Employees Are Using Messaging Apps, Whether HR Knows or Not

Report finds 53 percent access them up to 6 times daily

The top three messaging apps used by respondents were WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Skype. Getty Images

Employees are using messaging applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Skype for work-related communications on a regular basis, often without the knowledge or approval of the human resources departments at their companies, according to a new study from private enterprise social network Speakap.

Speakap surveyed over 1,000 non-desk employees—which it defined as people who typically work on their feet in places such as retail stores, hotels, restaurants, bars, production facilities, warehouses and hospitals—in the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands, Spain and Germany.

The company cited a statistic from Google that 80 percent of the global workforce, or some 3 billion people, perform some sort of non-desk work on a daily basis, noing that these employees are often customers’ first points of contact with businesses. Speakap said 53 percent of respondents use messaging apps for work-related communications up to six times per day, and 16 percent believe their HR departments were unaware of such usage.

The figures were similar for social media sites, with 38 percent using them up to six times daily for work-related matters and 20 percent believing their HR departments were unaware.

The top three messaging apps used by respondents were WhatsApp, Messenger and Skype.

According to Speakap, many European companies are banning the use of such apps in order to comply with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

Examples include Deutsche Bank, which banned the use of WhatsApp, SMS and other messaging services in January 2017 due to the strict regulations that banks face; Volkswagen, which bans employees from using chat apps for business; and BMW, which only permits the use of authorized apps on company phones, with WhatsApp and Snapchat not making the cut.

Speakap co-founder Patrick Van Der Mijl highlighted that this is “just the tip of the iceberg,” explaining that “just because these tools are popular or preferred doesn’t mean that they are the right choice.”

“There are two serious problems with using tools like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger for employee communications—digital wellbeing and data security,” he added. “This is reinforced by the data from our study, with 30 percent of the respondents saying that the 24/7 nature of messaging apps and social media sites make it difficult to maintain a work/personal life balance and 12 percent expressing concerns that sensitive data could be left exposed and susceptible to data breaches.”

The Speakap report singled out WhatsApp for its ability to reach wider groups, saying that this capability can lead to employees receiving irrelevant or inaccurate information. That said, WhatsApp has already taken steps to help prevent this issue, imposing a global limit of five conversations per forwarded message earlier this month. WhatsApp has also defaulted to full end-to-end encryption since April 2016, and parent company Facebook’s plans to unify the messaging infrastructure for WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram Direct will enable encrypted messages to be sent between those platforms.

Speakap also offered its theories on why there is such a disconnect between HR and non-desk workers on this topic, citing “too much of a walled relationship” between HR and the non-desk workforce as one possible reason. “This can lead to indirect, infrequent and siloed communications, which can lead to a lack of understanding as to what employees are actually doing, what communications channels they are using in their daily roles and how they prefer to be reached and engaged,” the company continued in the report.

Another possible reason could be insufficient education and training that would help employees understand “why using messaging apps and social media sites can be detrimental to their performance, efficiency, data privacy, customer satisfaction and even sales,” according to the report.

david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.