Is Group Chat the New E-Mail?

Group chat may allow for more-effective and more-efficient communications within a company, but HR needs to guard against the pitfalls.

By Tam Harbert Oct 25, 2017
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​With e-mails, texts and instant messages, not to mention good old-fashioned phone calls and face-to-face conversations, does corporate America really need another way for employees to communicate and collaborate?

Apparently so. In the past few years, group chat has taken hold in many mainstream businesses. Platforms such as Slack and HipChat, once used mostly by Silicon Valley startups and small teams, are bubbling up and spreading organically. Their increasing popularity has prompted major tech players, including Microsoft and Facebook, to introduce their own group chat platforms, validating the medium and creating a lot of competition. In fact, The Wall Street Journal recently declared that group chat will be “the defining turf war of the next decade” among tech vendors.

That’s not surprising, as group chat may allow for more-effective and more-efficient interactions, particularly among remote workers. But, like all technologies, it has drawbacks as well as advantages—and HR should play a key role in guarding against the potential pitfalls of online chat. The casual nature of this form of communication can lull employees into making off-color comments that could be construed as harassment, for example. And the always-on presence of the platform can be distracting and overwhelming. Workers may feel compelled to respond to a stream of never-ending requests and questions at the expense of tending to more-important priorities, which can fuel the symptoms of burnout.

Say What?

​The roots of group chat go back to the early days of the Internet in the 1990s, when people used a system called Internet Relay Chat to facilitate real-time, virtual communication, says Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, a technology research and advisory firm in San Francisco. It has been gaining ground ever since. A few years ago, “Slack started to catch on and got lots of media attention,” he says. “Now everyone’s talking about group chat.” Major players in the market include:

Independent statistics documenting the growth of group chat are hard to come by. Slack claims that its number of daily active users rose from 500,000 in 2015 to 5 million in 2017. In a survey of IT professionals this year by Spiceworks, a social network for techies, 42 percent said their companies were using group chat and more indicated that they were looking to adopt it. Skype for Business is the most common collaborative app used by U.S. companies, according to Spiceworks. Within two years, an additional 11 percent of respondents plan to deploy the Skype product, and another 17 percent expect to introduce Microsoft Teams. Among large corporations, 53 percent currently use group chat.

What’s Driving the Conversation?

​Most vendors in the chat marketplace offer free, basic versions of their products, so anyone can simply sign up and start a group. Some chat vendors charge extra per user for premium versions, which include security features and administrative controls. HipChat, for example, has a monthly fee of $2 per user.

Technologically savvy departments within companies are often the first to adopt the programs. Then other groups follow suit—sometimes without HR’s or IT’s knowledge. Even in the most buttoned-down corporations that use only enterprise-grade software from large, traditional vendors, “there’s a good chance that your engineers are using these tools” on their own, says Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP, based in Oakland, Calif.

Chat is also the favored tool of Millennials, many of whom view e-mail as so last century. “They think it’s slow and cumbersome,” says Andee Harris, chief engagement officer with HighGround, a Chicago-based employee engagement company that uses Slack. “They are used to using chat to communicate.”

​Hayneedle, an online retailer of home furnishings in Omaha, Neb., started using HipChat, a group chat program from Atlassian, last year. “We are really transparent and have a casual yet fast-paced work environment,” says Alexandria Olsen, head customer care recruiter. Group chat suits the company’s culture and meets its collaboration needs, she says.

It also fits today’s cooperative work style better than e-mail because it allows for fluid, real-time discussions, Bersin says. You can send an e-mail out to a group, he explains, but when all those people start commenting, you’re quickly buried in a mountain of cc’d messages with no good way to pull them together into a coherent conversation.

“The reason [group chat] has taken off is that we don’t work in hierarchies anymore,” Bersin says. “These tools reflect the reality of how people work today. I think we’re at the very early stages of a massive adoption.”

​What's Group Chat?

It goes by many names: collaborative business chat, chat-based workspace, workstream collaboration tool, workplace application messaging, team messaging, digital workspace and even unified communications. Whatever it’s called, group chat includes some or all of these features: 
  • Text-based messaging among a defined group of people.
  • Virtual chat rooms, or channels, for ongoing conversations about specific topics. These can be public and open to everyone or private and accessible by invitation only.
  • File and screen sharing.
  • Videoconferencing.
  • The ability to sync with all devices, including laptops, tablets and smartphones.
  • Integration with other types of software.

