Attention Slackers: Don’t expect privacy around the digital watercooler

Published on the 27/07/2017 | Written by Jonathan Cotton

Office messaging tools
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Report charts rise of office messaging tools, reveals troubling privacy assumptions…

As the digitisation of the workplace marches on, a new survey from ReportLinker shows office messaging tools presenting interesting challenges – and challenging assumptions – for tech teams, supervisors and employees alike.

The ‘Can We Chat? Instant Messaging Apps Invade the Workplace report highlights the tech industry’s enthusiasm for workplace IM platforms, with 71 percent of employees already relying on such applications for many communication tasks.

Although email still reigns supreme and Microsoft (specifically Skype) still dominates in terms of desktop communication, when it comes to collaboration, IM applications increasingly play a key role in team collaboration.

“Private, group messaging and chat tools helps teams collaborate together more efficiently and keep projects on track,” said the report.

“There are dozens of communications and collaboration apps used in enterprises today, from AOL’s instant messenger (AIM) to group messaging services like Slack. Even Facebook has entered the workplace with such a tool.”

But while employees embrace IM platforms, the shiny new tech brings both risk and reward. With streamlined collaboration comes inappropriate content, security issues and impingements on productivity.

Case in point: Almost half of respondents told ReportLinker they feel the pressure to answer IMs right away, even if they’re in the middle of other work.

“46 percent of those who believed such tools helped them reduce the volume of email received said they felt pressure to respond [to instant messages] immediately,” said the report.

“One much-touted benefit of instant messaging is that it allows employees to get answers from colleagues quickly, minimising disruptions. Instant messaging does appear to make collaboration among colleagues easier. Almost half of respondents say it enhances collaboration, especially those who use them regularly at work.”

In theory, this should mean a productivity increase, but that may not be the case, with almost half of respondents saying they see no change in their productivity when using IM platforms.

And there’s more than employee efficiency at stake.

In 2012, Deloitte published a study on the rise of digital comms tools entitled The digital workplace: Think, share, do, with the company speaking glowingly of the potential that instant messaging platforms provide. A follow up published last year however offered a considerably more muted perspective, highlighting the myriad challenges new communication tech presents to business.

“This new digital workplace…creates its own challenges, including security, developing a new kind of digital etiquette to expectations for employees, and the tendency for building expectation of always being ‘on’, causing burnout and often leading to retention problems,” the report said.

“Integrating digital technologies into the workplace can not only wreak havoc on the productivity of workers, but it also creates its own distinct culture, impacting the previous work culture and the general work experience.”

“These changes will challenge the workplace by forcing both executives and employees to adapt the way they interact with each other and the technologies that enable their work.”

One of those challenges is the mixing of personal data – private IM conversations, direct messages and hidden threads on company equipment – with company data, with little to distinguish one from the other. That’s an issue that appears lost on many users, with 43 percent of participants in the ReportLinker survey saying they believe their workplace conversations will always remain private on such tools.

That’s not necessarily the case, of course.

Take popular group messaging platform Slack as an example: On Slack’s Plus Plan supervisors can easily apply to Slack to access message archives and export conversations, including messages from private channels.

This makes sense – some industries are legally required to retain all employee communications, including email and IM – but add to this the fact that much of Slack’s functionality comes from a robust user/developer community which isn’t policed by the company at all, and therefore offers no expectation – let alone guarantee – of privacy.

The upshot for employees? Supervisors, and perhaps the IT department, can in some cases access every message an employee has ever sent on the platform, including seemingly private direct messages to coworkers.

“If you join a team and create a user account, you are a ‘user’ as described in the User Terms of Service,” reads Slack’s updated privacy policy.

“If you are using the Services by invitation of a Customer, whether that Customer is your employer, another organisation, or an individual, that Customer determines its own policies regarding storage, access, modification, deletion, sharing, and retention of Customer Data which may apply to your use of the Services. Please check with the Customer about the policies and settings it has in place.”

The moral of the story? Watch your smart mouth, because it could quite easily come back to bite you.

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