Technological Change and the Future of Work. Online "Water-cooler" Conversations?

How Instant Messaging Devices Enforce the Blending of Personal and Professional Life and Impose New Challenges for EU Labor Law Protection

Term Paper, 2020

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Table of Contents


PART I: Expected Impact of Instant Messaging Devices on Work
Impact on Internal Communication
Impact on Working Hours
Impact of Instant Messaging Devices on Policy Implications

PART II: Analysis and Discussion
Importance of Law for Instant Messaging Devices
Challenges for Labor Protection Imposed by Instant Messaging Devices

PART III: Conclusion


1. Introduction

With increasing global connectivity, modem organizations face rapid organizational changes as for instance the increasing decentralized collaboration (Cameron & Webster, 2005). In order to tackle these challenges, emerging technologies such as Instant Messaging (IM) are beginning to move into the workplace, following other forms of text-based computer-mediated communication such as e-mail and chat. IM enables ‘water cooler’ conversations that would allow to keep team members aware of concerns, events and the work of others as well as exchanging issues of personal matter (Herbsleb et al., 2002).

IM is a communication technology that allows people to send and receive short text-based messages in real-time and to see who else is currently available. Many IM systems are available to be downloaded from the internet or come with other free softwares. Commonly known examples are the ICQ Chat or the Facebook Messenger. Further, there are several IM systems that have been developed particularly for the professional use within organizations or other team-based work (Cameron & Webster, 2005). An exemplary IM device forthe corporate use is Slack.

Slack is a ‘cloud-based digital workspace and information management system’ (Johnson, 2018, p. 148) that was published in 2013 and originally developed to manage productivity and improve team efficiency (Slack Technologies, 2020). It is a collaborative tool that facilitates streamlined communication. One of the main features is the broad accessibility that Slack offers: Users can access the platform via the web, a desktop plugin or even on a mobile application. Thus, Slack allows team members from different organizations as well as from different locations tojoin the collaborations and therefore enables real-time conversations. Those conversations, which can be direct and private as well as within group chats, are combined into one central location (the ‘workspace’) that keeps all messages archived. Within this workspace, channels dedicated to a specific group, project or topic are compromised. Furthermore, Slack integrates several external applications such as Google Drive or Dropboxto enhance any project-related management (Johnson, 2018).

The question arises: What makes IM devices such as Slack different from earliertechnologies such as e-mail and chat?

Firstly, what they all have in common is that they are means of electronic messaging. IM is considered to be supplementing these existing communication technologies, resulting in an increase in overall communication at work (Garrett & Danziger, 2008). However, there are several significant differences: IM users can only send messages to users that are using the same system, in this case, they have to be members of the same workspace in Slack. What distinguishes IM especially from e-mails is that messages are sent and received in real-time as well as they are usually shorter than a traditional e-mail. It has been suggested that IM is a ‘combination of face-to-face [conversation] and e-mail’ (Cameron & Webster, 2005, p. 91). Slack itself advertises that they would replace e-mails making conversation clearly arranged and organized (Slack Technologies, 2020). An unique feature of IM systems is the ‘presence awareness functionality’ (Cameron & Webster, 2005, p. 86) mainly characterized by the synchronous nature of IM systems that represents a type of peer monitoring allowing users to see status indicators which in turn represent the user's availability (Herbsleb et al., 2002).

Unlike the existing chat, IM messages are used to communicate with one-on-one and small groups with known others making the conversation more private, thus, representing the offline ,water-cooler‘ or ,corridor‘ conversation (Handel & Herbsleb, 2002).

Until now, IM was originally used by teenagers to ‘gossip [...] and talk about their personal lives’ as Herbsleb and colleagues (2002) have put it. Thus, expectations on the impact of using IM devices at the workplace are mainly influenced by thinking about if and how the personal life of employees would affect their work (Herbsleb et al., 2002). This leads to the overall research question whether the usage ofIMat the workplace enforces the intertwining ofthepersonal andprofessional life.

An answer to this question will be approached by implementing two sub-questions focussing on the elements of communication and working hours. Relying on Mokyr, Vickers and Ziebarth (2015) these elements are expected to increase the flexibility of ,where and when work takes place‘ and to break down the ‘separation between work and home life‘ (p.45).

On the one hand, a sub-question concerning the impact ofIM systems on communication is: Is the use ofIMsystems rather interruptive thanproductivel Meaning, is communicating via IM devices such as Slack rather disruptive when issues of the personal life emerge at the workplace regarding the task performance of employees?

On the other hand, concerning the implications on working hours, the question arises whether the permanent availability due to the use ofIMleads to a blending ofofficial working hours.

