WhatsApp in the workplace: best practice and pitfalls to avoid

We explore the rights and wrongs of using WhatsApp in the workplace, including the benefits and risks, and best practice for using the app with colleagues.

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WhatsApp is a personal messaging app that millions of smartphone owners in the UK use on a daily basis – but using WhatsApp within a business needs a slightly different approach.

While you may be accustomed to using the app to send jokes, photos, or heartfelt messages to friends and family, it’s important to strike a balance between personal and professional when using it for business purposes – such as with employees or suppliers.

This article will explore the rights and wrongs of using WhatsApp for business purposes, taking a deep dive into the risks and benefits of using the platform and best practice for utilising the app with colleagues.

What is WhatsApp?

In case you aren’t a regular WhatsApp user, WhatsApp is an instant messaging app that allows users to send text, voice, and video messages. It’s most commonly used on smartphones, but there is also a desktop version of the app too, or you can access WhatsApp on a web browser.

WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption, which makes it more secure than texting or using other messaging apps. It’s also popular with those who want to message people who live in a different country, as it is free to send messages globally in a personal capacity.

WhatsApp’s services can be used with mobile data or via a wifi connection.

What are the benefits of using WhatsApp in the workplace?

As WhatsApp is a popular messaging app in the UK, it’s easy to see why employees may choose to use it to communicate. The benefits of this include:

  • Quick and easy communication for urgent messages – especially when team members are working from home
  • Group messaging capabilities, which mean business owners can set up a team WhatsApp group
  • Building rapport between employees

While WhatsApp doesn’t advertise its personal messaging app for business use, the benefits listed can help strengthen a team.

While work output is naturally the integral part of being an employee, having a team that gets along on a personal level creates a friendly and engaging work environment that increases the chance of employee retention and boosts the happiness of those workers.

So, while WhatsApp can be used for quick, short messages from employee to employee for overtly work purposes (“I went straight to the meeting room – see you there!”), it can also play a key role in building friendships and trust amongst team members (“Grabbing a coffee on the way to the office – would you like anything?”).

What are the risks of using WhatsApp in the workplace?

With WhatsApp’s benefits come the risks, too. As so many people use WhatsApp to communicate with friends and family, the lines between personal and professional can become blurred for some users when switching from messaging loved ones to messaging colleagues.

In addition, being contacted by colleagues via WhatsApp can leave employees feeling like they are part of an ‘always on culture’ and not fully able to switch off from work when messages are going back and forth in the evening or weekend. This is a particular risk when you’re part of a large WhatsApp group that has members who are more active than others. For introverts or junior staff members, it can be particularly hard to know whether you can refuse to use your personal phone for work like this.

Here are some common risks that come with using WhatsApp for work:

  • Inappropriate jokes or videos may be shared
  • Employees may send gossip, ‘banter’, or inappropriate language that may be offensive
  • It creates a potential space for bullying
  • If employees are left out of certain group chats, a ‘them and us’ culture can form
  • There may be a loss of productivity if employees are messaging in working hours

There is also the element of WhatsApp security to consider, too. In work-focused WhatsApp groups, it’s important to remove ex-employees as soon as they have left the company, so sensitive data or insider company information doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.

Social engineering attacks are also a risk – if an employee clicks on a link that leads to their device or account being hacked, the attacker could gain access to their WhatsApp and all messages sent and received.

Is there a legal risk with using WhatsApp for work?

In extreme circumstances, employees could take legal action over messages or content shared by colleagues via WhatsApp.

Employees being excluded from company WhatsApp groups could lead to successful claims of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. This would be a potential risk if there was an official WhatsApp group for a company or team, that had been set up by a manager and someone had deliberately or inadvertently been left out.

However, even with non-official WhatsApp groups – those set up by a group of colleagues – there are business risks to consider. What may begin as a group of friends from work sharing a few jokes or planning a pub trip, can end with sticky situations for HR teams. Employers and employees could become personally liable for bullying and harassment claims, and receive civil or criminal complaints under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

While these are extreme scenarios, they are possible, so it is important to advocate for best practice when using WhatsApp to communicate with colleagues.

What is best practice when it comes to using WhatsApp for work?

Now you understand the benefits and risks that come with using WhatsApp with colleagues, it’s time to consider best practice for using the app, and how to implement this at your small business.

Writing up and sharing a comprehensive employee handbook that includes details of your policy on acceptable messaging app use is essential.

Here are some best practice tips that you should encourage your employees to operate by when using WhatsApp for work:

  • When messaging colleagues, only use WhatsApp if it’s for work-related purposes
  • Never purposely exclude colleagues from WhatsApp groups
  • Avoid communicating via WhatsApp outside of working hours
  • Never use inappropriate language, including swearing and discriminatory words
  • Don’t share highly sensitive data or business information via WhatsApp
  • Don’t share videos, memes, or similar assets that aren’t relevant to work

Incorporate messaging apps into your offboarding process to ensure you remove employees from any company WhatsApp groups when they leave the business. You don’t want them to have access to any sensitive data – especially if they are heading off to work for a competitor.

Final thoughts

WhatsApp can be a great tool to encourage communication between employees and build relationships, but only if it’s done in the right way. Make your policy on WhatsApp use for work clear during the onboarding process, and ensure your team knows you are available to chat about any concerns they have about the way colleagues behave on the app – communication, as always, is key.

Mid shot of Kirstie Pickering freelance journalist.
Kirstie Pickering - business journalist

Kirstie is a freelance journalist writing in the tech, startup and business spaces for publications including Sifted, TNW, UKTN, The Business Magazine and Maddyness UK. She also works closely with agencies such as CEW Communications to develop content for their startup and scaleup clients.

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