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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 30-01-2019 12:18

WhatsApp for work: an effective communication tool?

Its use in Argentina is endemic and WhatsApp is a great tool for keeping in touch with friends and family, especially with groups. But how effective is it for work?

Recently I read an interview with a top executive in the Argentine wine industry. The answer to a question about how she managed her working day particularly struck me. She said her life was ruled by WhatsApp. 

A short explanation may be due here for those of you who have iPhones and live in the Northern hemisphere. While it’s hard to get statistics on this, if you live in the rest of the world and have Android, WhatsApp is ubiquitous. This is partly because SMS messages are expensive and partly because WhatsApp is easy to use and people enjoy sending photos, gifs and videos.

WhatsApp is a great tool for keeping in touch with friends and family, especially with groups, but how effective is it for work? 

While there is a WhatsApp for Business app, I am not talking about that, just how the regular WhatsApp app is used for work purposes. 

In the world today, the lines between work and play are increasingly blurred and WhatsApp is also contributing to that. Doctors have told me that their patients send them photos of symptoms and ask for a diagnosis on WhatsApp at any time of day. It can be invasive, inefficient, and above all unnecessary. 

Let’s evaluate the pros and cons of WhatsApp for work. 

The pros are that it is instant, even more immediate than email. You can also see that the other person has read your message more easily. It’s chatty, user-friendly and informal. 

The cons are that it is not really searchable, or at least only in the most primitive way. Again, while you can archive a conversation, this also happens in a very primitive way. So as far as two basic work necessities go: searching and filing, it’s not doing well. 

And we haven’t even got to audios yet. 

I have to admit that audio messages are a pet hate of mine. However, sending voice messages is extremely popular in Argentina, maybe because WhatsApp has no top level speech to text function, unlike the iPhone. 
 
All those people you see walking along the street in Buenos Aires talking into their phones are communicating via audio messages. While I can sympathize with a quick – 1-minute maximum – audio, under an extreme situation such as when you are walking along and need to tell someone something urgently, I can see no circumstances in which a five-minute audio is justifiable – even less so for work purposes.

It is particularly difficult when you are in a crowded place, or on public transport, and you can see the icon of an audio message but have no idea whether it is important or not. You have to search around for a pair of headphones, before often finding out that it is just someone who can’t be bothered to leave a written message. 

Some people find audio messages so irritating that they put a sign in their availability status saying they do not listen to audio messages. This seems a little extreme, as there may be situations that are easier to explain in a recorded message than in writing. But it does seem to defeat the object of WhatsApp – easy-to-read-at-a-glance, instant and user-friendly – to repeatedly use (or rather abuse) audio messages. 

To go back to WhatsApp at work, I also know several people, two of them freelance journalists, who only use email, unless the issue is time sensitive. They tell me that they regularly have to insist on clients and sources using email and that it can be quite a struggle. 

But it’s a battle that I think is worth it. WhatsApp can be handy to send someone at work a reminder or tell them that you have sent an email, but while it continues to have minimal search and file functions it is not an effective work communication tool in itself. 

WhatsApp has just changed its policy on forwarding messages to fight fake news, in response to political situations in Brazil and India. I am sure that we can address the invasive use of WhatsApp for work ourselves, without any outside intervention.

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Joanna Richardson

Joanna Richardson

Joanna Richardson is a clear communications consultant. A British native, Joanna is an Argentine citizen who has made her home in Buenos Aires. She is president of Plain Language International Association (PLAIN, plainlanguagenetwork.org).

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