Subscriber OnlyWork

Is WhatsApp making work life more nasty and brutish?

A workplace divided by dozens of febrile WhatsApp group discussions is not necessarily a happy one

In idle moments of delusion, I have sometimes wondered if I have what it takes to be a politician. Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages prove without doubt I do not.

Leaked messages that Hancock wrote as UK health secretary during the pandemic have appeared almost every day this month in London’s Daily Telegraph. They are riveting. I seize on each new batch in the way I imagine Charles Dickens fans rushed to read new instalments of The Pickwick Papers. As a result, I have been reminded of the weapons-grade levels of self-promotion and basic bastardry that pervade the upper reaches of political life.

“I must own this,” Hancock told an adviser early in the pandemic, as the pair plotted to ensure he took maximum credit for a vaccine roll-out that other ministers were helping to develop.

“It MUST NOT be Alok!” Hancock fretted some time later, having learnt that news was about to break of a vaccine breakthrough that could have left him overshadowed by the then business secretary, Alok Sharma. “I know, I’m worried,” replied his adviser.


Hancock also passed on the happy news that the Covid crisis could propel his career “into the next league”. And he discussed the idea of threatening to block a learning disability centre in a fellow Tory’s constituency to pressure the MP to vote for new lockdown rules.

Threats like this are part of a political rough and tumble that does not suit everyone. But the Hancock messages also reveal with staggering clarity what goes on in much of normal working life. Obnoxious careerism. Desperate rivalry. Plotting. Deception. Fawning.

And they raise an unsettling question for the two billion-odd users of WhatsApp: has this pervasive app helped to make work more unpleasant than it was before the pandemic?

There are grounds for saying it has and Hancock’s missives help to explain why. Most were written at the height of the pandemic when there was an abrupt shift in the way people communicated at work. The shock of sudden lockdowns increased – and changed – internal communication.

“Connections at work got stronger,” says Ben Waber, chief executive of Humanyze, a US software company that tracks workplace behaviour.

Crucially, says Waber, those links were especially deep between people in the same teams who were, as Hancock’s messages show, prone to chat informally.

Tight-knit teams can be more trusting and better at getting things done quickly, but they are also inclined to groupthink

Enter WhatsApp, an app that excels at both social chat and easy-to-set-up messaging groups.

The pandemic may have faded but it spurred WhatsApp-enhanced communication patterns that are, alas, still with us.

Take exclusion. I doubt I’m the only office worker who (a) Belongs to more WhatsApp groups today than before Covid struck, and (b) Has no clue who else belongs to what.

Having been in the same organisation for many years, the thought of being excluded from untold other groups does not overly bother me. But it might if I were a newcomer, especially if I suspected my manager or team were in a group I had been left out of. Or if I was regularly doomed to endure that other pandemic legacy, the Zoom call.

A friend who is also obsessed with the Telegraph’s WhatsApp scoops says she felt a guilty jolt of recognition when reading what Hancock and an adviser messaged to each other while both were in an online meeting with the then education secretary, Gavin Williamson. “He’s not exactly collaborative is he?” says Hancock. “He’s freaking out,” says the adviser. “Everyone looks very awkward on the call.”

My friend does the same secret heckling during Zoom work calls. She won’t be alone.

There is also “channel-itis”. It was hard enough before the pandemic to know if it was best to contact someone by email, text, Slack or any of the other messaging options that swill around today’s office. WhatsApp groups add further confusion – and division.

As Waber says, tight-knit teams can be more trusting and better at getting things done quickly, but they are also inclined to groupthink.

Group loyalty existed long before the pandemic, or messaging apps. So did office gossip. But a workplace divided by dozens of febrile WhatsApp group discussions is not necessarily a happy one. And if those discussions ever leak to the wider world, life can be vastly unhappier. Just ask Hancock. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023