Thus, it will be examined whether Slack as an IM system increases the permeability of work and private life. More specifically, this connection will be investigated in both ways implicating that the effects of the private life on the work life and vice versa will be considered. Further, it will be examined which impact the effects of the usage ofIM systems can have on policy implications. Finally, the implications on labour law and the eventual challenges for labour protection for the EU imposed by instant messaging devices will be analyzed in order to reach a conclusion on the overall research question put up above.

2. PART I: Expected Impact of Instant Messaging Devices on Work

In this part, the expected impact of IM devices on work will be examined relying on the given literature. Therefore, it is necessary to redraw the recent changes that modem work has undergone. In order to do so, this assignment mainly relies on the assumptions that Mokyr, Vickers and Ziebarth (2015) have made. According to the authors, employment has already undergone flexibilization since new technologies have been introduced. Additionally, Aloisi and Gramano (2019) support this thesis as they speak of ’increasingly blurred boundaries between professional and private lives’ (p.102) that new technologies in general have evoked. Today, flexibilization is inter alia determined by such diminishing separation of work and home life as well as the implementation of online mechanisms that are used to coordinate and manage employment. They describe this as ‘outsourcing of tasks over the internet (ibid., p.45). Furthermore, they see one potential accelerator in ‘telecommuting‘ (ibid., p.46) as they state that the emerging use of such devices would lead to the feeling of some workers of ‘being always on‘ (ibid., p.46).

Given this general overview, in the following section the focus will be split on the two aspects mainly tangled by the weakening of the separation of work and home life: communication and working hours.

2.1. Impact on Internal Communication

Communication is one key element in a workspace that is decentralized and shaped by collaborations spread among several actors and locations (Cameron & Webster, 2004). Overall, IM systems have been introduced to enhance work performance by facilitating the exchange among team members and thus, increasing productivity (Ou & Davison, 2011). However, the impact and implications of these technologies for managers and employees often go far beyond the original intent of the technology designers. In this part, the impact ofIM systems on the internal communication of organizations will be drawn by using existing theories about such communication technologies which will then be applied to the example at hand: Slack. When doing so, the focus will be mainly on the impact ofIM systems on the communication perceived by the employees and how it is influenced. In the first paragraph, the overall perception of the impact of IM systems on the communication at the workplace will be illustrated. Further on, it will be examined whether and, if so, how the blurring ofboundaries between the personal and work life influence the communication when doing so by the means of IM devices.

To begin with, the highly interactive character of IM systems makes communication between employees and dependent group members more ‘accurate, completely timely and effective’ (Ou & Davison, 2011, p. 63). Further, the authors argue that the possibility of sending messages in a ‘face-to-face conversation’ manner enhances the productivity since the employees do not have to interrupt the work for such rather small problems. Feeling closely connected to fellow group members would enhance the overall team member trust which in turn would contribute significantly to task performance. Studies suggestthatusing IM devices such as Slack strengthens the intercommunication and thus the interconnectivity of work so that tasks are performed much more effective (Ou & Davison, 2011). Aloisi and Gramano (2019, p.102) support this thesis as they state that ‘technological advances ensure [...] accessible and convenient information exchanges’. In turn, it appears conceivable that effective information exchange among group members who are dependent on the work of another facilitates work processes leading to an overall increase not only in productivity but also in altering relationships within the group as being ‘hyperconnected’ (ibid., p.102).

At this point, a remark about the relationship and the influence of IM systems on the communication between employees and their superior employers can be made. Indeed, it is argued that whereas the use ofIM at work may suggest a light and informal tone, since messages are intended to be brief, conversations tend to be less authoritative leading to a break down ofhierarchical barriers (Cameron &Webster,2005).

However, as scholars have shown, the impact ofIM on work is twofold: not only productive but also interruptive, especially when personal issues emerge within the conversations held via IM. Researchers have found that a substantial amount of polychronic communication takes place when employees use IM devices whereas the term ‘polychronic communication’ refers to ‘the managing of multiple conversations at once [...]’ (Turner & Tinsley, 2002, p. 4). Regardless the assumption that polychronic communication means ‘managing’ multiple conversations at once, it has been observed that polychronic communication leads to the overlap of work and non-work if employees react on messages of personal matter (Cameron & Webster, 2005). The possibility to communicate with others within a private channel that Slack offers can be viewed as an invitation to discuss ‘private’ issues. Furthermore, as one regards the original intent ofIM systems which was to allow home internet users to converse with family and friends, it is conceivable to argue that IM at the workplace has a high potential to be used in such manner (Cameron & Webster, 2005). Thus, the ability to quickly answer messages combined with the fundamental simplicity of communicating facilitates conversations about personal issues.

Furthermore, such interruption of work by unexpected messages of non-work related issues can influence employees by introducing multiple tasks that force task switching and alternating attention. Herbsleb et al. (2002) argue that IM acts as ‘further encroaching on [the employees’] time to do the real work’ (p.176). Even the notification of an incoming message, which when using Slack pops up on the screen can disrupt the productivity of an employee (Garrett & Danziger, 2008). It is expected that if interruptions occur frequently work performance can be negatively affected (Ou & Davison, 2011).

