Group chats are the worst thing to happen to workplaces since open-plan offices

Louise*, 26, had been working in her high-pressure job for 18 months when she was fired for gross misconduct.

The media law role was gruelling, with bosses calling Louise into the early hours and favouring certain staff based on their ‘family connections’.

She tells Metro.co.uk: ‘I used to spend my lunch break pacing up and down outside the office on the phone to my mum in tears about how much I hated my job, and I felt intensely stressed and anxious constantly.

‘I was applying for jobs I knew I didn’t want just because I couldn’t bear the thought of working for this company any longer. And soon enough my wish came true.’

Describing the day she was let go, Louise said she was called into a meeting with the CEO while she was eating breakfast at her desk. Walking in and noticing tension in the room, she jokingly asked if she was being fired.

She says: ‘I sat down and noticed that on the table in front of me was a large pile of paper. The CEO told me to read through it, and I quickly realised it was the transcripts of chat conversations between myself and three of my colleagues.’

Louise’s workplace used an internal chat feature, designed in-house to be private to protect client information. Although it was supposed to be used for work purposes, she says ‘it was also used for general chit chat, gossip, and moaning about work’.

‘As naïve as it may seem to complain about work and certain colleagues on a work chat, it has to be noted just how miserable everyone was,’ adds Louise.

‘We were frustrated, overworked and stressed. And of course we discussed this at length on chat.’

Management had monitored the conversations of their employees, including one where somebody called the CEO a c***, as well as various general grumblings and complaints.

A humiliated Louise – with her supposedly private chats laid in front of her in black and white – was escorted out of the building’s fire escape, not even allowed to go back into the office to get her coat and bag.

Louise and one other colleague were both dismissed, while those with nepotistic connections were not (including the staff member who’d used harsh language to describe the boss).

She can relay countless shocking things said to her by her superiors in this role, but says it was only junior staff’s wrongdoing that was highlighted.

‘Unsurprisingly, the conversations we’d had about these incidents on the chat hadn’t been printed out and presented to us,’ she says.

‘Nor had the numerous conversations about the sexual assaults that had taken place in the office or at work events.

‘I think what always struck me was that, although the conversations we were having were unprofessional and probably a little cruel at times, it really stemmed from working for a company where bullying and unpleasant language/behaviour was normal.’

Although Louise got what she wanted – a release from a terrible workplace – the tables were turned on her and she was painted as the aggressor; the shame of which has taken years to process.

Group chats have been labelled a ‘virtual water cooler’ in an age where working from home is common and tech is easy to come by.

But they can also be used as a tool by bosses to monitor staff and blur the lines between work and home, providing an end-to-end encrypted home where bullying and peer pressure can thrive.

Research by Guild in 2019 showed that more than 50% of workers use messaging apps for workplace communication and 38% for work-related matters – and this is likely to continue to increase.

Employment trends are always popping up, and we normally only understand the real world implications after they’re implemented. Take, for example, open-plan offices.

The Guardian reports that the UK has twice as many open-plan offices as the global average, despite the fact they have been proven to have a negative effect on comfort.

It wasn’t always that way.

Open-plan offices grew in popularity when ‘knowledge work’ and tech did, prompted by a 1950s Office Landscape designed by a German company called Quickborner.

The idea behind it was to reduce physical barriers between workers and improve collaboration, but studies over the years have shown that open-plan offices can increase stress, sick leave, and staff turnover, as well as reducing productivity, job satisfaction, privacy, and even communication itself.

Now hit fast-forward on our working lives, and imagine how ‘always on’ communication – supposedly a revolutionary and productivity-boosting proposition – could impact us as the years go by.

Dr Nick Earley, Head of Psychology at Happence says there could be real consequences if we adopt group messaging as a standard form of communication between employees.

He tells Metro.co.uk: ‘While direct contact does have its benefits, the “always on” culture can cause employees to feel like they should be available at all times, and can blur the line between work and personal life.

‘This can significantly impact employee wellbeing both physically and mentally. 

‘Mentally, it could drive employees to experience increased anxiety, stress, burnout, and feelings of frustration. Physically, it could lead to muscle tension, insomnia, fatigue, reduced sex drive and digestion issues.’

On the positive side, group chats as a work tool allow for an easier flow of idea sharing and the ability to have queries answered quickly, even when working remotely.

There’s also the social element, which Dr Earley says is ‘the closest thing workers have to replicating those informal water cooler chat moments in the workplace and creating a sense of being in a team – albeit virtually’.

The people in charge and the responsibilities for employees haven’t changed, though, and tech can’t act as a sticking plaster to combat burnout and poor working culture.

Colette*, 54, learned about the constantly shifting boundaries in work group chats the hard way, being disciplined for asking a question in a WhatsApp group in ‘an aggressive tone’.

