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Instant Messaging in the Workplace: Factors to be aware of

Workplaces have changed beyond recognition in the four years since the first COVID-19 lockdowns. This anniversary represents an opportunity to look back at how workplaces have changed in that period, from the increased use of flexible and hybrid working, to the continuing and significant integration of more technology in office-based work. One feature which stands above almost all others is the rise of workplace instant messaging tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack. Previously the preserve of tech companies and other Silicon Valley-adjacent businesses, there are now few offices which don’t use either Slack or Teams for internal communication.

The last four years have seen ever increasing take-up and integration of these instant messaging apps. While this does have advantages for productivity and team cohesion when teammates are working from different locations, there are, as with every tool, some points which employers should pay attention to in how they manage their use.

The widespread use came as a surprise to the Judge in the trial between Epic Games (the creator of Fortnite) and Google in 2023, relating to the control and charges that Google imposes on companies wishing to have their applications on Android devices via the Google Play Store. He was surprised both by the volume of communication that happened within Google via internal chat services and that they automatically deleted some messages. While that trial took place in the US, it still has lessons for companies here in the UK.

Companies and individuals who are even simply contemplating litigation have a duty to preserve evidence which may be relevant to the litigation. Failure to do so can result in significant consequences if a Court or Tribunal finds that significant evidence has been destroyed deliberately. Even the accidental destruction of evidence can be criticised by a Court, so employers should be aware of the policies they have in place and how, for example, chat logs can be stored if they are on notice of potential litigation.

Harry Berryman

Solicitor

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+44 118 960 4636

The last  four years have seen ever increasing take-up and integration of these instant messaging apps.

The Google v Epic criticism also highlights how many companies find themselves in situations, be it deliberately or accidentally, where employees use instant messaging when email may be more appropriate. Email encourages a more professional tone and is a more straightforward method of both long-term storage and oversight of communications.

It is clear that, as we progress through the 21st century, that a ‘professional tone’ is not necessarily a prerequisite for productivity, but encouraging a professional working environment does have advantages for employers and employees alike. The activity on these instant messaging platforms is by definition out of earshot of colleagues and management. These platforms do, therefore, present an unwelcome opportunity for workplace harassment or other activity which may result in a later claim against the employer. While most employers decide that the benefits outweigh the risks, the ability to properly investigate any disciplinary or grievance-related issues by examining stored messages is a useful tool to assist should any unwanted behaviour arise. Employers should also consider taking possession of devices of the employees who are under investigation, to prevent them deleting records or other material.

These messages being out of the view or other colleagues can also cause issues when an individual is on leave or leaves the business. This leaves records or plans for their work being stored in chat messages which are designed to be private and harder for co-workers to access, which can cause inefficiency and frustration for those colleagues trying to pick up the work.

The above scenarios highlight how employers should be thoughtful in how they encourage the use of instant messaging platforms in the workplace and the policies which run alongside them.  Employees will rightly value the more collegiate atmosphere they encourage, but this should be tempered by proper management. Policies should be updated and communicated to ensure that employees understand the need to remain professional, that informality should not fall below acceptable standards and that work communications on devices can be accessed by the company.

For more information, please contact a member of the team here.

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Disclaimer
This information is for guidance purposes only and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. Please refer to the full General Notices on our website.

Harry Berryman

Solicitor

View profile

+44 118 960 4636

About this article

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