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Is instant messaging actually overtime in disguise?

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Smartphones have become an indispensable part of our everyday life in modern society, and Hong Kong is no exception. Handy instant messaging applications such as WhatsApp, WeChat and Skype are not only used for daily communication between friends and families but also used at work.

With the prevalence of instant messaging apps and mobile data, Dr Shih-Chia Wu, from the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and her masters students in corporate communications, surveyed 254 Hong Kong workers born in the 1980s and 1990s in the form of online questionnaires and concluded the boundaries between work and personal life are indeed increasingly blurred.

How do you contact your colleagues during non-working hours?

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‘Overtime’ in disguise
The survey found that more than 80% of respondents said WhatsApp had overtaken their lives, while 40% felt their managers would evaluate their performance based on their WhatsApp responses. That said, workers admitted that using the app for work had improved efficiency but had led to frustration in their personal lives.

Commenting on this, Amy Ho, director of human resources at Hyatt Regency Hong Kong, Sha Tin, pointed out that how employees communicate on WhatsApp reveals their work attitude to a certain extent, including how they work with others and approach things. Ho also advised employers to set up a clear job assessment protocol so employees understand exactly what is being assessed. It also helps minimise the impression of not responding to WhatsApp messages being treated as poor work behaviour.

Establish healthy communication practices to achieve a win-win situation
According to Ho, they observed the increasingly blurred lines between work and personal life, and hence, recommended human resources leaders developing guidelines for workplace instant messaging applications. In addition, leaders should further discuss how these messaging apps should be used and the company’s stance towards the apps, so a compromise between the employer and employees can be reached.

In addition, workers should learn when and how to use these apps to communicate effectively. Both employers and employees should use appropriate channels – such as conferences, emails, intranet and instant messaging software – for internal communication depending on communication purposes and situations.

Ho added that the balance between employees’ off time and improving work efficiency should be on the basis of mutual respect. HR managers need to understand that employees may not be able to respond immediately. If the manager requests them to handle work matters through WhatsApp during non-office hours, the employee may decide whether to act on it immediately based on the situation and their agreement.

The head of HR from a US public relations firm in Hong Kong added that employers should understand that employees should not work for more than 12 hours a day in general. Any hours worked in excess of 12 will result in insufficient rest time for employees, leading to declined productivity.

To respect and avoid affecting employees’ private lives, formal business communication tools such as email should be the choice of work communication unless other tools are necessary.

WhatsApp during non-office hours in exchange for flexible working hours
Workers born in the 1980s and 1990s value work-life balance. Over 60% of respondents expressed their willingness to use WhatsApp for business purposes during non-office hours in exchange for flexible working hours.

Depending on the industry nature, employers could consider offering smartphones to employees who use instant messaging apps frequently for business communication. This will help employees separate company information from personal messages and alleviate the negative feelings of using WhatsApp to handle work matters.

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