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Workplace messaging apps offer flexibility, require vigilance

While apps like Slack allow quick exchange of ideas, the messages shared must be held to the same standards as any business communication, experts say.

While the apps allow co-workers to share information

While the apps allow co-workers to share information easily, experts say their use should be held to the same standards as any other business communications. Photo Credit: Getty Images / iStockphoto

Use of workplace messaging apps like Slack is growing as companies look for more real-time collaboration and functionality beyond what email can offer.

In fact, research firm Gartner estimates that half of team coordination and communication will be done via group collaboration apps this year.

“These applications are the modern-day water cooler,” says William Collins, president of NST Inc., an East Northport information technology services company.

While the apps allow co-workers to easily share thoughts, ideas and tasks, experts say companies should make sure users understand that communication via app is subject to the same standards — and potential scrutiny — as any other business communication.

Firms should institute a workplace messaging policy and outline best practices to avoid abuse or unwanted distractions, they say.

“Instant messaging is nothing more than turbocharged email,” says Nancy Flynn, executive director of the Ohio-based ePolicy Institute and author of “The ePolicy Toolkit” (Wiley; $150). “All of the policies and procedures and rules that govern email govern messaging tools.”

The bottom line: Just because messaging tools are being used internally for team collaboration and conversations, that doesn’t limit the potential liability an employer faces, she says. For example, such communication can be subpoenaed in the event of a lawsuit or regulatory audit.

Use of these tools should be limited to a firm-sanctioned instant messaging application that’s on the firm’s server and therefore subject to the firm’s policies, says Christopher Gegwich, a partner at the law firm Nixon Peabody in Jericho.

A policy regarding use of such apps should state that employees can’t use defamatory, harassing or discriminatory language in instant messages, and that rules prohibiting harassment in the workplace apply to all mediums including instant messaging, he says.

Employees must also understand they should have no expectation of privacy and instant messaging can be and will be monitored by the company, Gegwich says.

Nixon Peabody uses Cisco’s Jabber app; guidelines regarding its use are included within the firm’s electronic communications policy, he says.

Gegwich says he’s seen an increase in workplace discrimination and harassment allegations among the firm’s clients as a result of use of communication tools such as instant messaging, emails and text messages.

In addition to monitoring the conversation, companies should consider setting guidelines regarding the speed with which employees are expected to respond to instant messages on the apps, since they can create a layer of stress based on their perceived urgency, Flynn says.

Still, “the best of these tools will leverage artificial intelligence to automate the filtering and prioritization of content,” says Alan Lepofsky, an analyst specializing in the future of work at Constellation Research in Cupertino, California.

Their true value goes beyond sending messages back and forth, he says.

“One of the differences between group messaging and email is that messaging can be an integrated part of a business process,” says Lepofsky, noting users can pull in information from other tools, share images, videos and tasks and upload files, all in real time.

Top group-messaging tools include Slack, Cisco Spark, Workplace by Facebook, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts, he says. They generally cost about $3 to $5 per month per user, he says. In some cases the messaging apps are included in the price of other software, Lepofsky says.

Companies often fail to maximize the apps’ full potential, says Collins of NST in East Northport.

The firm uses Slack and Microsoft Teams to share projects and ideas with partners. Over the next three years, he says, he expects more small businesses to adopt the apps as they become the norm in workplace collaboration.

Top workplace messaging apps

Skype for Business* 43%

Slack 15%

Microsoft Teams 14%

Source: Spiceworks

* Microsoft has announced plans to shift the capabilities of Skype for Business into its Teams application.

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