instant messaging apps

Slack it to me – how instant messaging apps are changing the way we work

Laura Robinson

01 Sep 2017




We live in the ‘communication age’, in which our options to interact with each other are constantly increasing and improving. And we’ve moved on a long way from the days of smoke signals, semaphore and Morse code: now we can connect with others quickly and easily, wherever we are in the world and whatever device we happen to have in our hands. One increasingly popular form of communication in the business world is internal comms platforms – apps like Slack, Beem, Yammer, or (if you’re a bit alternative) Campfire. Use of these platforms has grown exponentially in the last few years. Slack, perhaps the most well-known of all them, claims to be the fastest-growing business app ever, with 35% growth in daily users in January alone. In this post I’m going to look at why these apps are so popular, how they're transforming the workplace and where they could be headed next.

A millennial way of communicating

Because of their informal nature, instant messaging apps suit the younger generations who've grown up with this way of communicating. In their real-time format they encourage participation from both ends, making conversation an exchange rather than a one-way transmission. This is more in line with the kind of flat structure most forward-thinking organisations want to achieve. They are also really useful platforms for establishing company culture. They act as a virtual water-cooler where employees can chat, share something they’ve seen online and generally have a laugh. These small social exchanges are hugely important. This has the potential to be problematic, of course. The thing about informal office chats taking place online is that everything is recorded. A throwaway comment that might have been forgotten if said in the kitchen could end up preserved forever in a chat history.

Anonymous platforms

The above point could be contributing to the increasing number of people turning to apps like Blind, an anonymous community app that groups its users by company so they can chat specifically about their workplace. There is a potential negative side to this, as anonymous platforms do provide cover for gossiping and nastiness – some people have sadly used Sarahah to send anonymous abuse to others, for example. Which raises a general question about responsibility, i.e. is it up to businesses to ensure bullying doesn’t happen on the internal comms platforms they use? There is a positive aspect to anonymity, of course, in that it allows someone to raise sensitive issues – workplace discrimination, for example – without fear of reprisal. Blind played a big part in the recent firing of James Damore, a computer engineer at Google who was sacked for a comment he made on a Google Doc claiming women have lower tolerance of stress (among other things). After the initial furore, lots of Google employees turned to Blind to voice their opinion, which likely contributed to his dismissal.

Unity in chat

Strong internal communication can also help with employee engagement. If everyone who works at your company understands its vision they will feel much more invested in it, and they will be better ambassadors for it too. Apps like Slack are also really important as your company grows. The last thing you want is your employees feeling like an insignificant cog in a big machine, and creating an online community in which everyone participates is one way to avoid that. This has particular relevance to people who work from home, or from smaller offices abroad. They don’t want to feel left out or isolated from the in-jokes, and internal comms platforms prevent this.

Productivity vs. pressure

Of course the potential issue with Slack and Yammer is they encourage the workaholics amongst us to take their work home. Yes, it’s important to be able to connect and collaborate wherever you are in this day and age, but work-life balance matters too. If there are notifications constantly popping up at all times of the day and night, it can be difficult to ignore them. IM in particular, by its instant nature, can feel more urgent, adding a further layer of pressure to respond. This is such a recognised problem that in January 2017, the French government passed the El Khomri “right to disconnect” law, making it illegal for employers to email staff out of office hours. But this only covers emails – nothing like it exists for internal messaging. And what about productivity? Slack users send 300 million messages to each other a month – it’s hard to believe that all of these are relevant or even useful. The problem isn’t even that people can waste hours sending GIFs (the word ‘waste’ is subjective here – a good meme is a beautiful thing, friends). It’s more that people are constantly reading new messages being sent their way, in group conversations that may have only tangential bearing to them. Personally I can find this a bit of a sensory overload, and it can stop me from finding the level of deep focus required for longer tasks like writing articles. Then again, the Mckinsey Global Institute says that ‘social technologies’ like internal IM apps actually make people much more productive. The study claims that by fully implementing social technologies, companies can increase the productivity of interaction workers – high-skill knowledge workers like managers and professionals – by 20-25%. So perhaps those GIFs aren’t doing too much harm after all.

Goodbye emails?

The final question: what will happen to emails? For now, they still have a place for the more formal comms that work better in email form than in an instant message platform. But in the next 20 years it is possible that email will go the way of the telegram? 37% of startups already no longer use email as their main comms channel (sad news for anyone who enjoyed the occasional accidental ‘reply all’). It even looks as though the future of internal comms will be merged with intranet and collaborative file sharing. According to McKinsey, this will make things even more efficient, because it produces a ‘searchable record of knowledge’ (like when you post in a group on Facebook and it stays there, so you can look it up later). This can reduce the time employees spend searching for company information by as much as 35%. But, if this doesn’t work out, we can always go back to -- --- .-. ... . / -.-. --- -.. .