One feature that distinguishes today’s chat platforms from earlier ones is their ability to integrate with other communication and collaboration tools, including phones, video, screen-sharing apps, social media and customer relationship management software. “We have so many tools, our day is just spent going from application to application to application,” Lepofsky says. “The goal of these new group messaging programs is to solve this fragmentation problem. They are trying to become digital hubs—to bring together information to make it simpler.”

By streamlining, organizing and storing information, group chat becomes “a single source of truth,” says Adam Preset, a research director for digital workplace at Gartner, a Stamford, Conn.-based IT research and advisory company. If an organization sets up a virtual chat room—also called a channel—for a particular project, for example, then all pertinent project information can be found there. People can search within particular rooms, or throughout the entire platform, by topic, user and other modifiers. “That’s very different from e-mail, where the sources of truth are distributed across many people’s mailboxes, may or may not be kept, and may not be searchable so that everyone can see the same material.”

Group chat can be a great way to disseminate information companywide. For example, HR could set up a chat room containing basic information on 401(k) enrollment and have an HR person available to virtually field questions. The answers can be preserved in the chat stream, which is searchable, essentially creating an FAQ page as a permanent resource.

Chat platforms aren’t just for spreading company communications. Hayneedle’s recruiters use HipChat to efficiently orchestrate interviews for internal job candidates. They notify hiring managers when people arrive for interviews by sending messages on HipChat, while also forwarding resumes and other information. It saves a lot of time and keeps things moving, which is important because managers can have as many as 50 interviews a day, Olsen says. The platform also provides a good experience for the candidate, even after the interview. “Internal applicants can quickly HipChat me about the status of their application or change their interview time,” she says. “They feel more comfortable doing it that way rather than jamming up my e-mail inbox.”

Show and Tell

​Vendors like to tout that these programs are intuitive and easy to use, but that’s not always the case. Group chat may flummox some people, especially those who are accustomed to using e-mail. Not only is it unfamiliar, it’s yet another way to communicate among an increasing number of options. “Without guidance, employees can become distracted or, worse, overwhelmed with too much information, leading to burnout, says Steve Boese, co-chair of the HR Technology Conference & Exposition.

Help workers understand how they can filter the content to get the information they need, advises Brian Kropp, HR practice leader for CEB/Gartner. CEB is an Arlington, Va.-based consulting company specializing in best practices and talent management that was acquired earlier this year by Gartner. Filtering methods can vary depending on the platform and how it’s integrated with other applications. Customer service representatives, for example, might have a feature that alerts them of progress solving a customer problem. “Otherwise, all this information will damage rather than improve productivity,” Kropp says. 

There’s also the FOMO (fear of missing out) factor. “In group chat, there is temptation to respond to things to maintain your relevance, but meanwhile you have things to do, like your job,” says Baskaran Ambalavanan, SHRM-SCP, an independent consultant based in Irvine, Calif.

​Best Practices for Chat

Here are some tips for HR professionals on how to make the most of chat platforms.

Track use. Chat often bubbles up from small groups. Strive to know about the use of chat platforms as soon as possible. Conduct an annual audit to determine what kinds of communication tools employees are using, suggests Nancy Flynn, founder and executive director of The ePolicy Institute, a Columbus, Ohio, training and consulting firm.

Since this is a fast-moving technology, however, you might find multiple platforms being used by different groups, notes Daisy Hernandez, global vice president of enterprise collaboration at SAP Labs. "Not only are the conversations on group chat transient, but the technology is transient."

