WhatsApp has been one of the most transformative technological boons to have ever graced the Indian sub-continent. Right after Jio, that is. It has helped strengthen connections, increase the spread of (mis) information, and has become an invaluable tool not just for people in their personal capacity, but also facilitated commerce.
For the privileged few like myself who can work from home and for whom the world hasn’t completely collapsed, WhatsApp has become the primary mode of communication when it comes to conducting work. The in-office face to face chatter has been replaced with WhatsApp notifications that pop up on my mobile phone and desktop every few seconds. And while I haven’t been part of too many social groups on WhatsApp, my feed at the moment is dominated by workgroups and work-related messages. I do have the occasional personal conversation, but compared to the amount of work that transpires on WhatsApp, it’s a drop in the ocean.
Some context: I work in an advertising start-up that’s about 4 years old. We’re a self-funded start-up, which means hustling is the law of the land. It’s always shark-week. We need to add more value than the next shop at better rates and we need to do everything in real-time. Fortuitously we have our own inhouse workflow management tool that was set up for a time such as this (#WFH), though our clients still aren’t on the platform. Yet. And thanks to the current economic situation, our clients now need a way to measure productivity in real-time, not just as a measure of their own contribution to justifying their salary, but also to show how eager and committed they are. And so WhatsApp is now the default mode of communication for most. And when it comes to business, I’ve got to protect my territory, can’t tell these clients that I refuse to be part of the WhatsApp circus and lose out on money. Right?
My current predicament: There are about 4 or 5 company groups that I’m part of, which is cool because we’re like a big (somewhat dysfunctional) family. And these are just for internal comms, mind you. Then of course, there’s at least 1 client group for each client that we have. And then at least half of these clients have internal groups only for the agency teams working on the account. Add to that, every time there’s a pitch or a big project a new group is created specifically for the project. This means that there’s about 25-30 active workgroups at any given time. Not to mention some clients who want separate groups for specific ‘Management’ driven projects, ever since COVID19 became their digital transformation agent.
In some universe this would still be acceptable, however, the big problem is this: The rules that apply to phone-calls or work-emails do not seem to apply to WhatsApp. ‘I see blue tick – I expect response’. And that, in turn, is changing the rules towards how people view phone calls. On more than one occasion recently, I’ve got calls from clients at obscenely odd hours (and I work in advertising!), for very trivial tasks. Not to mention the fact that you can be seen online or that you’ve even read the messages (which there is no way to turn off in groups), somehow necessitates that one responds immediately. The expectation has been implicitly set and deviating from the expectation seems to upset people. This is especially true of ambitious workaholic clients – who are always connected and ready to fire! Some hide their lack of actual contribution amidst the swarm of messages, but for most it’s a way to hopefully get something done. I could just be on WhatsApp because that’s just how everyone evolved to connect and communicate with their friends and family. But now, every time I see a new WhatsApp notification my heart skips a beat. What if it is one of my clients! I’ve woken up too many times in the middle of the night, sweating, wondering if there’s a new hair-brained idea that needs talking through or some social media post that hasn’t gone live that someone’s losing their shit over it. Rarely have I ever been so concerned about messages from friends or loved ones. What was once a safe haven of memes, casual conversation, and the news is now one more route to my subconscious brain that jumps into problem-solving mode even when I’m trying to unwind and give it some rest.
Sure, one can take a stand and be different, But are you willing to risk missing out? #FOMO! Or even losing a client over you not being on a WhatsApp group? (I’ve seen clients threaten for a lot less…) And if one decides that one does not want to be connected to WhatsApp 24*7*365 – then why does one even have the app? Why even be part of said group. (I exaggerate) But then, if I’m not on WhatsApp, #FOMO kicks in.
To be fair, for a lot of people it seems to be helping. At least for the juniors and kids within the client & agency teams. They are likely to get approvals & feedback much quicker than before. No one wants their bosses (who are invariably part of these groups) thinking they are not bringing their A-game – so when a message is posted in the group, everyone is quick to respond! Also, WhatsApp seems to have become the natural way that things have managed to align themselves.
No one likes to change. Especially our reptilian brains. Getting clients to move to a more integrated and seamless work-flow system (such as NoAltTab, our proprietary tool) requires a change in habits and behavior. The effort required to break this inertia is tremendous. WhatsApp was already part of people’s behavior. It was created for personal communication but has managed to sneak its way into the professional world, and sneak in it did! And not just that, it’s managed to blur the lines to a point where we (at least I) are debating whether it’s a blessing or a curse.
So with all these benefits, maybe my stress and heartburn are justified. If it helps the system in moving work along, maybe it’s all good. Maybe we’ll find a more seamless and less stressful way of managing our WhatsApp life as we confront this new reality. Maybe this is all early days and as is the case with anything in its early days, it is messy. Maybe, WhatsApp will introduce new privacy controls that allow me to stay hidden while I lurk through my messages, respond to the ones I want to, and ignore the ones I don’t want to, without being found out!
Maybe, just maybe, WhatsApp is more of a boon than a bane?
Maybe, but for now, I hate it.