Does WhatsApp make working life meaner and more brutal?
In idle moments of madness I have sometimes wondered if I have what it takes to be a politician. Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages prove beyond a doubt that I don’t.
Leaked messages written by Hancock as Britain’s Health Secretary during the pandemic have appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph almost daily this month. You are captivating. I pick up each new batch the way I envision Charles Dickens fans rushing to read new episodes of The Pickwick Papers. As a result, I was reminded of the weaponized levels of self-promotion and basic bastardism that pervade the upper reaches of political life.
“I have to own this,” Hancock told an adviser early in the pandemic, as the couple planned to ensure he got maximum credit for a vaccine launch other ministers were helping to develop.
“It MUST NOT be Alok!” Hancock became concerned some time later after learning that news of a vaccine breakthrough was imminent that could have overshadowed him from then-Business Secretary Alok Sharma. “I know I’m worried,” his advisor replied.
Hancock also passed on the happy news that the Covid crisis could propel his career “into the next league”. And he discussed the idea of threatening to block a learning disabilities center in another Tory constituency to pressure the MP to vote for new lockdown rules.
Threats like these are part of a political fray that doesn’t suit everyone. But the Hancock messages also show with amazing clarity what goes on in much of normal working life. Bad careerism. Desperate rivalry. plotting Illusion. creeping.
And they raise a troubling question for the roughly 2 billion WhatsApp users: Has this ubiquitous app helped make work more uncomfortable than it was before the pandemic?
There are reasons to say that this is the case, and Hancock’s writings help explain why. Most were written at the height of the pandemic, when the way people communicated at work was changing abruptly. The shock of sudden lockdowns strengthened – and changed – internal communication.
“Workplace connections have become stronger,” says Ben Waber, CEO of Humanyze, a US software company that tracks workplace behavior.
Crucially, Waber says, those connections were particularly deep between people on the same teams, who, as Hancock’s messages show, tended to converse informally.
Enter WhatsApp, an app that excels at both social chats and easy-to-setup messaging groups.
The pandemic may have faded, but it has spurred WhatsApp-enhanced communication patterns that, unfortunately, still accompany us.
take exclusion. I doubt I’m the only office worker who a) belongs to more WhatsApp groups today than before the Covid surcharge and b) has no idea who else belongs to what.
Having been in the same organization for many years, the thought of being disfellowshipped by countless other groups doesn’t bother me too much. But it could be if I were a newbie, especially if I suspected my manager or team belonged to a group I was left out of. Or if I was regularly doomed to endure that other legacy of the pandemic, the Zoom call.
A friend, who is also obsessed with the Telegraph’s WhatsApp messages, says she felt a guilty rush of recognition when she read what Hancock and an adviser texted each other while both were in an online meeting with the then-Education Secretary Sir Gavin Williamson were. “He’s not very cooperative, is he?” says Hancock. “He’s freaking out,” says the consultant. “Everyone looks very awkward on the call.”
My boyfriend makes the same surreptitious heckling during Zoom work calls. She won’t be alone.
There is also “canalitis”. Before the pandemic, it was hard enough to know if the best way to contact someone was via email, text, Slack, or any of the other messaging options floating around in today’s office. WhatsApp groups are causing further confusion – and division.
As Waber says, close-knit teams can be more trusting and better at getting things done quickly, but they also tend to be groupthink.
Group loyalty existed long before the pandemic or messaging apps. Office gossip too. But a workplace shared by dozens of feverish WhatsApp group discussions isn’t necessarily a happy one. And if those discussions ever get out into the world, life can be far more unfortunate. Just ask Hancock.
https://www.ft.com/content/d3dc82df-b325-4ecf-bed2-c04c45c402a3 Does WhatsApp make working life meaner and more brutal?