If Office Group Chats Are So Bad, Then Why Are They Everywhere?
Top image: RICE File Photo

Stop me if this sounds familiar: It is a weeknight. You are having dinner with your friends. Midway through an engaging conversation, a flicker of annoyance passes over your friend’s face. Their mood darkens visibly as a message notification pops up. They mumble an apology before turning away to attend to an irate client, or some email which simply cannot wait.

After 5 minutes of tapping, they return to the fold, cursing their boss and—omg so sorry what were we talking about again? However, the ordeal is not over. Barely have you guys resumed your eating when another screen lights up with demands for triage, update or query.

Rinse and repeat until approx. 9:30 PM.

There should be nothing unusual in what I describe. The only difference is whether your company uses Whatsapp, Telegram or Slack. Everyone hates the work-related group chat, and yet, no one seems capable of escaping its clutches. Everyone resents it’s intrusions into our life, but nearly everyone also participates. 

Even though it disturbs our peace-of-mind, eats into our personal time, affects work-life balance, and is, more-often-than-not, a waste of everyone’s time, group chats have come to dominate workplace communication just as email once did for an earlier era.

So what gives? How did something so universally despised become so commonplace? 

Welcome to next 7 hours of not doing anything useful
The answer to this, I would argue, is not quite so simple as it first appears. For starters, the efficacy of office chat services has always been a point of dispute. For every argument in favour of group chats, you can find a dozen people railing against them.

My favourite is Basecamp’s manifesto ‘Group Chat, Group Stress’ because its authors sound like Martin Luther nailing his protests onto a German door. The article lists not one, not five, but 17 reasons why group chats should be regulated like AK47s. 

The list of crimes is impressive. Not only do group chats create ‘knee-jerk responses’ or ‘pile-ons’, they are ‘all-day meetings’ which cause ‘FOMO’ and ‘mental fatigue’. Basecamp stops short of suggesting that we ban office group chats like chewing gum, but it come close. Instant messaging is blamed for hindering ‘meaningful’ work.

Ironically, Basecamp still included a chat function anyway
Nor are such criticisms limited to tech companies with ‘new-age’ ideas about work and happiness. Even fairly conservative organisations fully devoted to maximising employee efficiency are sceptical. 

One Financial Times article entitled ‘The perils of using Whatsapp at work’ warns of privacy concerns and group chats being used as ‘a tool for workplace bullying’. Such warnings are as old as instant messaging itself. The Wall Street Journal’s report on ‘The Dangers of Instant Messaging’ was filed in 2004 and mentions IBM’s Lotus Messaging as an industry leader. It expresses basically the same concern that chats would lead to failures in ‘effective prioritisation’.

Several People Are Typing . . .

Given the copious amounts of skepticism and resentment, you would think that office group chats might have gone the route of fax machines. On the contrary, they have only proliferated despite the ever-growing number of skeptics.

I believe this is because we misunderstand what group chats are really for. They are not tools of communication, but tools of distortion. Their purpose is not just to make you available outside of office hours, but to render office hours invisible and welcome.

In an influential academic paper entitled “You can check out anytime, but you can never leave: Spatial boundaries in a high commitment organization”, Professors Peter Fleming and Andre Spicer argue that modern offices use ‘identity’ as a means of buttressing employee productivity. In order to create a dedicated workforce, it is not enough to merely discipline or punish one’s employees. You must make the employees self-motivated and to actively desire more work—of their own free volition.

Image credit: NYT
One of the methods to achieve such religious devotion is to erode the ‘identity boundaries’ between your work and non-work selves; to encourage workers to think of the office as a place where “they can have fun, experience personal fulfilment and express their creativity”. In doing so, workers will begin to think of themselves as company employees all the time. They will embrace their roles so fully that they cannot conceive of themselves as separate from the organisation. They will eventually experience ‘burnout’ because this is usually unsustainable.

Work-life balance improves 33% when you add a slide
To achieve this, Professor Fleming looks at managerial strategies which erode work-leisure boundaries, like informal dress codes, colourful open offices, and after-work drinking. I would argue this is the real purpose of office group chats. Their value lies not in their efficiency, but their informality. Because they resemble conversations between friends, and casual exchanges outside of work, they are able to do something which emails never could: to make work-related communication feel less like work and more like friendships. They are to the digital workspace what ping-pong tables and house plants were to the physical office. They create a ‘sense of belonging’ or community, which in turn, tacitly underwrites unhealthy hours and a greater willingness to do weekends or last-minute projects.

You might scoff, but is it really so unimaginable? In a time when people have ‘work spouses’ and actively speak of ‘team culture’, it should not be strange to find our digital realm loosening its neckties in an effort to imitate friendship.

Productivity has left the chat

The management thought-leaders at Vox Recode have decided that group chats are totally unproductive. They point out that some workers send 1000 Slack messages a day—well past the point of diminishing returns. Other employees take up to 25 minutes to get back on task after getting distracted by a message. 

They are probably correct, but I do not think raw, numbers-based efficiency was ever the point of instant messaging. Instead, group chats are productive precisely because they are unproductive.

Image is for illustration purposes only. Image credit: Plaid Zebra
In a post-industrial ‘knowledge economy’, despite the surfeit of data, it’s actually harder to quantify an employee’s contribution. Vox’s approach makes no sense because a worker who sends out 2.5 emails/hour is not necessarily a better worker than the one who sends 2. After all, you are not growing potatoes. Instead, a much better approach is to make your employees identify more fully with the job, the company, and your goals. In other words, to cultivate a sense of self which aligns entirely with the company’s agenda.

Group chats exist because they are effective in doing this. To paraphrase Israeli Professor Gideon Kunda’s book Engineering Culture: Control and Commitment in a High-tech Corporation, they create an environment which encourages workers ‘to give more and more of themselves to the organization’, because their identities are inseparable from it.

So what does this mean for all of your interrupted family dinners and weekends?

Conventional wisdom suggests that we can escape simply by turning off our phones. The research suggests otherwise. To truly escape the group chat mentality, screen discipline is not enough. You must cultivate an identity that’s wholly separate from your job, and erect impermeable boundaries between the chummy workplace ‘relationships’ and ‘real’ friendships. 

In other words, leaving group chats is just the start; the first of many burned bridges as you adopt an attitude that might be seen as bo chup and anti-social. Unlike muting your phone for a few blessed hours, it might be easier said than done.

Share this in your office group chat for maximum irony. (We are kidding, please don’t. Write to us at community@ricemedia.co instead.)

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