Forge a strong relationship with IT. The tech department may become aware of group chat use before HR does. Work together to ensure that there are some standards about which group chat programs to use and for what purposes.
Emphasize what the company wants to achieve through group chat. That should guide the choice of platform and the policies regarding its use, says Brian Kroppe, HR practice leader for CEB/Gartner.
Develop guidelines covering security. This should be a joint effort between HR and IT, says Jason Hite, founder and chief people strategist at Daoine Centric, an HR consultancy in Washington, D.C. "Depending on the tool, people may be able to share files via the platform," he says. "And that poses a whole new security risk if they are sharing sensitive data."
Create a chat room for beginners. It should include basic information and policies on how to use chat and field questions. Also explain when to use chat versus other forms of communication and differences in etiquette.
Make sure employees understand chat nuances. Teach them how to create channels, invite others to join a chat and filter the information to find what they need. Dawn Sharifan, head of people at Slack, based in San Francisco, notes that the vendor offers two levels of training to employees: Slack 101, which covers the basics, such as how to create and organize channels and teams, and Slack 201, which includes the cultural aspects of chat, such as how to use emojis.​
Review and update your company's electronic communications policy. Frequently remind employees of the policy, including the fact that group chats can be monitored and retained.

​It’s also a good idea to provide training on how chat differs from e-mail in language and etiquette and to circulate guidelines on when to use which form of communication. The language of chat should be succinct and casual. Similar to text messaging, people often use abbreviations like OMG, emoticons and GIFs. Chat is typically used for communication that needs quick responses, but not always; sometimes a chat room is a forum for an ongoing discussion. E-mail, on the other hand, is reserved for more-formal communications, where spelling counts and full words, rather than acronyms, are the norm. The expected response time for e-mail can vary, depending on the topic and the sender.

The amount and type of training required depends on the platform, the culture of the organization and the technical skill of the workforce. For example, leaders at Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. in Toronto, which owns a range of financial services and retail businesses, don’t bother to provide training for Workplace by Facebook, which the company started using last year, because the platform is built into Facebook, which most people already know how to use. Workplace includes enterprise-level features to satisfy the needs of the organization, says Michelle Donnelly, manager of employee communications at Canadian Tire.

The program has helped unify the organization, which has offices scattered across Canada, and increase employee engagement, she says. Participation is voluntary, but some 75 percent of the company’s 10,000 employees have registered to use the platform; 4,500 use it at least weekly.

Before group chat, employees in the company’s different businesses communicated with each other primarily through e-mail. Now, the communications group can share news corporationwide on Workplace. And it has helped that team, whose members are in five different locations, to collaborate more effectively. “We have our own group on Workplace that allows us to communicate in real time,” she says. “It has allowed us to eliminate a weekly meeting.” 

There are no specific rules in place on how to use chat, Donnelly says. When the Canadian company launched Workplace, HR reminded employees of the organization’s social media guidelines. No one regularly monitors the content, instead relying on employees’ understanding of appropriate behavior. “We’ve created a system where we trust people,” Donnelly says.

Other employers take a more cautious approach. Ambalavanan, for instance, has worked in HR at law firms that tracked group chat. Even when workers are told their communications will be captured, “employees can think that no one is monitoring them and so they can say anything they want,” he says. That might range from off-color jokes to sharing sensitive information. 

This is why HR should counsel employees that the company’s electronic communications and social media policies apply to chat. Most organizations save group chat transcripts just like any other electronic communications, which means they can be subpoenaed, Ambalavanan says.

Problems with Chat

​Paradoxically, chat can also limit communication rather than encourage it. When one group of employees creates a private chat room, for instance, others might feel excluded, says Daisy Hernandez, global vice president of enterprise collaboration at SAP Labs LLC in the San Francisco area, which is a subsidiary of German software company SAP. That can lead to hurt feelings and inhibited work performance.

Indeed, a May article in New York magazine documented instances of employees using Slack chat rooms to gossip and denigrate other workers. For example, one employee found a chat room of account managers bad-mouthing salespeople.

Such incidences are good reminders to pay attention to what people are doing and offer guidance on how to use chat. But HR must strike a careful balance between exerting control to protect the company and allowing employees enough freedom to find the best way to use the tool for themselves. “That’s the real challenge,” Boese says. And that’s where it becomes important to be in tune with your organization and managers.

​“Before, HR might immediately jump to ‘How do I block this?’ ” Hernandez says. “Now it’s ‘How do I get engaged in the conversation?’ ”  

Tam Harbert is a freelance technology and business journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Illustration by Dan Baxter for HR Magazine. 

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