending messages on social media. The latter, she says, “suggests intentional boundary violations” when done in professional settings. “That term – ‘sliding into DMs’ – when I hear it, it makes me pretty uncomfortable.”
But some companies are doing exactly that; encouraging employees through social-media DMs to get work done. A Manchester-based energy retailer, Love Energy Savings, recently announced it was scrubbing email from its workplace tools, replacing it with a bevy of social media apps, because its younger employees preferred the immediacy of DMs. The sales software company Close uses Snapchat as an internal communications tool for its remote workforce, claiming the disappearing messaging app creates “a team culture that’s not only centred around work, but also life outside it”.
In an increasing number of companies, DMs are not only the primary form of communication, but are increasingly bleeding into personal platforms, not only because the mode of communication appeals to the tastes of a younger workforce, but because bosses can still track down workers, even if they’re logged out of company tools for the night. David D’Souza, a workplace expert and membership director at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in London, says the push to DMs leaves workers with a familiar sense of drowning, reminiscent of an email pile on.
Performing on personal platforms
Beyond the feeling of being snowed in by messages, personal DMs can also present a novel emotional and psychological pressure.
Farrell used to text regularly with her boss at a former job, and the influx of texts from a person in power – even if they weren’t work related – made it hard for her to ignore her phone. “I struggled to say no or not respond, because [the conversation] always got tied on some level to how I was doing my job.” She says her relationship with her boss evolved in such a way “that being emotionally supportive became part of my job. I also never felt like I was away from work, even if I logged off everything else”, she says.
I struggled to say no or not respond, because [the conversation] always got tied on some level to how I was doing my job – Megan Farrell
Communicating via text or social media can also lay traps for workers once their professional personas tangle up with their intentionally private social-media profiles. Morris explains that workers will have to tailor their online presences to fall in line with workplace decorum. “How much of my life is on display? How much do I have to perform on social media in line with the employer’s expectations?” she says.
It’s possible, Morris reasons, that workers will have to treat how they post on Instagram or Facebook like any other aspect of their job. She says social media is “certainly at odds with how you’re trying to present yourself at work”, and the spectre of a boss looming in one’s DMs makes the experience of using social media totally different than its original intent. “I don’t know how [DMing with a boss] plays out; whether it’s akin to being monitored by one’s parents or having to cut things out of photos.”
As workplace communication becomes more casual and personal, Morris is concerned that the lax atmosphere of social media might erode behavioural standards, and even invite problems like harassment. “The platform will shape the tone of the conversation,” she says. “The cues that remind people of their roles, the virtual equivalents of offices, are gone. In addition, employees may feel even more surveilled and pressured to filter their online presence than they do already.”
D’Souza largely agrees, saying: “A conversational platform blurs [work] boundaries by documenting informal exchanges. The informality of them can also give rise to inappropriate or bullying behaviour.”
Ultimately, a company’s communication will be shaped by the laxity of a social media platform – and, generally speaking, that’s a bad omen for companies looking to maintain a semblance of order. Shishir Mehrotra, CEO of the cloud-based document editor Coda says: “If you want your company to feel like everyone is on Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook all day long, you can create that environment. I think that’s pretty bad.”
The emphasis on DMs will likely grow with time, but the hiccups will remain and perhaps grow more apparent as calls for greater work-life balance gain traction. “Understanding when it is [time] to ignore the buzz from a phone or laptop isn’t easy for many,” says D’Souza. “Organisations and individuals both need to reflect on what that does for the balance of work and life, and be clear on reasonable expectations.”
Going forward, younger companies looking to exude a technologically savvy and more laidback ethos will champion quicker communication tools, especially if they’re looking to appeal to Gen Z workers, who are primed to dominate the workforce by 2030. Various experts have argued that companies will have to lure younger workers onto payroll by offering their preferred communications tools, which means using social media. And to be sure, in a remote-working world, DMs are the medium that allows colleagues to get to know each other, so companies might emphasise them as a way to build culture and camaraderie. For her part, Farrell says DMs are “a huge part of how I have gotten to know my colleagues”.
As a leader in Silicon Valley who helped devise the Microsoft Office email client, Mehrotra is an advocate for hopeful solutions that ostensibly make workplace communication better. Still, he thinks companies ultimately transition to social media channels to mask underlying issues. He says “regularly switching to ad hoc, personal communication channels mostly happens out of frustration with a core communication system that isn’t working”. Companies ultimately switch to this format to fill a cultural void, says Mehrotra. Using social media, in his view, is “a lagging indicator of broken underlying culture”.
Companies reckoning with the problems of social media-based communications will have to do some soul-searching, believes Mehrotra, but it is possible to reverse back to the old guard. “I think communication flows downhill,” he says. “So, if you’re finding your company over-reliant on pinging people in personal text messages, hunting them down on Facebook and WhatsApp, then work your way back to why the internal systems didn’t work.”
For his part, Mehrotra says he has a “love-hate relationship with this whole transition away from email”. Mehrotra says communicating on social-media platforms for work incentivises all the worst kinds of communication habits. “All the behaviours that those tools are designed to encourage,” he says, “are actually the anti-behaviours of what you want.”