At the start of the pandemic, her customer service role changed entirely, with previously office-based staff navigating working from home and trying to procure the correct equipment.

‘My manager started a WhatsApp group for us to bring up issues, but it felt as though every time I brought something up it was taken in bad faith,’ she tells us.

‘It’s hard to get tone across when messaging, and when I queried things such as when laptops would be provided or why some were expected to come into work while others were furloughed, I was reprimanded.

‘It felt as though they wanted the appearance of two-way communication, when really it was just a way to keep tabs on us and monitor our conversations.’

Basecamp calls group chats during work the ‘all day meeting, with random participants, and no agenda,’ saying that ‘co-workers are expected to follow dozens of conversations in real-time, all the time.’

In a blog post about its many years of using chat software to communicate, the project management company adds: ‘People are dedicating a large fraction of their screens to a never-ending conveyor belt of conversation pile-ups.

‘The mental overhead and repetitive visual switchbacking, is exhausting. It’s repression through over-communication.’

British workers already work longer hours than their European counterparts, and research shows that 12% of UK staff said they work overtime with the sole purpose of looking busy, while 34% work through their lunch break every single day.

We’re so obsessed with showing that we’re working, but we’re less productive than other countries and over half of us experience work-related stress. Something isn’t working.

Group chats cannot be blamed solely for these issues, with wage stagnation and long hours among the many factors affecting our workforce.

But the upheaval of Covid – and the changes it made to how we work – can present a chance for us to assess which parts of our lives may be harmful andchange them.

In relation to this, there have been calls for official policies around the ‘right to disconnect’, with trade union Prospect suggesting plans including a ban on bosses ‘routinely emailing or calling’ staff out of working hours. This follows Germany, Italy, and the Philippines, who have introduced similar laws.

Will Stronge, director of research at think tank Autonomy tells us: ‘While the promise of remote work is greater autonomy, fewer hours spent commuting, and more free time, for many during the Covid pandemic the reality has often been greater workloads and longer days.

‘Group chats – along with other group work software – can be an essential means of communication and collaboration for remote workplaces, but without a much-needed “right to disconnect” for UK workers, their use often means that the working day never really finishes, creating more unpaid labour, endangering employee’s leisure time, and risking a state of “work without end”.’

He also asserts that we can work out what the effects might be easily, by looking at how long hours have impacted people.

‘We already know the effects of long hours on UK workers – poor mental health, inadequate work-life balance, low productivity, and presenteeism,’ Will says.

‘Without greater protections, the remote work environment risks exacerbating all of them.’

Because the concept of ‘the GC’ is considered to be for friends, it muddies the waters between professional and personal chat. And not all employers openly state that messages you send – regardless of whether they’re during work hours – can be monitored and used against you in tribunals.

Some may argue this is a positive, in that staff members who are inappropriate leave a paper trail and can be adequately punished. For example, in a 2018 case WhatsApp messages were used as evidence in a workplace harassment trial where two men were found to have used racist and sexist language to bully a colleague.

Employers enforcing existing employment and equality laws isn’t where this ends, however. It means that everything you say – whether that’s a sarcastic comment about being bored or a non-work chat during work hours – can be seen and judged. Just like what happened to Louise.

‘With workers dispersed from the office, group chats have also come to function as a means of workplace surveillance that allow managers to police how employees spend their time throughout the working day, creating additional stress and restricting the chance for individuals to take necessary breaks from their work,’ says Will.

‘The use of digital technologies to enable workplace surveillance is an established trend, especially for those in the so-called “platform economy”, but one which millions of office workers are now also increasingly exposed to themselves.’

Your employer is not your friend, even if they’re nice to you. Boundaries need to be in place to protect your free time and independence outside of the nine to five.

Pushing back on being available 24/7 would be the ideal, but that’s far harder when you’re relying on hours and paychecks.

Dr Earley suggests that businesses should take charge to change the culture.

He says: ‘Unless businesses tackle this always on culture head on, the rate of burnout-related absence is likely to rise, so companies should look to introduce policies that aim to help employees disconnect from their emails or messages outside of working hours.

‘All companies should supply their workforce with transparent email guidelines, as well as a support network for those who work outside of typical office hours.’

It’s on good managers to understand the difference between informal work chat conversations and those that are unprofessional. Most importantly, they need to ensure they don’t infringe on the rights of their employees.

Whether this change will happen depends on how work evolves post-pandemic. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that although the work group chat may be the virtual water cooler, a water cooler doesn’t come to your home or keep a record of everything you’ve said.

For the average employee, Louise and Colette’s stories acts as a warning to take care when messaging colleagues (even if you think the method is secure).

For bosses and managers, the rise of group chats is a wake-up call that staff are human, and that they should be treated as such.

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