An article reporting the experience of employees who have been using Slack has designated the conversations viathis IM device as ‘a never ending meeting’ (‘How Slack is Silently Killing Your Productivity’, 2018). Being connected all the time can pressure employees into permanent responsiveness regardless of time and space (‘How Slack is Silently Killing Your Productivity', 2018). Thus, it is conceivable that employees feel obliged to answer any kind of message even if there are at home leading to the blending of official working hours.

2.2. Impact on Working Hours

Telecommunication, more specifically the use of IM at the workplace, is clearly associated with an increased ‘permeability of the boundary between work and non-work domains‘ (Valcour & Hunter, 2004, p.71) Further, research suggests that particularly the use of portable communication technologies such as the use of Slack via the mobile phone application is associated with increased negative spillover from work to home life and vice versa. In combination with the presence awareness capabilities of Slack as well as the possibility to be contacted at any given time and location it appears conceivable that personal and work issues are increasingly intermingled. Thus, it is hard to draw the boundaries of official working hours as work does not end when leaving the workplace but continues with the pervasive use ofIM bringing work-related issues into the home domain (Valcour & Hunter, 2004). The intrusive character of Slack and other IM systems, as they are used on private mobile phones or other portable devices, is mainly determined by the low burden to quickly respond since an answer is only a few clicks away (Cameron & Webster, 2005). Thus, workplace communication technologies and moreover the presence awareness capability that Slack offers not only allow other employees as well as employers to monitor your work behavior but particularly renders employees as ever-available forwork (Valcour & Hunter, 2004).

However, Slack indeed offers a functionality that encounters these side effects of using IM at the workplace: it is possible for any user to set their working hours indicating that they are not available after a specific time. Nevertheless, it is arguable whether one actually does that when the pressure of responsiveness in modem work relationships is high, especially in emerging companies (‘How Slack is Silently Killing Your Productivity’, 2018). Even when employees specify such official working hours, it is still possible to contact them by indicating that it is urgent. Pittard and Butterworth (2017, p.39) define this as ‘at call work‘ which together with ‘homeworking aggravate[s] uncertainty of working hours‘.

To conclude, existing research and theory state that IM in the context of work has an intrusive character enforcing the blurring boundaries of official working hours since it weakens the separation ofhome and work life. The broad connectivity to other group members as well as the simplicity of reacting to incoming messages and the feeling ofbeing morally obliged to answer leads to an increased use of communication technologies in work-related context from home.

2.3. Impact of Instant Messaging Devices on Policy Implications

Whenever electronic means are introduced into work, there are discussions about the data security and protection and consequently policy implications to ensure the protection of privacy and security. In the case of Slack, these policy implications are especially imposed by the ‘institutional memory‘ (‘Flickr Cofounders Launch Slack, An Email Killer‘, 2013) meaning that Slack saves every message ever sent via the platform. Further, the possibility of monitoring employees should arise awareness for privacy protection as well as implications for new policies on empowerment of employers. As stated earlier, the diminishing separation of work and home life and the flexibilization of work go hand in hand. However, there should be new policies respecting the idea that Pittard and Butterworth (2017) have proposed: flexible work can be seen as a ‘euphemism for work with no job security‘ (p. 39). Thus, it should be taken into account that IM technologies making work more flexible could bejust another expression of precarious work.

On the one hand, flexible work can be positively connoted as it offers employees more possibilities to integrate work with their private life, however, on the other hand, flexible work can be negatively connoted regarding the fact that there is no steady income since work is often at call.

Those who choose such flexible jobs voluntarily can benefit from the blurring boundaries between personal and work life and to be ‘contracted on demand’ (Daskalova, 2018, p.461). On the other hand, for those who are put in occupations without fixed working hours, flexibility can mean uncertainty: logistically and financially (Mokyr, Vickers and Ziebarth, 2015, 46).

Thus, flexibility can have an impact on freedom, privacy and autonomy ‘which is much more relevant in a society in which the traditionally strict separation between private [...] and professional life is dissolving‘ (Aloisi & Gramano, 2019, p.106). In turn, these issues evoke policies that should consider the protection of people who are not profiting from flexible work.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Technological Change and the Future of Work. Online "Water-cooler" Conversations?
How Instant Messaging Devices Enforce the Blending of Personal and Professional Life and Impose New Challenges for EU Labor Law Protection
University of Twente
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
technological, change, future, work, online, water-cooler, conversations, instant, messaging, devices, enforce, blending, personal, professional, life, impose, challenges, labor, protection
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2020, Technological Change and the Future of Work. Online "Water-cooler" Conversations?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Technological Change and the Future of Work. Online "Water-cooler" Conversations?

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free