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It’s OK to send my boss a WhatsApp message!

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 25 July 2014

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Image Courtesy Bhupinder Nayyar (Creative Commons)

Mahesh, 28, an ITES (Information Technology Enabled Services) professional met with me for lunch in one of Chennai’s well-known vegetarian restaurants. He works three days a week from his company’s branch office located in the Indian field site – Panchagrami – and two days from the company’s Chennai office located close to this restaurant.

Over special vegetarian Thali meals, we discussed his life, his ambitions, his family, his presence on social media etc. When I called him up to schedule an interview, he arranged for us to meet for lunch before his work shift that started at 2 PM. Though we met at around 12:30 PM, he seemed pretty relaxed and unrushed and the lunch interview kept going until around 1:45 PM, when he excused himself to let his boss know that he would be running late for work by approximately 30 minutes. He got his smart phone, a Samsung Galaxy out of his pocket and typed something into it and sent out a communication in less than 20 seconds. I was pretty surprised because, it normally takes at least a minute for an official communication to be typed and sent over an official email server with all the salutations normally required in an official communication. So, wondering if he had already typed an email to his boss, I asked him what he let his boss know, to which he replied that he just sent a WhatsApp message to his boss letting him know that he was delayed over a meeting and would report in shortly. This triggered a conversation that was extremely informative. I asked him why he didn’t email his boss and why did he choose to operate and communicate over WhatsApp.

Soon, it became extremely clear that WhatsApp was fine enough for communicating mundane official matters such as informing that one was running late to the office or to a meeting or to meet at lunch etc. and that it was replacing what Short Messaging Service (SMS) did originally. However, important official communication always happened through official email. But, communicating to one’s immediate boss on mundane official matters now moved from text messages to WhatsApp messages. So, why did this happen? Because everyone is now on WhatsApp, almost all have a smart phone connected to the internet with WhatsApp as an application, which people would keep checking on a constant basis compared to SMS and WhatsApp is free to use. These factors led to people using WhatsApp messages more often than SMS.

Naturally, the next question was geared towards Facebook (FB). I asked him if his boss was his friend on Facebook and were they on FB messenger on an always signed-in mode. He replied ‘yes’. So, why did he still choose to communicate over WhatsApp rather than Facebook? He considered WhatsApp more official compared to Facebook. It seems like one of his teammates had actually sent a message to his boss over FB and was frowned upon, as somehow FB just didn’t seem official enough and equated everyone to a being just a ‘friend’, thus breaking hierarchies, while hierarchy was still maintained over WhatsApp. So, did people in his team ever communicate with their boss over FB? They did for more for personal communication such as ‘liking’ something, forwarding a moral message, spreading the word about an office party or get together etc. but nothing related to an official one-to-one or one-to-many sort of communication. He made sure to add that he would never communicate to his boss’s boss over WhatsApp, it had to always be over an email. The vertical span of use of media seemed extremely interesting.

I was immediately reminded of the concept of polymedia, termed by Madianou and Miller, 2012 and also on how an important person in a network influences others in the network to choose media through which people communicate to him. In this case, Mahesh had three ways of communicating with his boss – over email, over SMS or over WhatsApp (in this case was influenced by the boss, who was fine with communication over WhatsApp and had added it to the list of official communication tools).

This soon became an important question, and interviews with several other IT/ITES professionals revealed something similar. So, why are certain media perceived to retain hierarchy while others don’t? Stay tuned to find out…