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Communication apps can help teams bond. But without proper boundaries, they can also exacerbate employee anxiety, burnout and even harassment.iStock

Nova Nicole uses Slack differently now. A leadership development facilitator who works in the tech industry, Ms. Nicole is no stranger to digital messaging at work. Since the onset of the pandemic, however, she’s noticed a distinct shift in the way she uses the platform.

“We use it for everything; it’s our main form of communication,” says Ms. Nicole, who is based in Blue Mountain, Ont. “But I do find it casual [compared to methods like email], so I work hard not to use it in lieu of conversation and connection.”

Usage of communication tools such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Chat exploded during the early days of the pandemic when companies had to quickly pivot to remote work, and these apps remain popular among the 26 per cent of Canadian workers who still work remotely at least some of the time.

While they may have been initially adopted for reasons of convenience and speed, these tools may also have sparked a more casual style of communication than what we’ve traditionally considered appropriate for the workplace.

According to market research company OnePoll, which conducted a poll of 2,000 American workers in 2021, “less than half of those surveyed said they ‘always’ use proper punctuation when messaging with colleagues (40 per cent), yet 31 per cent do ‘always’ use emoji.”

This makes sense, says Kris Tierney, head of HR and learning at the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA).

“Informal and even more emotive communication happens more often on collaboration tools like Slack and Teams than it does through email,” she says. “One of the biggest benefits of working in the physical workplace is engaging in informal, casual conversations and interactions – like watercooler conversations, coffee chats, shared lunch breaks or check-ins. In many ways, instant messaging and chat features in tools like Slack and Teams have also become the virtual watercooler in our remote and hybrid workplaces.”

Some conversations are not casual, though. Wendi Adair is a psychology professor and head of the Culture at Work Lab at the University of Waterloo and co-founder of ICEdge, a communications training company. Dr. Adair says workers tend to engage in the most informal communication on instant messaging tools when they’re chatting with their own work teams or groups – that’s where “GIFs start appearing; not so much on email communication or organization-wide communications.”

That aligns with Ms. Nicole’s experience. She says she uses Slack to check in with colleagues or to share resources, links or articles with groups that she’s training, but not for serious conversations.

“[I] definitely would not use it as the primary tool to deliver feedback,” she says.

Potential communication challenges

Even among tight-knit teams, there are pros and cons to more familiar communication patterns.

“These informal interactions can play a role in team bonding and deeper connections between colleagues,” Ms. Tierney says, echoing the results of the OnePoll survey, which found 55 per cent of respondents reported feeling more solidarity and connection with their colleagues than they did pre-pandemic. But they can also lead to communication challenges.

In Ms. Nicole’s work, she hears from employees who feel anxious about crafting Slack messages.

“If English isn’t your first language, or there are cultural differences, [your meaning] can get lost remotely,” she says. “There’s also anxiety about how you write your message and how fast to reply.”

A professional tone can translate as terse, but casual notes, a perky tone and emoji-heavy responses can appear immature, Ms. Nicole adds.

“If you aren’t active or visible on Slack, your productivity may be in question,” she says. “And people of colour often struggle with highlighting achievements, but the expectation [with Slack] is to over-communicate, adding to the worry of what is relevant.”

Even worse, Ms. Tierney points out that “electronic communication on platforms can be an enabler of bad workplace behaviour like cyber-bullying, microaggressions and harassment, particularly toward women and trans people, as well as racialized employees and other visible minorities.”

Then there’s the issue of burnout. Since Slack, Teams and Google Chat are always ‘on,’ employees can communicate asynchronously, sending and receiving messages while they’re eating breakfast or attending their child’s soccer game or taekwondo class.

This flexibility can be great for teams that are spread across time zones or people with larger caregiving loads, but it can also set up the expectation that employees should be constantly plugged in to be team player. In Ontario, this would actually contravene the legal right to disconnect from work, which is guaranteed by legislation that took effect in June.

Setting expectations around etiquette

These potential downsides don’t mean Slack, Teams and Google Chat aren’t useful tools; instead, they speak to the need for boundaries and smarter strategies around their use.

Setting clear expectations with the team around Slack etiquette helps, says Ms. Nicole. She suggests augmenting written communication with videos and voice notes.

“Changing your settings so notifications don’t include sound can also help minimize interruptions,” she says.

To minimize the potential for cyber-bullying and harassment through communication apps, HRPA recommends companies update their policies on workplace communications and their codes of conducts and ethics, so that if this type of behaviour pops up, there are clear guidelines in place that managers can point to, and explicit procedures for handling any type of abusive behaviour.

Even in workplaces with a high tolerance for casual communication, you still need to be professional and respectful, adds Ms. Tierney, “especially since monitoring software is common, so your messages may not be as private as they seem.”

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