By Thomas Huxter
The news that Facebook has signed 14,000 companies including Wal-Mart to its official business chat app, Workplace, got me thinking about how tech – and in particular instant messaging – has once again fundamentally altered the way we work.
Apps such as the ubiquitous Slack have revolutionised intra and inter-office interaction with colleagues many miles and (more commonly) a few inches away.
Slack has raised $841m of investment and is now valued at around $5bn. Which is kind of weird to anyone who went on MSN Messenger every night as a teenager and thought the world had changed a bit more in the ensuing 15 years.
The pervasiveness of office IM has been a learning curve for me. Having come from a more traditional office environment the option of a communicative medium somewhere in between an email and a chat has been refreshing (and as we all know, Millennials really don’t like using the phone).
From the ‘Dumb PRs’ channels used by journalists to mock rubbish pitches to our own ‘Coffee Club’ group, IM is just as valid a channel for watercooler moments as it is to share a vital presentation.
And that’s its problem. It blurs the distinction between formal and informal, important and trivial. In many ways it formalises triviality, yet makes important messages feel somehow trivial.
I’ve regularly started typing an IM to a colleague before realising I should just have a chat with them. Likewise, I’ve sent emails to multiple colleagues that I immediately wished I’d created an IM group for instead. IM complicates simple discussions and simplifies complex ones.
On the flipside, IM allows us to work from wherever we need to more effectively, keeping us in constant and instantaneous touch with colleagues and clients we would otherwise be comparatively isolated from. 90% of the time it makes flexible and mobile working a non-issue (although the lines between work and home have never been blurrier).
But occasionally there are mistakes. The IMistakes:
Proponents of office IM services point to functions that go well beyond simple messaging. Sharing links and documents, setting reminders, integrating with Google Docs, automating tasks… They’re brilliant and I suspect that many of us barely scratch the surface of their potential.
Britain is a country with notoriously poor workplace productivity, particularly in recent years. It’s certainly not because we don’t have workplace tools at our disposal. Economists might argue that it’s chronic underinvestment in the economy as a whole, longer hours for less pay and working in jobs below our levels of education and training. In the service sector, however, I reckon the Millennial employee just sets a lot of store in the art of choosing a well-timed GIF or emoji.
In a few years’ time we might decide that it’s cutting edge to, you know, talk to each other again. At which point services like Discord may have their time in the sun. Until then, /giphy.