Aurora Magazine

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You’ve Been WhatsApped!

Is WhatsApp becoming a workplace dystopian tool? Umair Kazi poses the question.
Published 07 Mar, 2023 06:35pm

This article was birthed out of an initial message sent out by Mamun (from the Aurora team) to the author. One re-pitch, three missed deadlines, two rewritings and eight follow-ups later, it finally comes to life as the words you are reading now.

All this back and forth happened, quite conveniently, on the ubiquitous tool that is WhatsApp. From a purely productivity and work point-of-view, what a wonderful piece of tech, eh? An easy-to-use platform facilitating instant connections to billions of people anywhere in the world and for free!

Too bad I hate it with every fibre of my being. Let me tell you why.

Before you can understand my beef with WhatsApp, we have to go back to when all the cool kids had Blackberrys and social plans were made on BBM. Details are blurry, but I am guessing I was still rocking a dated Nokia, or maybe I had just switched to my first Android phone. As a platform-agnostic messaging service, I felt WhatsApp was a godsend. As it began to pick up features, I became deeply embedded into the little green icon cult; converting friends and family to the app and evangelising it for its use for both work and play.

In the golden words of Michael Scott, “How the turntables…”

As does WhatsApp, no other communication medium (sans hounding a person physically) raises as high the expectation for an immediate response. Even with good old-fashioned phone calls, you could expect people to reject calls or not pick up; you could be in a meeting or having lunch. If you were savvy, you would be able to reject the call with a message like “I’ll call you later,” and that’s fine.

In WhatsApp, however, there is no autoresponder to cover for you. Because reading and responding to a WhatsApp message can be done so discreetly, there is this creeping responsibility to respond to messages irrespective of whether you are focused on something else at that moment. Nights, weekends, OOO (out of office) – none of these have any bearing on whether you are expected to go through your WhatsApp. Sure, you can blame it on an overall Pakistani “yes man” work culture thing – but there is no denying that tools like these exacerbate the situation.

The same perceived urgency to respond has been addressed in work messaging tools like Slack. You can turn notifications off to indicate that you have logged off and therefore will not be able to revert. There are studies and campaigns that address the issue of this always-on responsiveness and its effects on mental health. Some tools, like Basecamp, purposefully remove green dots depicting “online” status, so that other people’s unrealistic expectations of availability are curbed.

Before you tell me that WhatsApp affords the same via its ‘read receipts’ opt-out feature, let me set the matter straight. Its optionality makes it problematic. Removing the ‘read’ blue ticks and replacing them with the ambiguous grey ones feels almost offensive in the Pakistani work environment. When you do that, you feel you are hiding something on purpose. It’s a nonverbal flex that says I don’t trust you, therefore I will not let you know that I have read your message.

This is why a lot of people keep those blue ticks on, but just don’t read the messages; they kind of hack their way around it. For example, they will glance at the message through the notifications dropdown and never read it in the app. Nobody wants to trigger those blue ticks until they are ready to properly process and respond to the message. Other hacks include making a new widget (at least in Android phones) where the messages will be previewed without you having to go through them. I was one of those people before I moved to the grey tick side. I used to go to extreme lengths to make sure someone else could not tell that I had read their message – so that I could feign ignorance until I found enough brain space to tackle their issue and type out a response.

If that were not enough, WhatsApp groups compound the problem. Now you have bosses and the whole chain of command ‘invited’ to the group as well, and it becomes a two-pronged problem – from the junior people’s side and the management’s. Add in another ‘team’ or side, like a client or a vendor, and you are primed for chaos.

For junior folk, the fact that people higher up the ladder are in the group means that they cannot converse as freely as they would with their peers. Every word is measured, lest it invokes the wrath of the ‘senior people’ who mostly avoid the conversation, but can swoop in and make a mountain out of a molehill any time they want. For more senior people stuck in these groups as ‘overlookers’, it becomes a daunting task to follow all those conversations back and forth and try to ensure any kind of quality control. I have 52 work-related WhatsApp groups that I don’t want to be a part of, let alone monitor, but am being held hostage in because if I exit it will be considered an abandonment of sorts.

These groups also play host to a bunch of oops moments. Who amongst us has not accidentally sent that rant about the boss – intended for your ‘unofficial’ office group – to the wrong window? Thank goodness for ‘delete for all’ eh? But wait, now it looks even more suspect. Unless someone has already managed to take a screenshot and now you are screwed.

Empires now crumble with WhatsApp screenshots.

As a matter of fact, if you are working in Pakistani marketing, you know just how important WhatsApp groups have become to the fabric of our business. “Let’s make a group and start the convo there” has become as critical a pillar of business engagement as an SLA (service level agreement) or a contract.

The people at Meta are super smart because they keep adding these wonderful features that let people in our part of the world use WhatsApp as a business tool – but stop just short of making it a real deal. Now we have a nice desktop client, but it doesn’t play well with other comms tools, like email or teams or Slack – how hard would it be to make an API (application programming Interface) and plug it in?

Even better, why doesn’t WhatsApp let me turn random work requests into to-dos in my project management software? While we are at it, sync it to my calendar so I don’t have to chase people around for appointments. The last frontier for WhatsApp is to be able to ‘share screens’ and it will make Zoom et al irrelevant in an instant. We have seen how the devs can seamlessly integrate into map apps, so why not this? Hey Meta, maybe you should abandon the Facebook-based Workplace suite and create a biz framework atop WhatsApp instead.

When messages don’t cut it, we love sending voice notes. I know some people who handle work conversations exclusively through a litany of voice notes. To me, it is just excruciating going through these. The 2x button helps, but still. It’s easy to be ambiguous in voice notes, so it makes for a poor feedback tool. I am embarrassed to admit that I often ask someone to transcribe these long voice notes into text so that I can visualise and address them properly.

Sometimes, because it seems to be a ‘less formal’ platform, I receive messages from people (in my personal circle) who feel like asking for creative advice for their brand problem (which is my bread and butter, by the way) via WhatsApp, which then becomes a fairly innocuous way to get a freebie consultation; they know that if they emailed instead, it would sound more business-like and bound to incur a charge. I work in the Pakistani agency space so I am no stranger to spec work and free ideas, but WhatsApp in a business setting facilitates these practices.

Lest you be bored by my vitriol about this otherwise brilliant piece of software (and because Meta is a client. Yikes!), let me be absolutely clear. The problem is not with WhatsApp. By design, WhatsApp does not discriminate between the personal you and the work you. It is our work culture – the one that does not support boundaries that makes this tool so problematic for me. So please do hesitate to contact me, at least on WhatsApp. And if you already have my number, please pay heed to my WhatsApp ‘status’ before you ping me. Also, maybe share this article with a friend on WhatsApp?

Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari.